In real life, people don’t have traits that are objectively good or bad. Most character traits are neutral. Strength or weakness is a matter of application. For a fully realized character, flaws and strengths are often one in the same.
Most traits are double-edged swords. Weaknesses tend to be misapplied or unmoderated versions of strengths. The flip-side of kindness is being easy to take advantage of; the flip-side of being free spirited is chafing under authority; the flip-side of being clever is not knowing when to be quiet, often with a side of arrogance. The point is that ‘positive’ character traits do not go away when they stop being strengths.
The same can be said for negative character traits. Anything that makes your villain a pain in the ass. Their obsession with defeating the hero doubles as determination. Their ruthlessness is brutal efficiency, and their selfishness means that they know what they want and they know how to get it. Having their weaknesses double as strengths doesn’t make them good people—these qualities are still misapplied and being used for evil ends—but it does make them more realistic, sympathetic, and capable.
One excellent example of this being done well is Lina from E. Rose Sabin’s A School For Sorcery. When she first appears, she’s a textbook example of the alpha bitch; stubborn, arrogant, and bossy. Initially, this causes a lot of problems for Tria, the main character. Lina neglects her chores, manipulates everyone around her, and monopolizes space in the dormroom that she shares with Tria. However, once the real conflict begins, she becomes a powerful ally while remaining unrepentantly stubborn, arrogant, and bossy. What’s more, these traits are her biggest asset because they mean that she can advocate for herself and Tria when they need it, and come up with solutions that are outside of the rules. Everything that made her a tough rival makes her an even better friend.
Seeing how these characteristics flipped made her more believable and nuanced. It gave her depth beyond the archetypal mean girl by demonstrating that the mean girl could use her powers for good without fundamentally altering her personality. Had she melted into a puddle of kindness and humility, I would have stopped believing her as a character and, more importantly, lost interest in her as a character.
What are your characters’ strengths and weaknesses? How do they line up?