Character Creation Writing: Hidden Negative Traits

I was reminded by another author’s comment about the Negative Trait Thesaurus that one help for your characters is to demonstrate subtlety. All characters have negative traits. This does not mean that they demonstrate that trait all the time, or even under normal conditions. The trait may be lost amidst a sea of goopy nice traits and only come out on full moons or when the character is stressed or pushed. You can therefore have a character who is boring and dull and predictable during the initial scenes who suddenly displays their negative trait when bad things start happening, which it will if you’re being properly mean to your characters.

For an example, take nice little old ladies who have a streak of nasty racism. One moment they’re making pies and talking about “bless your heart!” and “don’t that beat all?” and the next moment they’re muttering about how them n—–s should never have been allowed to drink out of white fountains and sit at the front of the bus. Granny doesn’t go off until she sees the people for whom she bears this enmity.

This, in turn, can trigger other negative traits in other characters, in a domino effect. A character who preaches tolerance may express hatred for the racist granny, thus demonstrating the negative trait hypocrisy. We may never know these traits exist but for granny triggering it with her racist rant.

The subtlety comes by toning things down. If granny does nasty things without ever putting a reason behind it, that leads to confusion, though in her consistency, the other characters and the reader will be able to do the math and figure out that granny is a closet racist.

Maybe making granny conflicted lends credence to the racism, so that most of the time she’s sweet and trying to do the right thing, but it turns out she’s got some history where she was dating a guy of the race she hates so much. They broke up, it was her fault, and now she hates everyone. This sort of illogic makes stunning sense, because most people don’t want to face up and of course, unrelenting racism rarely seems to stem out of circumstances such as these, but that baggage can make her more interesting if we can ever get that information out of her.

Many of the negative traits are best leavened in the loaf sprinkled in an easy way. Too much salt ruins the bread. Consider the first few traits listed:

Abrasive
Absent-minded
Absurd
Addictive
Aggressive
Airheaded
Aloof

Some of these, done to the extreme, will overwhelm the story. A character who is absent-minded to an extreme is crippled and will weigh down the story with that aspect. It becomes the central part of the story when you watch something like Flubber. [Unfortunately, I cannot unwatch that movie. So sad.] In Flubber, the scientist is brilliant but extremely absent-minded. He is able to create new life and a substance in which the laws of physics do not function. In any other character, they would use the discovery to win acclaim and accolades and funding. With our absent-minded professor, he uses his discovery to help the college basketball team win a game so he can win back his ex-fiance.

Absent-mindedness is a public aspect which becomes apparent with little exposure to the person, whereas the addictive person may be able to conceal their addiction well, and it would take more penetration into the character layers to see the patterns of addiction affecting their decisions and their life.

I think the take-away here is that the negative traits you assign to some of your characters may not ever be known by the reader. You, as the author, while making your careful character studies in which you lay out the facts and intangibles of each, will know the trait and know that it’s there, waiting, like uranium ore under the basement, making the people sick without them knowing the cause. The negative trait may even be the driving force behind the character Goal.

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4 thoughts on “Character Creation Writing: Hidden Negative Traits

  1. Excellent observations. Especially the point that character traits may never be apparent to the reader. I find this similar to knowing details of origin mythology (a recent bugbear of mine). Even though I now have the mythology worked out in my mind, very little is made apparent to the reader.

    Like

    • Sure, it’s called fog of war on the battlefield, and whatever you call third person omniscient when it’s not omniscient. Yar. Third person limited. Yeah! Had to look it up. The idea that we only know what’s observable, and therefore we may not know the motivations that drive someone. As long as those motivations are logically consistent within themselves, it’s fine. It’s like the traffic jam that has no apparent cause. Something made it happen. That something might be gone, but we see the aftermath and we know something happened, just not what it was.

      Liked by 1 person

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