Character Development: Balancing the Good with the Bad

By Marcia Thornton Jones

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ a lot lately--but don't worry, I'll stick to talking about story characters in this post!

In fiction, I think the best stories are those in which tension is developed between a protagonist and an equally matched antagonist. After all, if the antagonist is too weak, there will be no suspense about whether or not the protagonist will achieve his/her goal. On the other hand, if the antagonist is too strong, then it might not be believable when the protagonist thwarts the antagonist in the climactic scene. Adding to that, if the protagonist is all good, you run the risk of him/her coming across as a goody-two-shoes, and if the antagonist is all bad s/he comes across as a flat character. Developing rounded characters that create plot tension is all about finding a believable balance. I found that the following journaling exercises are not only fun, but they’re also helpful for creating that important balance between the good and the bad.

Character Development: Balancing the Good with the Bad

  1. List 5 negative qualities of the antagonist. Then list 5 positive qualities. Do the same for the protagonist. Write a brief scene in which the antagonist demonstrates a positive quality and the protagonist demonstrates a negative characteristic.
  2. What does the protagonist absolutely detest about the antagonist? Write a brief scene in which the protagonist exhibits that very quality and suddenly recognizes it in him/herself.
  3. What does the protagonist envy about the antagonist? Write a brief scene in which the protagonist wishes s/he could be like the antagonist in that way.
  4. Write a scene showing the protagonist being heartless. In the same scene, or in another scene, show the antagonist being compassionate.
  5. Write a scene in which the antagonist makes a convincing case for why s/he is actually right…and the protagonist experiences self-doubt (or write a scene in which an ally of the protagonist points out why the antagonist isn’t entirely wrong).

February is a good month for finding balance. Maybe these journaling prompts can help you balance the good and the bad when developing well-rounded story characters that create tension by being equally matched!

(Hmmm. I wonder what would happen if I applied these to real-life people and situations?)


  1. Great tips Marcia. I often struggle with my protagonist being too "good". Got to get writing...

  2. I've been thinking about this, too--mostly, about making the "bad guy" have redeeming qualities...

  3. Ooh, I love these! Number two is especially relevant to me in my own life - that uncanny moment when I realize I'm exhibiting the very qualities I detest in another. Thanks for a great post.


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