I was watching Gone with the Wind the other night—because, you know, it was on TV and I had four hours to kill. As a teen, this was the first “grown-up” book I read, and ever since, I’ve had a serious girl-crush on Scarlett O’Hara. Which makes no sense, considering what a horrible person she is. I mean, she spends most of the story scheming to steal her only friend’s husband. When that doesn’t pan out, she marries her sister’s fiancé to get his money.
She’s spoiled, materialistic, manipulative, and utterly self-involved. And yet, I love her as a character. If she wasn’t widely admired, I’d think there was something seriously wrong with me. But even after all these years, she continues to connect with people. Why is this?
For me, part of the reason lies in the duality of her flaws. As a spoiled brat, she embraces boldness to get what she wants. To pursue materialism, she needs to be resourceful. Cleverness goes hand-in-hand with her manipulative nature, and to obtain her selfish goals, she must be persistent.
Scarlett’s flaws aren’t one-dimensional. They have many facets—both positive and negative. This is how real people are. Our flaws, while limiting us and hurting our relationships, have beneficial features, too. Likewise, our positive attributes have associated negative elements.
I’ve come to understand that while most traits fit neatly into either the flaw or positive attribute category, many of them contain both good and bad sides. I recognize this in the traits that define me and the qualities I see in others.
The same should be true of our characters.
Utilizing both sides of a given trait will add realism to a character’s personality and increase your chances of him connecting with readers. Here are a few tips on how to tap into both sides of your character’s traits in the writing process:
Identify Your Character’s DEFINING Traits
This should go without saying, but it’s vital to understand your character’s biggest flaws and attributes. Make a list of which traits they embody. Then, narrow it down to one primary flaw and one primary attribute. This will keep things clear for you, which will then ensure clarity for the reader.
For help figuring out which traits make sense for your character based on their history, you might find this Reverse Backstory Tool useful.
Explore Defining Traits from EVERY Angle
Once you’ve identified a primary flaw and attribute, brainstorm the behaviors and attitudes—positive and negative—that might manifest in a person who exhibits those traits. For example, if your character is controlling, his list might look something like this:
• micromanages others
• exhibits a lack of trust
• pulls people away from loved ones to increase his control
• manipulates others
• is good at reading people
• is passionate
• shows incredible persistence
Show BOTH Sides
Your list should contain some positive and negative elements for each trait. Utilize the good and the bad to give your character depth. Perhaps his knack for reading people can benefit him in other ways, such as making him a successful cop or judge.
Maybe his passionate nature drives him to give of his time or money to a neighborhood charity. Show both sides of your character’s nature, and you’ll create a hero or villain that smacks of authenticity.
Building realistic characters is a crucial part of writing a successful story. Know your character’s defining traits and tap into the good and the bad that comes with them, and you’ll be on your way to creating multi-dimensional characters that will resonate with readers.
For more resources on this topic, please see our Character Resource Page.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.