When I first started writing I found it really hard to imagine my characters as anything other than beautiful, talented and clever. But in making them super-people they aren’t likeable and they’re certainly not believable.
A slim, beautiful protagonist who never gets annoyed and is always on time is someone a reader will dislike or even hate. A character with a good mix of positive and negative traits is far more interesting. I knew this as a reader but it took me a while to make that leap as a writer.
Each of us have positive and negative characteristics and they can depend on circumstances. Push the wrong button and you may see a character trait in a friend or colleague that surprises you.
Character traits are rarely all good or all bad. A positive trait taken to an extreme can show negative attributes and vice versa.
We were flicking through some old programmes recently and I was reminded of an episode of CSI. Hodges is an annoying character. He has an incredible array of infuriating habits and irritates most people he comes into contact with — including me and I haven’t watched the programme in years. The particular episode I recalled had Hodges and the other technicians profiling a murderer. As they listed the murder’s characteristics it’s obvious they could be describing Hodges. Without looking up from what he is doing Hodges calmly says, (words to the effect), ‘How could it be me? I spend all my time in the lab.’
In that one sentence Hodges totally redeemed himself. He took the joke, wasn’t annoyed and showed he is self-aware.
Our protagonists should be human not superhuman, and that means they need a few flaws. Some of those flaws may change over the course of the novel as the character grows but others may remain. Just as the protagonist needs a mix of negative and positive, so does the antagonist. Very few people are completely bad. Our antagonist will be more believable with some redeeming features (just like Hodges!) It’s also important they have reasons for acting the way they do. We may not agree with their actions, but they must have a reason for the thing things they do or they end up as a caricature.