We love our characters. They are like children, of our own creation. They are magical, mystical, they turn our fragmented ideas into stories and make what we write come to life. So, of course, we don’t want to give them character traits that will get them into too much trouble or allow them to do bad things. We want readers to connect with them, cheer for them, bond with them. And all of the above can be a big problem.
Characters without trouble who do no bad things (have no flaws) are boring. And will take your story nowhere. Stories without conflict where the protagonist’s core beliefs and fears are challenged are without character substance and interest. We read to see people in big messes, people who strive to triumph over the worst that can happen. So what do you do? Push your character in every way that it counts.
Character Traits, Make Sure Your Character has Flaws
When you are developing your characters, be sure to give them flaws that will push their buttons, then push them! Build the flaw from your character’s fears and desires and make it so important, if it were to be pulled out of your character, there would be no story. (see an entire article on this here: Character Flaw: Make it Count).
Character Traits, The Upside of Fear
Next, give them some true, core fear. This will come from your character’s past, something that happened that made your protagonist shut down and go into protection mode. In The Hunger Games Katniss won’t let anyone near her again because she believes those who she loves will die. Her father did. And her sister, Prem, is the most precious person in Katniss’ life. So what does author Suzanne Collins do through the events of the story? Threaten Prem. Take a lesson from Collins and whatever your character is most afraid of…do it to her. Put her in harm’s way. Make sure there is no way out.
Character Traits, When Values Collide
Another technique to help you push your character is to have his core values clash (see Core Character Values: Finding the Moral Compass) or to have a character’s core value challenged constantly. In The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy, the protagonist, Will McLean, values the loyalty and friendship of his roommates above all else. Then, there is his code of honor. Throughout the book Will insists he doesn’t know what honor is, yet shows how strong his honor and moral code is time and time again. So what does Conroy do? Make the cost of loyalty and friendship too high for Will to pay, and more, morality and friendship clashes with Will’s sense of honor. Does Conroy push his character? That’s an understatement!
When Good Character Traits Go Bad
You build your character with plenty of good traits. What happens if the trait grows so strong, it flirts with the dark side? A fun, flamboyant character who takes nothing seriously and is emotionally unstable? An good-time easygoing guy who is unreliable? An investigator who is analytical to the point of being inflexible and a perfectionist? A considerate kind person who can be at times, needy and clingy? A creative character who easily goes to moody, tends to brood, and at the worst, disdains ordinary people without genius? Take the good traits of your character and push it to the dark side and see what happens. You will also discover a clear character arc for your character to travel during the events of the story. And by the way, you can do the same “push” exercise for your antagonist—someone who is self-indulgent and self-absorbed but has moments of humorous self-awareness, or an abusive character others can count on in an emergency can mix it up and reward your readers. Better yet, make them think and add depth to your writing.
Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion,” available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com“