Everyone talks about character flaws and their importance, but what about the opposite? These are the traits that help a character along, whether in social relationships or on the battlefield. They are a character’s strengths, and they’re even more sensitive to context than flaws! We discuss what they are, how they affect a character’s likability, and, perhaps most importantly, whether villains should have them. Spoiler: the answer is “it depends.”
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: Today we’re talking about what makes characters good. And no, not high quality characters. We’re talking about Team Good characters. The ones you root for, empathize with, want to succeed… unless you’re on team evil, though. In which case you want them to fail miserably.
Oren: What if I just like villains? Maybe I don’t like heroes to succeed.
Wes: I mean, we’ll get there. Sure. You know, I was thinking, what qualifies a character to be on Team Good? Positive character traits. Most of the members of Team Good contain a number of positive personality traits that strengthen their relationship with the audience. It’s helpful for all that stuff… But hang on, Wes, positive character traits aren’t exclusively for heroes and protagonists. That’s right, Chris![Laughter]
Wes: While positive character traits define a good character, they should be used for your villains as well. So today I thought it’d be cool to talk about just generally: what are some positive character traits, what they add to characters in your story, and maybe does it work for a villian.
Oren: Okay, have you considered making your character a huge nerd? Because that makes me identify with them.
Wes: Is that like the most positive of character traits, Oren? [Laughter]
Oren: I think so. Yeah. And I think, as we’ve established, if you identify with someone, that means they must be good. Identification is the same as a good trait. Right, Chris? That’s how this works.
Oren: So as long as I identify with the character, it’s a good character.
Chris: Well, I think identifying what we mean by positive is probably a good step. I think we’re correlating with what’s often called character strengths. It’s the traits that a person wants to have, where you want the people around you to have in general. And they are certainly correlated with Team Good, but I would say that Team Evil generally has a lot of strengths, too. But they have less of the things that we would call the morally good traits. Right? We’re talking about character strengths or positive character traits. The things that we have positive associations with. We think about skills and abilities, we think about just generally admirable qualities like the ability to face adversity and keep going, for instance, or just things that are morally good. And that’s a lot of collection of things. And I would say that villains are lower in the morally good category, but you still want them to have lots of skills and abilities and other types of admirable qualities, too, and sometimes even some morally good qualities, just so that they aren’t super one-note. Side characters generally have less skills, not always, but, there’s a reason Team Good is saving the day. So generally they have more strengths in areas that allow them to save the day.
Wes: I think that that’s kind of an important thing with the variety of skills that Team Good has. At the core of most of that is the team part. So these good qualities are really trying to show that generally they do work well with others or they’re willing to work with others. There is still jerk ass protagonist, but that is its own opportunity.
For example, a positive character trait could be that your character is affable: easy to talk to, willing to listen, generally gets along well with others, puts other characters at ease. Someone who listens and is there to be maybe a social lubricant. I really liked Kaylee in Firefly for that. As awkward as she could be, she just was someone that everybody on the ship could just get along well with. And, you know, she had other very positive qualities, but that was just a great, almost defining aspect of her. She could get on well with everyone on the ship. I thought that was just kind of a nice, maybe underrated, positive character trait. It’s just like, Hey, this person is just great.
Chris: I think it’s great to compare her to Jane on Firefly.
Chris: He’s a character that could easily be a villain in a different story, or if the story had been framed a different way, or if the plot had simply gone in a different direction. Because he does turn against the other characters at one point, and he has positive traits as skills and abilities. Right? He’s a really good shot, for instance. He’s a really good person to have in a fight, but he has less of those morally good qualities that we consider strengths. At the same time, we still root for him, not just because he’s helping the other good characters. Although I think that’s also a big part about him that he does good deeds despite the fact that he’s not really selfless. But also that we see a more human side to him when he’s, for instance, accepting a hat from his mom and sending money home. Right? We still see those other positive qualities to him.
Oren: Right. And even before that, because the hat is a little late, but even before that happens, he’s kind of a dork. He’s kind of awkward. He’s not, like, Yes, I’m very cool. My name is Wraith McBlade, right? And his name is Jane, which is kind of unusual. There’s things about him that kind of softened the fact that he’s a real jerk ass.
Chris: Right, I would say those things are spinach or sympathetic traits, which are not generally considered positive traits. So Jane being a dork also makes him more likable, but that’s not a positive trait to have really bad comebacks.
Oren: This is also a little tricky, because a lot of this has to do with the question of, are you telling a story in a visual or a text medium? It’s just easier to bring across different personality traits in a visual medium, or at least a filmed medium, because there are actors there who are helping.
Chris: At least if you’re not narrating in a character viewpoint.
Chris: Because that’s a big difference. If you have narration and you’re using character viewpoint, you can actually know the character much, much better than you could if you were seeing them on the outside. But often you’re not doing that for all of the characters. So when it comes to side characters, people on Team Good that are not viewpoint characters, or are not THE main character, that does make a difference. And of course, actors can have charisma, which is hard to account for when we’re trying to look at that and compare that to written works.
Oren: It’s also interesting where we have a cross section of what we would consider positive traits, and some of them make a character more likable, but others don’t really, and are either neutral or can sometimes even get annoying if you give the character too many of them.
A lot of that has to do with the difference of like, is this something you’re giving the character to make them more likable or is it to give them candy, which fill different roles in the story. To use more Mythcreants terminology here, your three basics of likability are selflessness, sympathy and novelty. Some of those could also give you some candy, but others just wouldn’t. And some of them might not even be considered positive. Being kind is considered a positive trait. If the character is actually going out of their way to be kind to other people, that’s going to feel selfless. That they are putting in effort to help other people that will make them more likable. Being a cool and slick smuggler in a story that until now has been mostly dominated by two kinds of lawful good, one’s a Jedi and the other one’s a Tatooine kid. If you’re a cool and slick smuggler who doesn’t play by the rules, that has some novelty to it. And some of those traits could be considered positive in that Han Solo is smart and definitely brave. Although also kind of sneaky. I don’t know if that’s positive. Is shooting first positive? Who knows?[Laughter]
Chris: Just to recap, when we’re talking about candy and spinach, candy is something that happens in the story to glorify a character and spinach humbles them. So they are correlated with positive traits, but they’re not one-to-one correlations of positive traits. Candy isn’t necessarily positive and spinach isn’t necessarily like a character flaw. Certainly anything that makes a character cool or look cool or presents them as cool is generally candy. So giving them more skills and abilities is positive and it’s also candy. Being morally good isn’t necessarily candy. That’s generally coolness-neutral. It can be tricky because you definitely want your Team Good or your protagonist to have some skills so they can carry the story. And if they have zero skills at all and it continues for long enough, it could be just like, well, I don’t know why this person is the hero, or it’s just the story’s too gloomy because they can’t do anything. But at the same time, you can’t just keep adding more and more skills to a character, because then they’ll have a lot of candy and that can be alienating for a lot of people.
Wes: I think that’s why it’s important to remember when we talk, traits kind of represent a character’s generally core values and those can change as the result of the character arc. But, it’s like, how are they with people? How do they operate in this world? That should be more or less some kind of guiding star for them as situations develop. They’re not just probably suddenly going to be the bravest without a proper arc or else that will feel like you are just randomly dropping a bunch of candy on them. So I think that “trait” is a really important difference from a “skill” or anything else like that.
Chris: I would say that basically all characters need some positive traits. You could have some side characters that are low in them, but a side character that hangs around zero positive traits is probably going to get really annoying.
Wes: Yeah. I think when we did our flaws or quirks episode, we talked about that with a one trick pony or, you know, something like that. It’s just like, this is a static character and this is what they are. And you can have a good static character that just represents these things, but kind of like what Oren was saying earlier. When it gets a little extreme, it gets old very fast, which is the same thing with negative aspects or quirks or things like that. If it gets played out, it’s time to change it up, or maybe remove that character from the scenes
Oren: A note on the whole, a character should have at least some positive traits. This is the thing that if the character has no positive traits, they will be annoying in the story just like they would be annoying in real life. But I’ve seen some authors who think. I’ll have this super annoying character who has no positive traits, or if they have any they’re very, very minor. And then I will have bad things happen to them. I’m not gonna say it doesn’t work for anybody, but for a lot of people that just kind of feels mean.
Chris: It’s kind of a miserable story.
Wes: It is miserable. How do you build attachment with that? I mean, I guess pity is kind of attachment, but there needs to be something there to pity first.
Chris: I mean, those characters can become sympathetic, but at the same time, there’s really, I don’t know, I’d have to talk to somebody who likes those stories and see what they like about them. Generally, the story feels very gloomy. Again, if you have a character that is kind of evil, but has some skills and abilities and you watch bad things happening to them, you can be like, oh, that’s their comeuppance for being evil. But if he’s a character that doesn’t even have skills, so they kind of have some level of sympathy already because they have no skills, but they’re also just an unpleasant person. You don’t really want to watch them, but you can’t really enjoy it when they get their comeuppance, either. So everything is just kind of a negative experience. I can’t rule out all situations in which that might happen, and think of every scenario and say universally that you would never want to do that. I’m hard pressed to come up with one.
Oren: I feel like a lot of this came out of discussions of Neelix on Voyager. The thing that a lot of people complained about with Neelix at first, because not everyone understands how stories work, is that he’s super annoying, but the crew acts like he’s useful. And that’s true. They do act like he’s useful. And that is weird, right? That is a problem. But it led some people to think that, well, the solution is, what if everyone constantly yelled at Neelix for being annoying and obnoxious and having no skills? And that’s actually not the solution. That’s just… I just don’t want to watch that.
Chris: Yeah. Sometimes you do have a side character that’s designed to be a hindrance annoyance to the main character. And then you watch the main character be actively annoyed with them. And I think that is better than having a Jar Jar walking around where he’s constantly causing problems, but the other characters don’t seem to recognize the level to which he’s causing problems. But in those cases, it’s almost like that character is sort of a minor antagonist, right? Where they’re an obstacle that the main character has to overcome. And certainly if that went on too long, it would become very unpleasant. If you have it for limited periods and the character isn’t too sympathetic, if you don’t spend the entire time feeling sorry for them. Cause it’s like Dobby, for instance. Jar Jar, you don’t really feel that bad for Jar Jar, because he seems to come through everything just fine and has an upbeat attitude the whole time. But Dobby is different and Harry has to overcome the problems Dobby causes, but at the same time, you’re not really going to feel good about being mean to him in the same way.
Oren: Yeah. About bad things happening to Dobby because that’s a messed up situation right there…
Chris: Anyway, just to go through our list of the most annoying characters in history.
Oren: Yeah. So here, I have another question. What if you have a story in beta reading and you have some readers calling one of your characters a goody two-shoes, what’s happening and how do you fix it? Asking for a friend.
Wes: Well, I would query that and say, what do you mean? I always kind of thought a goody two-shoes is kind of like a suck-up they’re obnoxiously good for self gain, but I know that’s not also how other people understand that. You could interpret it as always does the right thing. Won’t dare to even have a bad thought. It’s just not specific. I don’t like it at all. Set it on fire. That’s my advice.
Chris: Right. I would have to look at that specific situation because generally being good makes the character more likable. So it could be in situations or it could be in some situations I can imagine, again, being more good, isn’t usually candy, but I could imagine there’s situations in which a writer makes a character so performative in their selflessness that it almost feels contrived. And it feels like that author really is just trying to make that character look cool.
Oren: I have actually comprised a list of different situations in which I have encountered a character being called a goody two-shoes, and I think it pretty much always falls into one or more of these categories.
The first is lack of novelty and the character is just kind of boring. And the only thing that is distinct about them is that they are morally upright. So people latch onto that as the reason they’re boring. That’s not actually the reason they’re boring. It’s just the thing that’s memorable about them. If the character is judgmental and his holier than thou and being like, yes, I am very cool and good and you all are bad. That’s your D&D paladin horror story character right there. Occasionally you have a character who is constantly taking the moral high ground in situations where it is obviously impractical to do that. That can get frustrating to watch the character sabotage themselves like that over and over again. Then the last one is what you were talking about, where it feels self-congratulatory. Either because the protagonist is like, yes, I’m doing a very good thing for you, but like, it didn’t actually cost the protagonists sending you to do that. If you have a billionaire character who was like, I gave $10,000 to charity. I’m very cool.[Laughter]
Wes: I think the issue with that, Oren, is this notion that the morally good character, the paladin of the party, always such a try-hard/do gooder, is just falling back on a very simplistic, action-based mindset that is just leveraging courage to the max. And that’s really boring, like we mention affable. But Parable of the Sower, the main character, her defining quality is that she’s empathetic. Lauren relates to people around her. She puts herself in other people’s shoes, but Octavia Butler’s spin on that is that she actually feels their pain. It’s kind of a weird power that she has as a result of this. She’s a very good person who helps other people, but helping them is actually sometimes a detriment. Like it’s just a balance that she has to deal with. And that’s more interesting to me than just like saying, oh, I always do what’s right, because you can slash your way to glory.
Oren: Well, the paladin in particular is I think kind of a fraught archetype in D&D because it does the same thing all of the other characters do, which is break into dungeons and kill things, but it claims to be doing it in a more moral manner. And it’s like, are you though? That’s why paladins aren’t restricted by alignment anymore. Now they can be whatever alignment they want.
Wes: They realized their ways. So I guess it’s just, if you’re saying someone’s morally good, I would like to know just what does that mean? That means absolutely nothing to me. Showing has been better than telling. And so do they have integrity? Are they self-aware? Are they dependable? I mean, all of these things can be shown and actually can give you interesting situations to work those character traits into action. Just saying that you’re going to go do the thing I guess makes you dependable, but it’s really boring. Show dependability in a different way. Be there for your party member who needs you in this moment, instead of going deeper into the dungeon or whatever your story is doing.
Chris: I’ve looked at what moral goodness is in stories: in what gives a character good karma and makes us feel like they deserve good things. There are a lot of things that are somewhat culturally dependent. For instance, whether a character remains chaste would sometimes be considered morally good in some other times be considered neutral. But generally, when it’s more universal, what it almost always boils down to is selflessness in some way or another. If a character is dependable, it’s like, okay, why does that character need to be dependable, and why does it feel like it matters that they’re dependable? Well, if they show up to help another person when it’s difficult, that’s when it really matters. That’s when it really stands out that they’re dependable. But they’re also being selfless because they did something that was difficult for another person. So a lot of the traits that we think of as morally good boil down to that, or really stand out when it gets to the selflessness level in some way or other. Now there are other things we admire, like, for instance, powering through adversity. If you really want to accomplish a goal and you have to go through lots of obstacles to get there, but you keep going even when it’s hard, that’s not necessarily selfless. You’re doing that for yourself. But that’s also admirable.
Wes: That’s a good way to distinguish perhaps the role that the character’s playing in the story. You mentioned strengths. Powering through adversity can be something someone does on their own. Call it whatever you will. But character trait, as we’ve been talking about these for your Team Gooders, really represent how they relate to others in the story. I think that’s an interesting split with how we’ve kind of understood these. You could power through adversity and champion good and right, but actually be just oblivious to the needs of others and not be a very good person.
Oren brought up removing D&D alignments for paladins and then they added Oath of Conquest. I will destroy your wall and you will love me for it.
Oren: It’s still charisma based, baby.
Wes: That’s right.
Oren: You have no choice. You can also make good use of contrast to make your characters’ positive traits stand out because that will just matter more. Sometimes fairly mundane things can become super likable if only one character has them, because that character seems novel now. The example that will always stand out to me is “Kevin” Lannister or “Kevan” Lannister. It’s with an a and not an i.
Wes: It’s “Kevin.”
Oren: Kevan, Kevan, Kevan Lannister. First of all, his name is “Kevin.” He’s just very, very Game of Thrones’ most normalist man. And he’s in this family of just the most extra people. He’s in a family with Jaime and Cersei and Tywin and Tyrion and they’re all, you know, out there constantly making evil plans or making weird gestures, just being the worst, or the best in Tyrion’s case. And Kevin is just like a very practical minded guy who is like trying to keep things together behind the scenes. And he’s not really into the glory and he’s the administrator that they call in when they need to fix another Lannisters mess. He’s just a neat guy. And then he got killed by the conspiracy against competent people. It was very upsetting. Normally that kind of character wouldn’t really stand out, but in a setting where everyone else is extremely extra, having your one down to earth, normal guy made him seem cool.
Chris: Certainly if you have a lot of drama in a story, the one character that is drama free is often very well-liked because they give the audience a really refreshing break from the drama. Even if the audience likes the drama, right? It’s just pacing and a story after you have something intense. Because drama is a form of tension and problems. You want to break.
Wes: Especially since so much drama can feel contrived. Why doesn’t this person just tell this person what’s going on? I think that’s why when season one of Ted Lasso came out, everybody was like, oh my gosh, a show where people just deal with their problems as adults. Wow! There’s no drama! I guess that is novel in a way. It can quickly run out, but it is fascinating to just say, oh right, “Kevin” just doesn’t go in for this stuff. That seems to make him really dependable. Oh, he knows what to do. Great! Let’s let him handle our problems and find all the money that we don’t have.
Oren: Probably could have got Kevan on this and solved all of the Song of Ice and Fire nonsense a few books early.
Chris: Yeah. I definitely think when it comes to responsible types, the way to make them shine is to make sure to give them a thankless role. So especially with leader characters where just being a leader often makes a character less sympathetic because it means they have a certain amount of power. And some glory comes with that, giving them a position where nobody wants that responsibility because it’s just a disaster and they’re doing a position working really hard for something without glory that nobody’s going to recognize. Really brings out the sympathy and the selflessness of being responsible. I also really like resourceful characters, because if you’re resourceful, that usually means that you’re in a difficult situation and making the best of it. So that automatically encourages you to think about how to give a character problems and put them in tight spots.
Oren: Yeah. The problem with resourceful characters is that you need to figure out how they’re resourceful and that’s hard. As a writer, that’s difficult. It’s easier to just give them laser eyes and they fix the problems with those.
Wes: It’s right.
Oren: [Makes laser sound.]
We should talk about, uh, the more villainous characters in the story and what type of positive traits could work for them. We’ve talked about a lot of selfless qualities. I’m not saying you can’t have a selfless villain, you can and should, but they still need to be villains. A courageous villain is certainly a thing, but a villain with integrity can happen. You have to really work your conflict appropriately to actually make it seem like the villain has a point that is actually a valid solution to a real problem. And you both have written extensively on that. One of you had a great post on that. Obviously there was the Black Panther example.
Oren: So when it comes to villains having positive traits, and you mentioned the villain from Black Panther, Killmonger, this is a potentially dicey situation because giving villains positive traits is good. But if you make your villain too selfless and too working for a good cause, a few things can happen. One, they can just take over the story and then it’s about them. But they’re still being cast as the villain, which is weird and it creates dissonance. It also can create a situation where it feels contrived that they’re a villain at all. It’s like, oh, well, you know, the old, I want to do lots of great things, but I’m a bad guy, so I’m gonna blow up that bus because just to remind you that I’m a villain.
Wes: Don’t forget.
Oren: Right. I actually don’t necessarily think that Killmonger falls into that. I could argue about that for days, but that is a significant issue and it is a cliche at this point. So many villains now are like, we want to stop climate change and we’re going to do it by killing all the baby birds. And then it’s like, sure, villains.
That’s the thing that people are really sick of at this point whenever a new movie comes out with a villain that’s motivated by climate change, all of the critic YouTube channels are like, ah, another one?
Wes: Well that’s the whole problem with the Thanos and the Raʼs al Ghul type guys is people, I dunno, for whatever reason, just deleting a bunch of people resonates with them and they’re like, oh yes, of course, Thanos is actually the hero and blah, blah, blah. And it’s like, well, no, because when we talk about positive character traits, as we’ve said so far, those largely involve how a character positions their attitude and actions and beliefs in relationship to other people. You could say that Thanos has integrity, but you’d be wrong because he’s not considering how the implications of his actions will affect those around him who get snapped or deleted or whatever. You could say he’s self-aware and you could call that a positive character trait, but he’s still hurting other people actively. So those are like fake positive traits.
Chris: I would also say it’s getting to the point where it’s starting to stigmatize good causes because villains are too often associated with them.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a good point.
Chris: We should be improving the climate and we should be fighting climate change. If you have all of your villains doing that, it really starts to say bad things. Send a bad message about good causes.
Wes: That’s so true.
Chris: Right? If every person who is trying to fight against an unfair system or fighting for the downtrodden is also a terrorist, then what are we saying about fighting for the downtrodden? That’s not really what we want. So at this point, the important thing is that your villain really should have a goal that the hero opposes that the audience opposes. As long as it’s realistic that they would try to do that, you can make them as morally good as you can while also making them actually want to do that. Which usually means there’s a limit to how morally good they are. They can have positive relationships with other people, they can give to charity, but they are compromised enough to have a bad goal.
Oren: Well, I think that’s a good point to end on. No more villains that want to stop climate change, please. If nothing else it’s cliche. That’s not normally a thing I care too much about, but I know writers don’t like being cliche, so don’t do it.
Before we go, I wanna thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing theme]
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