This is the first on a series of posts featuring writing advice that are being cross posted from my writing advice blog on tumblr, which you can find here.
I see a lot of blog posts telling people that a good method for creating complex characters is developing an itemized list of conflicting, and sometimes diametrically opposed, traits.
This is to establish which traits are a character’s strengths and which are their flaws, and though I find it works very well in settings where there is an absolute standard of good versus evil (the original Star Wars universe, though recently it’s been turning away from that), it doesn’t work quite so well for universe that are generally more morally grey (and thus a better reflection of the real world).
I also find that these characters tend to lack a certain amount of nuance, at first, and perhaps stay stunted longer than other characters, simply from using this method for myself in the past. It didn’t work well for me, and though I’m sure some people can use it to excellent effect, I’d like to provide an alternative here for people who find creating these lists to be tiresome and best, and ineffective, at most.
The method I’ve been using for about seven or so years now, and which has produced some of my most interesting and nuanced characters, is to completely stop thinking of their traits in a binary manner and instead consider one, primary question –
How does this trait cause conflict?
All traits, in one situation or another, can be either good or bad. They can have positive or negative consequences, so thinking about a trait like stubborn or bad temper as a flaw is potentially really detrimental to writing complex characters. Stubborn, for example, can be a positive trait when protecting someone in need or standing up to a tyrannical government, and a quick temper may be the result of a victim of abuse finally creating effective boundaries, especially if they’re self-aware enough to apologize when they go too far.
Similarly, seeming positive traits can have negative consequences for characters and those around them, or be used in a negative way. An empathetic person could use their understanding of another person’s feelings to manipulate them, or become so enmeshed with someone else that it starts to destroy their emotional health.
Even selflessness, the ultimate in traits of martyr and hero characters across fiction in the West, can have a negative impact. I have a character who is so selfless that he cannot set personal boundaries at all and consistently destroys himself in order to help other people. He has no idea how to take care of himself, and has fallen prey to plenty of abusers because he saw their side of things just a bit too much while involved in relationships with them.
His selflessness has then become a point of conflict with others in his life, people who are more selfish and also able to set better boundaries, because seeing their friend suffer makes them uncomfortable. It can also read as insincere and pandering to people who don’t know him well, performative selflessness instead of genuine, and has earned him criticism in the past.
Which, naturally, brings me to conflict.
Conflict is the center of a narrative. It will drive the story, and your character’s individual combination of traits need to interact with the traits of both their allies and their rivals. They need to collectively drive the story forward, because conflict is the siege engine of fiction – there is no moving forward, no getting over that wall and to the end of your story, without it (at least, not in genre fiction).
Conflict is, as a result, something of a complex puzzle with moving pieces. It’s why you should come up with members of your cast together, and why certain members of the cast can beget other members of the cast, bringing a new character along with them (in my case quite literally – this happened with my protagonist and his children).
When your character doesn’t get along with someone, they may perceive the character’s traits they don’t like as “bad”, but you, as their writer, should recognize that there’s something more complex going on here. Though there are genuinely bad, selfish, wicked, self-centered people in this world, most cases of conflict are going to be about two character’s traits having negative consequences for the other and the result of a bad first impression, or a series of continuous bad interactions.
For example, everyone is familiar with Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. I think it would be erroneous to say Malfoy is evil as much as he is just a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t really realize he has a bit too much privilege. Similarly, Harry is a traumatized child shaped by his own experience, and knows all too well the kind of people who would lick the Malfoy’s bootstraps if they were wizards because he was raised by them.
Malfoy’s self-assurance is off-putting to Harry, probably in part because his demeanor immediately reminds him of the Dursley’s. That same trait, the certainty in one’s self and one’s position in the world, might be impressive to a teacher or instructor and might also beget a focus in studies and ability to power through homework. In that situation, it does not cause conflict, but because Harry is not a naturally self-confident person, and because he has also had bad experiences with people possessing those traits in the past, he is uncomfortable around Malfoy and has a bad first impression (even though Malfoy is initially very friendly towards him).
Their interactions snowball until both of them see the other as a rival, and thus you have one of the major driving conflicts of the series – a conflict that ends up saving a good many people when Malfoy’s cowardice has a positive consequence.
In this way, we should be mindful of the bias of our narrator, but also remember that each character outside of our narrator, even the people in direct opposition to them, have traits that can benefit other people. They have people who love them (most likely, unless they are an exception, which does exist), circles of their own, and see your protagonist in a way that is more or less justified based on their experiences or their emotions toward them.
Thinking of traits as solely good and bad not only prevents us from creating complex characters, but perhaps even from seeing the good in some of our other characters and understanding our narrator’s biases. If we want to create complex characters with a feeling of depth, we have to write each character as a person, not as a parody of themselves, and real life conflicts aren’t caused by good and evil, more often than not, but by two people’s conflicting traits and experiences.
Once I started thinking in this way, my own writing improved and I began to develop a more complex world with a wider range of individuals populating it. I hope this advice can help you, and even if it doesn’t I hope sincerely that it might help another writer you know. Regardless, thank you for reading, and please continue to pursue your dreams passionately.