Types of Character Traits

This blog was inspired by two things. First is Ginny’s concept of flashy vs finish-line characters (flashy meaning characters you like because they are fun to watch, finish meaning characters you like because you want them to succeed). Second is this podcast by Writing Excuses, where Brandon Sanderson explains his three “sliders” for characterization; sympathy, proactivity and competence. I was listening to the podcast while thinking about Ginny’s system, and realized that if I split sympathy into two new traits, niceness and relatability, I ended up with four categories that explained why a particular character might have more flash, or more finish-line quality, than another.

First, there’s niceness. Characters who are nice do the things that we think people should do. They make the moral choices we all like to think we would make. It tends to make a character more of a finish-line character, because when people do the right thing, we want to see that rewarded. Nice characters are admirable. Unfortunately, because what we should do is also often what we are expected to do, niceness can come at the expense of flash. Nice characters are less likely to surprise us.

Second, there’s relatability. Relatable characters do the sorts of things we can see ourselves do. They feel quintessentially human, the embodiment of traits that live in all of us. It too is very finish-line friendly, because when we see ourselves in a character, we automatically want them to win, because we are now living through them vicariously. However, like niceness, relatability can make a character too predictable to be flashy. They also have a tendency to be very average, to avoid alienating any one demographic. This can make them feel bland.

Third, there’s Competence. These are the characters who are able to keep things happening, to defeat their enemies and achieve their goals. These characters are often highly flashy, because the way they solve problems is interesting and unusual. However, if their skill level is too high, relative to their obstacles, they can actually make it hard for readers to care about them. If there’s no tension, no fear of failure, there’s no point in worrying, from the reader’s perspective. Furthermore, their skill level can take their actions too far outside the realm of normal experience. These characters run the risk of being low finish-line characters.

Fourth, there’s Proactivity. These characters have a lot of determination and motivation, as well as a clear goal and task. This tends to enhance flash because they create a fast pace of action. They are always doing something that the viewers want to see. However, if they end up doing something most people would be reluctant to do, for ethical reasons or simply because the costs are too high, they can lose reader sympathy. They aren’t always characters you want to succeed.

There are two pairs that go easily together; niceness and relatability, which enhance finish, and competence and proactivity, which enhance flash. There is absolutely no reason to think a nice person couldn’t also be relatable, or that a competent character couldn’t also be proactive. Furthermore, the two strengthen and add depth to each other. A character who is relatable but not nice might actually turn people off, because without niceness odds are they only remind us of the worst parts of ourselves. Niceness without relatability usually produces a Purity Sue; someone so saccharinely perfect they are actually really hard to like. Competent characters who are not proactive aren’t going to get as many chances to show off their skill. Proactive characters who are not competent are likely to frustrate readers with the obvious futility of their efforts.

So it’s very possible to create a character who is very much a finish-line character, but not very flashy, or vice-versa, but when you’re trying to give a character elements of both, you run into problems. First of all, there are two pairs that are somewhat diametrically opposed. Niceness and proactivity don’t go easily together. They might in everyday life, but the dramatic, story-rich moments tend to present moral conflicts. A story where all a nice person only has to fulfill their basic social obligations to get what they want is a boring story. The same goes for competence and relatability. It takes a lot of work to be skilled, and most people don’t have the means or the will to develop more than one really good skill, or a handful of decently average skills. So if you make a character highly competent in a number of abilities, it becomes harder to make them relatable.

Of the remaining two relationships, niceness with competence and relatability with proactivity, these can go together a little more successfully, but remember the difficulties inherent in a character who is nice but not relatable, or proactive but not competent. So you can’t get out of the tangle above by, say, writing a character who is nice, but not proactive, and competent, but not relatable. You’ll end up with someone who is perfect and shiny, but who never feels like a person or does anything, and they will probably be much more hated than a character who is just nice and relatable but not flashy, or just competent and proactive but also an antihero who you don’t really want to succeed in the end.

This is why it’s difficult to create characters who are both flashy and finishy. It’s why heroes are often boring and villains are often interesting. And it’s not always a bad thing. Frodo is high finish, low flash, but Lord of the Rings doesn’t suffer from that, because we don’t need Frodo to be exciting to get engrossed in the story. We already have a beautiful setting and an abundance of flashy side characters with their own complex interwoven plots and subplots. Frodo just needs to be nice and relatable enough that we are very invested in his surviving his quest to destroy the One Ring. In fact, his lack of flash enhances the story; because this quest is in the hands of someone so ordinary and vulnerable, the tension is incredibly high, much higher than in many Tolkien ripoff series where the protagonist has some magical talent or fighting prowess.

Luckily for writers, characters are people, and people aren’t mathematically tidy. They can have one side of their nature that is nice, and another that is proactive, one that is competent, and one that is relatable. These sides can come out in different ways at different points in the story. One of my favorite examples of this is Leslie Knope, from Parks and Recreation. Her two most obvious traits are that she is proactive, and she is nice. She is a frenetic multitasker, with a peculiarly sugary assertiveness and a determination to get her way at all times. She’s also a deeply entrenched idealist whose main goal seems to be to make everyone around her as happy as possible. In her everyday life, she can combine the two traits easily, because she works in the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN. It’s her job to make places where people go to be happy.

Of course, since the writers on Parks and Rec know their stuff, they don’t let her keep this happy balance for long. They constantly throw her into situations where she has to make a choice she’s not comfortable making. She can’t play by the rules and get what she wants. She can’t make everyone happy. People in her world fail to live up to her standards and that makes her mad. This already makes her a little more relatable, because nobody gets what they want all the time. Then the writers start playing with competence and relatability. First she comes up with a clever plan, but then something goes wrong, so she tries something else that’s clever, but she overlooks something, until finally she runs out of clever plans, panics, and does something amazingly stupid. One minutes she’s a manic genius, but the next she’s in over her head and clueless, and we are all nodding our heads and saying “yeah, been there.” Sometimes she doesn’t succeed at all. Sometimes she really can’t do it all, and she needs her friends to rescue her, or just to cheer her up. Other times, she comes up with a last minute plan that saves everything, and we are incredibly satisfied, because we wanted to see her win and had fun watching her try.

There is a fifth element that is the most important and the hardest of all to pull off; verisimilitude. Whatever traits you pour into a character, they can’t feel like you did a mathematical equation to create the most perfectly balanced character. They have to feel like all these traits belong in the same human being, like they interrelate. Everything Leslie does feels like something Leslie would do, not something Ron Swanson would do, or Frodo, or Snow White, or Scarlett O’Hara. As you write your characters, at a certain point you will start feeling them come alive in your head, like instead of telling them what they do at this point in the story, you are asking them what they would do and they are telling you. When that happens, don’t break it. Don’t say, “well, I hear your answer, but that’s not a very proactive thing to do and I want you to be more flashy.” Your readers, more than anything else, want to feel like they are getting to know people. If your characters rebel and take over the story, let them.

I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this topic again. I have plenty of other thoughts on how these play out in ensembles, how they interact with genre, and so on. This is one of those cases where I have reached a stopping place and I have to take it, before I end up writing a whole book. Thanks for reading!

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