How can I portray a character who does not actively seek attention, but is still vain and self-superior?

Since I don't know how much information you will need, I will list everything I think might be relevant below, so you can choose what you think matters to read:

Plot overview

Some monsters attack Earth, the protagonist boy discovers his fancy new power and is taken by a bunch of good aliens. Good aliens tell the boy that there are bad aliens that want to attack Earth, and they must train the boy to defeat the bad aliens. The character in question is one of the good aliens

Basic biography

Character in question is not the protagonist, but the most important non-protagonist character, if not more important than the protagonist himself.

This character is named Alice, she is female with no stereotypically feminine traits. She is 17-20 years old. Her parents are the good alien's leaders. She was raised as an experimental super-soldier in preparation for the war with the bad alien.

Oh, and even though Alice is an alien specimen, consider her to be identical to be a normal human being only raised in a different society, because the good aliens' bodies and psychology has no important difference from that of human beings.

Tone and atmosphere

The atmosphere is pessimistic and grim-dark-ish, because the bad aliens are unimaginably strong and seemingly infinitely numerous, while the good aliens are weak and have been hunted for generations, with one crushing defeat over another. The good aliens' society is not what most modern readers would consider ideal either—they are utilitarian and fascist, like District 13 from the Hunger Games trilogy.

As to the Earthlings, they are just helplessly struggling in chaos and have no significance to the story beside something that the protagonist thinks he's trying to protect.

More about Alice

Alice herself is pessimistic, selfish and cynical, with no desire to help her species nor empathy for anyone specifically; however, being an experimental super-soldier and one of the expected inheritors of leadership, she is also the focal point of the good aliens' remaining hope.

She enjoys this kind of attention, but find the people paying her such notice to be foolish and merely amusing. With such an attitude and social position, she believe herself to be superior in intellect and power, hence the arrogance.

Role in book and plot

Alice is the character foil of the protagonist, or vise versa—where the protagonist boy (currently unnamed but may be referred to as "Bob") is innocent, superficially altruistic and acting upon emotional impulses. Alice is cynical, calculatingly selfish and acts only so as to advance her own welfare.

When the good aliens adopt Bob as a tool to deploy against the bad aliens, Alice feels her previous prestige and attention were taken away, and is thus somewhat spiteful towards Bob. She is also aware, with some of this awareness extending beyond the fourth wall, that the arrival of Bob into the midst of the good aliens' society is like the arrive of Neo amongst Morpheus's team, like it is in The Matrix, which implies that she will inevitably become a support character like Trinity, something she strongly despises. Yet, being the most successful of the super-soldier program, she must train alongside Bob and is obliged to sometimes offer guidance.

Alice will eventually enter a redemption arc, but that is after it is necessary to portray her as a passive yet arrogant person.

  • 1
    Did you really mean "passively arrogant" or passive-aggressive? These are not the same.
    – user23046
    Apr 10, 2017 at 0:40
  • 5
    @RobtA: Princess Leia: "I love you." Han Solo: "I know."
    – SF.
    Apr 10, 2017 at 10:00

3 Answers 3


A character is a bundle of desires. They are defined first by their primary desire: the thing that is driving their action in the story. Second, they are defined by their secondary desires, the things that shape or limit how they pursue their primary desire.

Tom wants to win an athletic scholarship so he can go to college. A scout will be at the big game on Saturday. But the coach is planning to start his nephew Joe instead. What will Tom do? Will he break Joe's leg in an alley? Bribe Joe to give up the spot? Manfully cheer Joe on from the sidelines? These questions depend on Joe's secondary desires – does he want to be seen as honorable, or to see himself that way? Etc.

The genre does not matter. You portray a character through what drives them, the things they want, and the things they are willing to do to get what they want.

Don't fall into the trap of inventing a character as the intersection of various psychological descriptors. Define characters in terms of desires. Characters in a story can never just be, they must act. Desire drives action. Define your characters in terms of their desires.

  • 1
    Well said, but would it be possible to construct a character without any strong "primary desires"? Specifically, the character I try to portray is a nihilist and a hedonist, in that she does not see any meaning in long-term pursuits. Would such a character be possible with simple modification of your paradigm or would radical authorial actions be needed?
    – user289661
    Apr 8, 2017 at 19:13
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    I think it would be helpful therefore to understand where you see the potential "redemption arc" planned for Alice. That implies that, deep inside, there is something that she does want. For example, you mention that she will be somewhat jealous of Bob - perhaps she does want to feel appreciated for her accomplishments, but because she was bred as an experimental super-soldier she does not feel it is she who is being appreciated, but rather the science that created her? This is only one example of what might be driving her. What is the direction you had planned? Apr 8, 2017 at 20:49

The way I did it when one of my character was (temporarily) suffering from an over-inflated ego was to change his assumptions. Questions about the world disappeared and were replaced by certainty that there was only one interpretation and he knew it.

So, faced with an angry crowd, he never stopped to ask what made them angry. He knew it and immediately acted accordingly. He was wrong and things went south, but he adapted the facts, not his belief. Instead of saying "oops, I was wrong", it was "ok, they are THIS angry, I need to do more of that same thing.".

An arrogant person is most visible as one who knows all the answers, and thinks that he does everything right.

If you use introspection (as I did), you can show this absolute certainty clearly in the thought process. If you don't, you need to show the character not listening to advise, always knowing everything, not even letting other people finish speaking before he throws in the truth and walks off without waiting for an answer (because what answer could there possibly be?).


Passive arrogance, as others have mentioned, is about believing they know more than others and more than they really know. They are right and being wrong would be a sign of the coming apocalypse. They also would see things in a fashion to benefit them. No benefit, no interest.

I know a guy who likes to tell people all kinds of things that are not correct. He does not listen to others as he knows best and his experience and ‘wisdom’ are unquestioned. He thinks he is kind and generous, but any favour he does is an attempt to gain control over the other person and gain praise from others.

He has elements of arrogance in his personality but does not see it nor believe it should it be pointed out to him. His picayune problems are more important than anyone else’s problems because they are his problems and must be commiserated and solved though he tells others he doesn’t have time to listen or their problems are not important.

Your Alice will not see her arrogance, but will help train Bob as she is the only one who could possibly do so correctly. While Bob might be a Chosen, so is she and she was Chosen first. She will look upon Bob and his Candide tendencies as a severely limited being with little potential. If he is their best hope, they have two problems.

Nothing she will do or say will seem malicious and any sabotage would be inadvertent. The only way Bob can succeed is through her - either directly or indirectly. Only because of her training was he able to do x.

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