I’ve read thousands of works, and one quick way to have a “paper doll” is for a character to be all good or all evil. When we begin writing, it’s easy to fall into this trap. Our heroes or heroines are versions of ourselves (minus any imperfections, of course). Our bad guys are every ex or person in high school who picked on us. They are evil personified. But then we soon realize?
Our characters are deep as a puddle, making them dull as dirt.
If we look to some of the most fascinating characters in history, books, and movies, we see a cast that includes Riddick (Chronicles of Riddick), Gordon Gekko (Wall Street), Wyatt Earp (history and the movie Tombstone), Tom Sawyer (literature), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Hannibal of Carthage, Hannibal the Cannibal (Silence of the Lambs), Batman, Iron Man, Poison Ivy, Detective Jane Rizzoli and Dr. Maura Isles (from Tess Gerritson’s series of novels and also television), Lestat (Interview with a Vampire), Molly Brown (from history and the movie The Unsinkable Molly Brown)….
and yes, then there is Scarlett…
Today to talk to you about how to create multi-dimensional characters that resonate with readers is WANA International Instructor, Becca Puglisi…
Take it away, Becca!
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 he embodies. 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 his 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.
Thanks, Becca! Who are some of your favorite characters in history, books or even movies? Why? Were they flawed? How? How did that flaw just make you adore them even more?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Comments for guests get DOUBLE POINTS.
Also, check out our upcoming WANA International classes HERE and our specials HERE.
Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.
#1 by Sam on December 9, 2013 - 8:12 am
I love this advice! It reminds me of Al Capone. He was trying to do what was right for his community and gave a lot of his money back to those in need but led a very violent life to be able to do so.
#2 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:51 pm
Interesting example, Sam. Just goes to prove that villains should have positives, too.
#3 by Robin on December 9, 2013 - 9:28 am
Thanks for the post Kristen. I just finished reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and had to laugh because there was a guy in there with a misshapen head, frizzy hair and stocky body, that fits your “bad and even the ugly” description perfectly. Anyway, my favorite movie characters that come to mind are ones often played by Paul Newman, like in Butch and Sundance….he’s always so amazingly charming, you have to love him, but flawed and not entirely honest in so many ways.
#4 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:54 pm
Ahhh, Paul. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was my favorite of his. *fans self*
#5 by Dennis Langley on December 9, 2013 - 9:59 am
Great stuff here. People are interesting because they are not perfect. Characters are no different. I also, think they are more fun to write about when they do dumb stuff or walk the edge of morality.
#6 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:55 pm
I completely agree. Yet when it’s time for me to write my characters, I always find myself holding back, not wanting to make them TOO foolish or TOO immoral. But the most fascinating characters really are those that walk right across that line.
#7 by christiemohamed on December 9, 2013 - 10:22 am
#8 by Barbara M Hodges on December 9, 2013 - 10:35 am
Great post. I’ll be referring back to it often.
#9 by sharonhughson on December 9, 2013 - 10:53 am
This is a difficult thing to master, so we must study the masters.
I adore Atticus Finch. His pursuit of true justice almost traps him in the end of the story, but the sheriff refuses to fall for it. Sometimes justice is served outside of the system. I love that he abhors violence but is the best shot in the county. It’s an interesting contradiction, but he is still wholly good and likable. I think the best characters are the ones who overcome their flaws, not bask in them.
I definitely could use a character building workshop before I go back to write my second draft.
#10 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:55 pm
Love this example of Atticus and his shooting. I hadn’t thought of him, but what a great contradiction!
#11 by swiveltam on December 9, 2013 - 10:54 am
I’m going to totally geek out here and put (my) Dr. Who on a pedestal of good bad characters. He often uses his companions because he is lonely and gets them to do the “dirty work” yet he doesn’t let himself connect with them as emotionally as THEY need. He loves mankind, but can be violent and unforgiving if the “chance” he gave to “do the right thing” is rejected. Severus Snape, Emma & Lizzy (Austen), Sister Carrie, Sherlock Holmes, I could go on and will be thinking about this all day.
It’s easier said than done. I thought I had given my character enough flaws, but my most recent awesome query rejection (truly a a wonderful helpful rejection–I love querying), mentioned one of my characters need more flaws. So, I’m working on it. I think the tough part is finding the balance, especially in a protagonist.
Thanks you, this is a very timely post for me!
#12 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:57 pm
For me, the key in balance is to zero in on one defining attribute and one defining flaw. There will be other traits, but by focusing on the primary traits (with their many facets) and referencing the secondary ones more as backup, my character is clearer, both to me and the reader.
#13 by swiveltam on December 10, 2013 - 10:10 am
I’ve also been thinking about mental/intellectual flaws, physical flaws and emotional flaws. All are compelling, not sure I’ve got it totally figured out though.
#14 by saralitchfield on December 9, 2013 - 1:23 pm
I soooo agree with your examples here! Dr Who and Sherlock Holmes would have been mine too!!! Good luck finding flaws 🙂
#15 by swiveltam on December 10, 2013 - 10:11 am
hee hee hee! Great minds….
#16 by Tegon Maus on December 10, 2013 - 12:04 am
You’re talking David Tennant… right? I’ll even go back to Christopher Eccleston…. Surely NOT the Goober they have now. My love of the show died with David.
#17 by swiveltam on December 10, 2013 - 10:15 am
Tennant is my fave (I grew up with Tom Baker), and Matt Smith has grown on me. I loved the Rory/Amy/Doctor trio a lot. I didn’t want to keep watching after Tennant left, but my son dragged me along and glad he did. There were just as touching and poignant moments in Smith’s episodes as Tennant, although I did/do have a crush on Tennant’s Dr. 😉
The Christmas special was BRILLIANT! (sorry, not about writing, except that the writers for the show have elevated it above other’s of this genre, sure the acting is good, but it’s the writing that gets me every time 🙂 ) Flawed characters, yes please.
#18 by Laurie A Will on December 9, 2013 - 11:14 am
I am not sure who my favorite characters are. It’s hard to think of all the books I’ve read. But what I really like in a protagonist, is one who surprises me. One that I don’t know exactly why I like the character, but I do. One character like that is Katniss Everdeen. I don’t normally read YA, but someone told me I’d like the Hunger Games so I gave it a try. I read all three books twice. It started me wondering why I liked Katniss. She’s often clueless and a bit reckless. But these are also her strengths. If she was the typical teen full of angst and spent time worrying about Gale and Peeta, she may not have survived the story. If she didn’t have the courage to dive headlong into situations, she wouldn’t have survived the Hunger Games. It was her foraging ahead with blinders on that sometimes caused more problems, but in the end saved the day. I believe it was her flaws/strengths that made her likable. These are the kind of characters I like, ones that make me think. A simple cardboard character could never do that.
#19 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:58 pm
Katniss is a great example of a flaw that works as a strength. Her rebellious nature and stubbornness cause all kinds of trouble for her, but in the end, they end up being exactly what she needs to succeed. Great complexity, there.
#20 by ontyrepassages on December 10, 2013 - 2:38 am
A good choice. I’m also not normally a YA reader, but like Katniss because she wasn’t fearless. Instead, she had a vulnerable side and often had to fight her way through fear. But fight she did. Too, she learned to exploit her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. She was a real human being trying to survive under inhuman and extraordinary circumstances.
#21 by Melissa Lewicki on December 9, 2013 - 11:37 am
My characters looked so unreal on paper. I wanted them to be vibrant and real-to-life. I wanted them to walk and talk and have amazing personalities. They refused. They insisted on being stereotypical stick figures.
My protagonist was brave and handsome and loving and even-tempered. And BORING. His true love was sweet and caring and slim and lovely. And BORING.
I had to figure out some way to keep from continually slipping back into these easy cliches. So I began my great personality trait hunt. I cruelly and with great forethought stole personality traits from all of my family and friends–from real people.
I made a list of the names of all the members of my family, friends, co-workers and anybody else I could think of. I ended up with about seventy names. I then listed each person’s positive and negative personality traits or habits. I was as ruthless and honest as I could possibly be.
As soon as I had comprehensive lists, I deleted all the names. I did not want to start blood feuds or get disinherited in case this list fell into the wrong hands.
I now had a list of the personality traits and habits of real people, not cliches and stereotypes. I also included some phrases that are not traits or habits but which are very descriptive of some of these people. (Words like murderer, thief or child molester. Not everyone I have known over the years has been a positive role model.)
Now, I can pick and choose from this list to bring my characters to life.
#22 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:53 pm
This is a great method for coming up with realistic character traits (and often the quirks that go with them)!
#23 by Bread Heads on December 9, 2013 - 11:57 am
Ty for challenge. as we speak, i’m working on a villain but she is very boring and one-sided…I accept the challenge
#24 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 10:02 pm
Woot! Go for it :).
#25 by piperemcdermot on December 9, 2013 - 12:08 pm
Thought-provoking post – and something I think I need to dig deeper into for my MC. She has flaws…but are they are enough? Too superficial? Will try the reverse engineering technique and see what comes out in the wash 😉 For some reason, I’ve found it easier with the supporting cast – almost as if it’s OK for them to be less than perfct, but I’m overly-cautious with my MC…hmm…interesting!
#26 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 1:00 pm
Piper, we have a free resource on our website called The Reverse Backstory Tool that might help. It’s a simple flowchart that you can fill in that helps you come up with realistic positive attributes and flaws for your character. You can download it for free here: http://writershelpingwriters.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Reverse-Backstory-Tool.pdf
#27 by piperemcdermot on December 10, 2013 - 4:12 pm
thanks so much, Becca! Will chck it out right now.
#28 by Charlene Raddon on December 9, 2013 - 12:33 pm
I’ve used the Emotion Thesaurus for a while now and love it.
#29 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 10:03 pm
I’m so glad you’re finding The Emotion Thesaurus useful, Charlene. I must admit that I still use it quite a bit myself
#30 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 12:50 pm
Building believable characters seems so easy (I mean, I AM one, right?), but it really is so hard to do. Before writing our Thesaurus Trait books, it had never occurred to me that positive traits might have negative elements, or vice versa. But it’s so true. A dear family member of mine is the most fair-minded person in the world; she does everything—literally, everything—within her power to make sure that the people in her life are treated fairly. It’s a wonderful trait, but a side effect is that it makes her extremely inefficient as she tries to involve everyone in decision making and come up with solutions that appeal to all parties. This duality is definitely something I’m going to keep in my mind for the characters in my next novel. Thanks for having me, Kristen!
#31 by Gry Ranfelt on December 9, 2013 - 1:05 pm
I love Scarlett as well. Such a darling.
I really Love Elisabeth Bennett and her slight arrogance. And Mr. Bennett who really could learn some family manners.
Kristen, did you get my message? 🙂
#32 by saralitchfield on December 9, 2013 - 1:26 pm
I have an awful confession to make… Have neither read nor seen Gone With The Wind – must remedy… Austen’s Emma is strangely likeable despite being such a busybody! I think in my latest work all my characters are too flawed… but they’ve been through a lot bless ’em :p
#33 by Damian Trasler on December 9, 2013 - 1:59 pm
This is great, and ties in neatly with another great post I’ve seen this week about tired fantasy tropes. That one mentioned the “Dark Lord” as a problem, because they tend to be nothing but evil, and that’s not a realistic motivation. JK Rowling was pointed out as giving Voldemort the drive to avoid death. He wasn’t being evil just to be evil, he was doing anything he had to save his own life, using his extraordinary talents and personability (remember, he COULD be charming) in the service of this one aim.
#34 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 10:08 pm
Great example of the important role that motivation plays in realistic characterization. We’re all motivated, to either accomplish something or avoid something, and this is what determines our values and plays a part in determining our attributes and flaws. The same should be true for our characters. Thanks for the reminder!
#35 by Robin Mullet on December 9, 2013 - 2:02 pm
I love the humorous flaws in Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s protagonist. Becca, I use the Emotion Thesarus regularly and can’t wait to read the Negative Trait Thesaurus. I downloaded a sample of it on Kindle and it has already stimulated some changes in a character I was working on. Thanks for all your advice!
#36 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 10:09 pm
Man, I wish I could write humor halfway decently. It covers a multitude of sins ;). And thanks for the kind words about The Emotion Thesaurus. I hope you found The Negative Trait Thesaurus to be as practical!
#37 by jbiggar2013 on December 9, 2013 - 2:06 pm
very much enjoyed this blog, definitely thought provoking. I can see now where maybe I can help the characters in my ms become something ‘more’ so ty for that. I like Brennen from the TV series Bones. She’s a very complex character, brilliant, self-confident and focused but under all that she’s surprisingly naïve and has a hard time connecting with people which makes her uncomfortable. Ty for the character chart, I downloaded a copy and will apply it to my work 🙂
#38 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 10:10 pm
Best of luck!
#39 by jbiggar2013 on December 9, 2013 - 2:07 pm
Reblogged this on jbiggarblog and commented:
very thought provoking blog on character traits, really needed this
#40 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 10:10 pm
#41 by L J Sentivanac on December 9, 2013 - 4:12 pm
Thank you, Becca, for your great insight into analyzing characterization. Your ideas are worthwhile and will help me a lot!
As a life-long GWTW aficionado (having read the book over 60 times), I must agree that Scarlet is a great subject for this discussion. Why do we care about her when she is so evil? Maybe because she is NOT really evil – only driven to help herself and what is important to her. We see her motivation, not just her actions, which is to the credit of the author.
BTW – a correction to your opening comment…she is not scheming to steal the husband of “her only friend.” She hates Melanie way up until the end. Melanie befriends Scarlet, but Scarlet holds Melanie in contempt. Scarlet really has no friends that she cares about.
#42 by beccapuglisie on December 9, 2013 - 10:14 pm
Yes, this is true; Scarlet definitely wasn’t Melanie’s friend when she was trying to steal Ashley. But Scarlet does grow to care for Melanie by the end of the story, making Melanie the only friend that Scarlet has. I should have phrased that differently. I also should give you my mom’s email and you two could discuss. She’s a GWTW groupie ;).
#43 by Raani York on December 9, 2013 - 4:21 pm
This is a great advice. Thanks for sharing, Kristen. I hope it’s true what I think right now: That at least one thing I could have done right instinctively. 🙂
#44 by orthodoxmom3 on December 9, 2013 - 4:58 pm
I adore Scarlet! She is my hero if I ever had one. Maybe my goodty two shoe introvert self is jealous of her lack of fear….or maybe it’s just that I admire her decisiveness and ability to go after what she wants…and is clever. Melanie is her friend because Melanie is so darn sweet!! And I think she sees in Scarlet what a lot of us admire.
#45 by patriciaruthsusan on December 9, 2013 - 11:18 pm
I love blogs about writing and this was one I intend to print and keep. I also loved GONE WITH THE WIND, both the book and the movie. I’m continuing to learn the craft, and every time I find great articles like this is have to go back and check my efforts to make sure I’m following the good advice. P.S. Joshi
#46 by beccapuglisie on December 10, 2013 - 10:29 am
Patricia, I agree: this blog is a gem for writers. Kristen’s advice is solid; if you follow her lead, I don’t think you can go wrong :).
#47 by Rosi on December 9, 2013 - 11:53 pm
Wonderful post. Thanks so much. My favorite character is probably Jim Casy in Grapes of Wrath, a good example of the good and the bad.
#48 by ontyrepassages on December 10, 2013 - 2:26 am
Not only was Scarlett a rich and diverse character, but all her positive and negative traits were vibrant and alive. Her greatest flaw may have been that she failed to see the diversity in others until the end. She was long blind to Melanie’s strength and Ashley’s weakness, for their traits were more subtle, lacking the passion she possessed. The same passion Rhett possessed. Thus, it’s important to remember that character traits don’t exist in isolation (as your books help to highlight) and that they exist with differing intensity in everyone.
#49 by Helen Ross on December 10, 2013 - 2:35 am
Great advice Becca. Thank you.
#50 by Dormaine G on December 10, 2013 - 5:02 am
First I must say, could Vivien Leigh be any prettier and did she not play her part well? GWTW was such great story. I liked most of the movies and books you mentioned except- ‘Interview with a Vampire’- which is strange for me since I crave vampire stories. I could not finish the book nor could I watch the whole movie in one sitting. In saying that, I can appreciate the complexity of the main characters as a whole. I thank you for this insightful post and sharing your knowledge.
#51 by beccapuglisie on December 10, 2013 - 10:31 am
You know, I had the same response to Interview with a Vampire— both the book and the movie. So many people love the story but I just couldn’t get into it. Just goes to show how subjective the reading public is…
#52 by Robin Smith on December 10, 2013 - 5:17 pm
For an ensemble of stand out characters the first that comes to mind are from the film “On the Waterfront”.
All of them are fresh in my mind. Brando and Eva Marie Saint, Carl Maldon (the priest), John Friendly (the union boss – who’s name escapes me at the moment), Rod Steiger (Brando’s crooked brother).
When great characters stick in my mind, I think of a story as successful.
With regard to books, I liked Roth and Salinger, but not for the characters. I liked the atmospheres of their books, the back and forth of the characters. Today’s books of fantasy and vampires and zombies put me off. And sci-fi is a thing of the past for me. Give me an author who writes about people in a real life setting, without the writer’s crutch of an unrealistic setting to act as a shot in the arm from the first page. What do today’s writers know about real people, living real lives?
#53 by Val on December 11, 2013 - 6:18 am
Thanks for sharing this in a concise, useful way. We’ve shared it over at Freedom Forge Press’s FB page as a great resource for authors 🙂
#54 by Lauren Craig on December 11, 2013 - 8:52 pm
Reblogged this on Blog of a College Writer.
#55 by Katie Cross on December 12, 2013 - 7:18 am
I created a lot of paper doll characters when I started writing. I still do them now, but thankfully they are mostly first draft.
To be honest, I think that creating a multifaceted character is one of the most intimidating parts of writing. Seriously. I’m sure Scarlett didn’t just ‘come out’ that well balanced and perfect. I’m sure it took tons of work to get her on paper that way. And, sigh, I guess I better get back to writing. I mean, editing. 😉
#56 by tracikenworth on December 12, 2013 - 11:37 am
Excellent advice, Becca!! I love to find that dual-edge to my villains. They have to love something. That’s the key to their softness, I find. Or their weak spot.
#57 by louckslindsey on December 15, 2013 - 1:54 pm
First of all, I’ve loved Becca Puglisi ever since I “met” her at critiquecircle.com! The Emotion Thesaurus is my bible, but I had no idea there were positive and negative trait books, too! I’ll be off to snatch those up soon. 🙂
To me, Dr. Who is a flawed character because, especially in the 2006 season, he came off as a bit cocky and detached. Of course, he’s the last time lord so he kind of has an excuse, but still. It took me a while to warm up to him!
#58 by huntersjones on December 15, 2013 - 8:11 pm
#59 by Michelle Morrison on December 25, 2013 - 6:56 pm
I need to catch up here…Great blog. I agree Scarlett is a great character. She was selfish but she had nerve and did go after what she wanted. I liked Rhett a lot too…He was selfish too in a lot of ways, but he didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t or hide that he was selfish, and he loved Scarlett. I love the characters in the Harry Potter books/movies too…They are definitely flawed but human and vulnerable. A good example is Snape…I initially disliked Snape a lot, and he is unpleasant in many ways but there is hurt underneath the unpleasantness. I understood later on where he was coming from. Katniss is another good one. She is resourceful and has courage but she is obstinate and doesn’t make friends easily. There are others, but those are some of my favorites.
#60 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 26, 2013 - 7:25 am
FLAWS are what make characters LEGENDARY. Fabulous assessment.
#61 by Jennifer Austin on December 31, 2013 - 7:10 pm
I have always been fascinated by Cleopatra. She was ruthless and inventive, but still capable of love and desire. Her story has been fodder for many an interpretation of her life, good and bad. And will fuel several more I’m sure.
#62 by Diana McDowell on December 2, 2015 - 4:52 pm
Great article. I’m having a hard time giving my character a flaw. I know she needs one. I think my problem is that I just haven’t found the “right” flaw. Especially since finding one is often on my mind.