The Virtues + Vices Exercise (for Character Development)
Vices are what happen when you take a virtue too far.
This is one of my favorite exercises for developing solid characters. It came from one of my MFA professors.
Think of virtue and vice on a continuum. Like Aristotle did.
To humanize both your protagonist and your antagonist, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from and how they got to where they are.
For your hero — think about their biggest virtue.
Maybe they’re just very nice.
Or maybe they’re brave. Or noble. Or honest.
What happens when you take ‘nice’ too far? You get a doormat, right? You get someone whose vice is that they can’t stand up for themselves.
A bravery? Taken too far, bravery becomes recklessness.
Nobility taken too far becomes arrogance.
Honest leads to cruelty.
Your hero’s failing is probably connected pretty closely to the thing that makes them most heroic.
For your villain — turn it around.
If your villain is cruel, maybe the root of that cruelty lies in honesty.
Or maybe there’s someone that they’re nice to (maybe just in their own way.) Just one person can be the difference between a fully-developed character and a caricature.
Maybe the thing that humanizes your antagonist is in their past — their virtue might have come so far too the vice side that they can’t turn back now.
But Darth Vader loved his wife. And Hannibal Lecture was extremely intelligent. Those are the reasons why they are such incredible villains.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.