Like real people, characters have mixed personalities that contain both positive traits (attributes) and negative traits (flaws). Flaws are especially interesting as they develop when a person has experienced a painful life lesson: the world, and the people in it, can be cruel.
How does this happen exactly? Well, just as we have “fight or flight” responses for physical threats, we instinctively act to protect ourselves from emotional hurt. If something painful happens, big or small, it makes us feel vulnerable and weak. The fear of feeling this way again pushes us to form a protective shield around our emotions, a wall of sorts. This barrier is made from something that, by nature, keeps people at arm’s length: personality flaws.
How does that work? Well, an unfriendly character can rebuff someone before they have a chance to lash out. A catty character’s sharp tongue warns people to watch their step. And an inflexible character always insists things are done exactly the way he wants, no matter what. In each case, flaws ensure the character is in control when interacting with other people and protect his emotions at the same time.
Each character is unique, and so the flaws that develop in their personality will be too. But what always remains the same is the damage factor. On the surface, flaws appear to help the character avoid being hurt, but they actually do the opposite.
Flaws damage relationships, limit self-growth, and encourage biases to grow that skew the character’s view of his world.
Flaws exist because of a deep fear: that an emotionally traumatic event will happen again, and all that awful vulnerability one felt before will come crashing down. This fear is all-consuming. It steers the character’s actions and choices. He will avoid certain things for fear of being hurt. Dumped by a longtime girlfriend? Stay away from committed relationships, maybe by becoming more abrasive or self-absorbed. Make the wrong decision and catch blame for the fallout? Start avoiding responsibility or use indecisiveness to avoid being put in this situation again.
Fear of being hurt again will place limits on your character’s goals and dreams.
Until the character sees how fear is steering his life and how flaws limit his ability to connect with people and work against him as he tries to achieve meaningful goals, he will never be fully happy or satisfied. In storytelling, flaws give the character something to overcome on the path to his goal.
This battle for “a better self” provides an opportunity to face fears, shed flaws, and achieve self-growth (character arc).
Within the three acts, we want our character to awaken in some way and realize flaws and fears are holding him back. He needs to realize that to move forward, he must change.
Change is the unknown, and most people fear and avoid it. But when a powerful desire grips the character, suddenly his goal, whatever it may be, becomes more important than anything else, including a fear of change.
To achieve his goal, the character must adapt and approach obstacles from a position of strength, meaning he must cut loose what’s holding him back: his flaws. Seeing flaws for what they are (a negative quality) creates perspective. The character can take stock, and choose to hone his strengths rather than feed his fears.
While flaws are important, a character’s positive attributes are key to the hero “winning” the day.
Positive attributes are core beneficial traits that help a protagonist make difficult decisions, face fear or danger, and find the courage to strive for fulfillment. In other words, they are SO important to character arc. Choosing the right strengths also provides a “hint” of greatness that promises the reader this hero is someone worth rooting for.
To build a well-rounded protagonist, it’s important to choose attributes that will make him authentic, believable, and allow him to navigate his world. This means choosing a character’s strengths based on these four Attribute Categories:
MORAL ATTRIBUTES: moral beliefs are at the core of each of us, determining our actions and decisions in our world. We naturally assign a moral “weight” to everything we do and see, and so must our characters. Choosing traits that closely align with what a character believes to be right and wrong is the foundation of their personality. Kindness, generosity, responsibility and loyalty are all examples of moral traits. Think about what beliefs your character holds dear and choose a trait or two that specifically line up with his morals.
ACHIEVEMENT ATTRIBUTES: all characters are driven to meet their own cardinal needs and achieve goals that matter to them. Achievement-based attributes should align with the character’s moral beliefs but their main function is to help the character succeed. Examples might be resourcefulness, focus, efficiency, and perceptiveness. List out the big goals your character has, and then identify which positive traits will help him achieve them.
INTERACTIVE ATTRIBUTES: the way a character interacts with other people and his world is important. Being that humans are social creatures, relationships play a big part, and will matter to your character (whether he wants to admit it or not!) Traits like diplomacy, honesty, courtesy, hospitality or friendliness might be attributes a character would adopt to form healthy interactions. Think about how your character acts towards others and how he ensures the relationships he needs are functional.
IDENTITY ATTRIBUTES: each person (and therefore each character) is on a journey of self-discovery. Identity traits help your protagonist express who he really is, and what he believes in. Patriotism, curiosity, extroversion or introversion, idealism, quirkiness and a sense of adventure are all traits that promote greater individuality and personal expression. Identity attributes are a great way to make your character stand out as unique!
Choosing traits from each of the four categories ensures you will build a complex and interesting character that will resonate with readers, and give him the tools he needs to succeed.
Think about your character’s flaws and fears, and the attributes that might help him shed these unwanted life companions.
For a tool that will help you explore these attribute categories, try the Character Target Tool. And for an extensive list of positive attributes that digs deep into the behaviors, attitudes, and thoughts associated with each, check out The Positive Trait Thesaurus.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.