Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Hypothesis on the Duality of Character Traits

An idea crossed my mind a while ago about how it is possible for a single character trait to be both an asset to a character and a burden. Or, how one trait can lead to sister traits that can be good or bad.

An obvious example of the first scenario--a trait that is simultaneously an asset and a burden--would be Adrian Monk's OCD and hypersensitivity to stimuli in the TV show Monk. His OCD and hypersensitivity allow him to see clues the cops miss, but they also make his life harder. Similarly, a seemingly good trait can be misapplied to a situation, resulting in an undesired outcome. For example, Henrietta makes cookies for Martha, and instead of seeing them as coming from the goodness of Henrietta's heart, Martha takes offense at the cookies because she thinks they are pity cookies.

For sister traits, take for example Celaena Sardothian of Sarah J. Maas's Throne of Glass series. Celaena is independent, clever, educated, and very competent. She's also rather arrogant and selfish. It makes sense that those traits go together, doesn't it? The same way it makes sense that shyness and insecurity go together, or tidiness and attention to detail. Those traits don't always go together, but it makes sense when they do.

As I recall, this train of thought came to me while I was thinking about how virtues and vices can sometimes come in pairs or groups, and how this might be a tool I can use to help brainstorm character traits. If I know my character is kind, and need a negative trait for him, what's a not-so-great trait that goes with kindness? Some ideas might be being easily manipulated, feeling insecure about always doing the right thing, and being so diligent in the care of others that one neglects oneself. On the flip side, if I know a character has temper issues, what are some good traits that could go with them? Some ideas would be honesty (assuming the character doesn't blow things out of proportion when riled up) and predictability--it often doesn't take long to learn what will upset someone with temper issues. Or, in a different scenario, perhaps I have a character I know is a bit of a rebel, but I don't want her to have stereotypically rebellious traits, so I think about traits that don't commonly go with rebelliousness, such as having a taste for gourmet food or hating loud music.

In addition, these ideas can be used to add conflict, such as in the Henrietta's cookies example. Traits and behaviors can be misunderstood. If you have two characters, you have two different views on the situation, and two different perceptions of the events and actions that occur in it.

That's as far as I've thought on this subject so far, though I suspect there's more I can think about and learn here. Now I turn to you, dear reader. What do you think about these ideas? Have any thoughts of your own to add?


  1. This is a very interesting, helpful analysis. I think it's cool too when we pair virtues/vices together that don't necessary go together, but make sense.

  2. I like this. Excellent post.
    For an example of contrasting traits, Ronan Lynch. He swears like a sailor and is the kind of guy you lock your car door against when you see him walking by. BUT he is a devout Catholic and a there are some times when he is very kind and almost sweet. He is also loyal to death.
    I also agree about how good actions from good traits can still be perceived negatively.

    ~Princess Kate (Blogger is not letting me comment as a WordPress user really anywhere...)

    1. Ronan! I knew I was missing an obvious example. Yes, he's a great illustration of this.

      (Blogger is weird. Blogger likes to pick on people.)

  3. I tagged you for the Creative Blogger Award here: http://writerandproud.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-creative-blogger-award.html. And this was a very interesting post!