What character trait cliches should I avoid? And what kind of problem solving styles are there?

by Josie
(Texas)

Question: Hi! I'm planning a story for NaNoWriMo, and I'm currently working on the character arcs for my protagonist and influence character.


To make the characters satisfying, I should give them personal flaws to overcome and/or ways of behaving that they have to change in order to achieve the story goal, right?

I was wondering... I imagine that there are some character flaws that are prevalent in certain genres to the point of being predictable and uninteresting. Is that so?

I'm writing fantasy YA. Low confidence and self esteem, for example, seem to be common traits to overcome in YA. Are those traits that I should avoid? Or reversely, try to include?

I'd also like to give my characters opposite problem solving styles, but there are only three that I can think of: Avoiding the problem, attacking the problem impulsively, and planning then tackling the problem in an organized way. Are there other problem solving styles that I'm not thinking of?

Thank you so much!

Answer: I take it you are familiar with Dramatica theory but are not using the Dramatica software? That's perfectly fine.

Taking your questions one at a time...

Regarding the main and influence character, only one of them has to change, according to the theory. Each of them represents a different way to respond to the problem at the crisis, but only one of them can be right. In a story where the influence character has the right approach, the main character can win by changing and the influence character will stay steadfast.

In a story where the main character has the right approach all along, the main character can win by doubling down on his approach at the crisis (staying steadfast). In such stories, the influence character often changes (since the main character was right).

Of course, this assumes the entire story is written from one point of view. Multiple POV characters can mean multiple inner conflicts to be resolved.

As for choosing character flaws, the Dramatica software suggests general themes or areas for such flaws, but it is up to you to make them specific to your character.

If you're writing young adult fiction, obviously you want your main character to be someone your typical reader can empathize with. While it's true that many teens can relate to low self-esteem, every teen is a unique person. What matters is that you make the character feel real. Young adult readers are smart. They recognize cliches. But they love authenticity.

So self-doubt could be a trait of your main character, and you could write a story about how she meets someone who shows her the
value of self-confidence and how ultimately her decision to believe in herself saves the day. That's how Star Wars works.

But there are many other lessons that could be learned, many other approaches that could be evaluated in a story. The Dramatica software includes 64 general character traits that could be the crucial element for your character, lumped into four broad categories...

Purposes - what the character wants to achieve
Motivation - what drives their decision-making process
Methodology - what methods they use to tackle problems
Evaluation - how they judge or think about things

However, you don't need to study the list of 64 traits and their quite lengthy definitions.

If you are more of a plot-approach writer, ask yourself what lesson you want your main character to learn in the course of the story. What inner choice must he or she make to save the day (assuming you her to save the day)? Then write a character sketch of a teen who needs to learn this lesson. Her journey between these two points becomes her story.

If you are more of a character-approach writer, try to develop a sense of who your main character is when the story begins. Perhaps base her on some teens you know. Figure how how she approaches problems in her relationships or other areas of her life. Then imagine her in a situation where her usual way of doing things might not work, so she has to consider taking a chance on something new and so grow as a person.

I'll give you a few examples of the 64 traits Dramatica uses, just to prompt your thinking...

Purposes
Equity or Inequity: Does she want fairness, or special treatment, for herself or someone else?
Inertia or Change: does she want things to stay the same or be different?

Motivation
Does she base her decisions on logic or feelings? On faith or doubt? On the need for control or the need to break lose?

Methodology
When faced with a problem, is she likely to be proactive, reactive, inactive, or perhaps protective?
Does she favour proven methods or is she open to new possibilities?

Evaluation
Does she trust easily or does she have to test everything? Does she generally think something is "good enough" or "never good enough"? Does the end justify the means, or is the journey more important than the destination?

However, don't get hung up on the theory. Try to make the character feel authentic in your mind. Then take her on a journey where she is pressured to change, takes a leap of faith, and then ends up somewhere.

Best of luck.

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