Often, the personality traits that writers give their characters fall into two main categories: positive and negative. The protagonist is kind, patient, and generous, while the villain is selfish, short-tempered, and calculating. However, the experts at Writer’s Relief know there can be times when positive traits aren’t always beneficial and when negative traits can work to a character’s advantage. Here’s how positive character traits can actually be negative, and vice versa.
How Positive Traits Can Be Negative, And Negative Traits Can Be Positive
A trait can be a double-edged sword and provide your character with strengths as well as weaknesses. Your readers will be intrigued when an unexpected obstacle or solution comes from a trait your character exhibits.
For example: You might think being the epitome of patience would always be a positive trait. Your protagonist consistently encounters frustrating situations with calm and grace. However, if the character is too patient, then this trait might actually become a hinderance. If the loyal warrior waits day after day for the king’s message and never seems impatient or frustrated, you run the risk of your character appearing too perfect and unrealistic. Meanwhile, the antagonist could be burning up village after village as the king’s best fighter waits to take action—making patience a negative choice rather than a positive one. In fact, choosing to act before hearing the official, royal decree might make impatience the best—and most positive—choice.
More examples of character traits that can be both positive and negative:
Honest: This is usually a positive trait. Readers want the hero to be honest and trustworthy. But if the hero takes honesty to the point of being insensitive, it would be considered a negative by other characters who feel the brunt of any inconsiderate remarks—we’re looking at you, Mr. Darcy—and by readers who empathize. An honest protagonist is usually a good person—unless that honesty results in a character overhearing that she’s not fit to dance with.
Loyal: Traditionally, a loyal character is seen as devoted and faithful. But loyalty can be negative if the character is loyal to the villain or to someone who is constantly involved in suspicious or bad behavior. A character’s loyalty to family and friends is commendable. Loyalty to the corporation that wants to knock down the day care center to build expensive retail space would not seem as admirable.
Impulsive: An impulsive character might suddenly decide to purchase two tickets to the opera instead of one, with the intention of asking the friendly barista on a date. But an opera fan who is too irresponsible and impetuous might also be easily distracted by other activities, leaving the barista standing alone outside the concert hall.
Calculating: The antagonist is often someone who is clever and always scheming. What can seem more negative than a character who is thinking of ways to swindle sweet little old ladies out of their life savings? But having a quick-thinking person on the team can be a boon to the protagonist. Who else but a wily schemer who’s always two steps ahead would think to hide the map before the pirates show up?
Strong-Willed: Having a strong will and determination can be considered good if the character doesn’t let anything stand in the way of achieving their goals, even when other characters freely share their predictions on how failure is inevitable. However, a character who is set in their ways may not want to hear input from others. If the rescue team leader gets lost on the way to their destination and refuses to accept any help or advice, they are all going to arrive late—maybe even too late. In this case, one character’s stubbornness hurts everyone.
Limiting character traits to all good or all bad will constrict your characters and make them seem flat. Using positive traits as negatives and vice versa can help give your characters depth and make them more complex and real for your readers.
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Question: How would you make a positive trait seem negative? Or vice versa?