Instead, they are all of these things. Each has a set of good, admirable qualities, even while displaying frustrating or off-putting flaws. They have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, making them both skilled and inept at the same time. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The best characters are realistic and believable because they are just like real people. Like you or I. They have a balance of positive and negatives that give them a wholly unique viewpoint, attitude, belief system and personality.
Some writers want to create protagonists that ONLY have the best qualities, ones that prove they are good human beings that readers will admire and root for. They find it easy to create a blend of traits like loyalty, helpfulness, intelligence and determination, forming a true hero that can handle anything. But when it comes to choosing flaws, they pull their punches, worried that if they add a trait like selfishness, perfectionism, or impulsiveness, readers will view them as unlikeable.
Other writers EMBRACE the flawed character. They pile up flaws, forged by a hard past filled with emotional wounds that refuse to heal. They add layers of negative traits like suspicious, mistrustful and erratic, all carefully planned around an elaborate backstory that supports the necessity of emotional armor (flaws) that make them who they are.
But when it comes to admirable traits, they struggle. What positive traits would logically survive such a painful past? If say, the character was a victim of horrible abuse and to cope, they became a mistrustful, anti social liar, how can they also be friendly or kind? How can they logically be generous or carefree while harboring such deep flaws?
These are not simple questions to answer. Character creation, when done well, is not an easy process. Too many flaws (or even choosing the wrong type of flaw), and a character becomes unlikeable. Too many positive attributes, and they come across as altruistic, unrealistic or even (yawn) boring. So how can we achieve balance?
Just like every one of us, your character has a past. And while yes, backstory turmoil and pain should be exploited to create conflict and tension in the present, there is always good mixed with bad. In real life, the good experiences (and people) are what keep us going no matter how bad it gets. So think about your character’s positive experiences and past influences along with negative ones as you dig around in their backstory. Understand what the character learned from both past trials and successes, and how each lesson will help to shape his personality.
Uncover Your Character’s Moral Center
Every character has a set of moral beliefs, even the villain. Think deeply about the moral code your character lives by, and what lines he will not cross. (HINT: the “why” of moral choices will be embedded in his backstory, and who/what helped shaped his view of the world.) Morals are the pulsing heart of motivation and action, so determine your character’s sense of right and wrong. (Read more about determining your characters morality HERE.)
Prod His Wound to See What Hurts
Nothing modifies behavior like pain, so understanding what deep emotional wounds your character carries is key to knowing what he also yearns for more than anything (Acceptance? Love? Safety? Freedom?) This wound and the fear that it can happen again is what causes deep flaws to form. They act as “false protection” to keep the hurt from reoccurring, and usually hold people at a distance. Here’s a helpful list of Common Wound Themes.
For example, a character who experienced rejection might close himself off from potential lovers because of his fear of being rejected again. How would flaws “help” him by pushing women away? Is he arrogant? Uncommunicative? Dishonest?
And what attribute, if nourished, might grow strong enough to vanquish these flaws that hold him back from connection? Respectfulness? Honor? Loyalty? Empathy? Finding a major flaw’s opposite is the pathway to balance & resolving Character Arc through personal growth.
Give All Characters The Chance for Redemption
Some characters are intentionally unbalanced. If you have a character who leans one way more than the other (such as a villain or anti hero) by story necessity, then make sure you also build in something that suggests no matter how flawed or terrible, there is a chance they can change or be redeemed.
Every negative has a positive, and no matter how dark or skewed a character’s view is, or what he feels he’s better without, there will always be a flicker of light that can help him find his way back to becoming whole and complete. Show this to readers, be it a motive that is pure, a relationship with someone that is on some level healthy and good, or a positive quality that is admirable.
Balancing your character’s positive and negative sides means some deep brainstorming! If it helps, here are some more ideas on how to plan a character before you start writing.
How do you create balanced characters?
Image: Bykst @ Pixabay