Creating a character · Writer basics 101

A foolish inconsistency – round out your characters with contradictions

Think about the people you know. Who are you are most curious about?

It’s not the ones who are most straightforward, although they are probably the easiest company. It’s the enigmas. The ones you can’t pin down, who dance to their own drum.

Consider the guy who’s gruff and abrasive when you talk to him, but surprises you by being fiercely loyal to his friends. Or selfish most of the time, but generous to a fault with a few special people.

More extremely, they might have an edge that makes it difficult to truly know them. Perhaps it’s a seam of aggression that unexpectedly comes out in a harmless discussion. They have secret buttons you don’t discover until you push them.

This crowd make great central characters.

It’s war

To observers, they may seem inconsistent. On the inside of them, it’s war. They feel strong one minute, undermined the next. Humbert Humbert in Lolita loves his own good looks, or is shy, or full of self-loathing. He probably doesn’t even make sense to himself.

They might feel the world is too small for them, but some complex equilibrium keeps them that way. There might be comedy from a character who complains their town is too dull, but won’t kick up a gear – like the Little Britain character   who complains about – and revels in – being the only gay in the village.

Or they might be headed for tragedy. Frank in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road  feels he should be more than a suburban office worker. His wife hatches a plan for them to start a new bohemian life in France, but he gradually gets cold feet and starts scheming to stay. He makes like he’s in jail, but if you gave him the key he wouldn’t use it. But his wife will fight tooth and nail to get out.

Contradictory characters might sabotage themselves. Sheba in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal  also has a sense that something is missing, despite her comfortable, married life. So she begins an affair with a pupil at the school where she teaches.


Contradictory characters might not be liked by the reader – but likability doesn’t keep us reading as much as interest does. In Revolutionary Road, Frank’s contradictions are going to keep us curious. What will he do and how will he justify it? (But our sympathies have to go somewhere, so the author makes sure we feel for his poor, trapped wife.)

What it’s not

Here’s something that isn’t a character contradiction: Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes. It’s certainly fun and it humanises a brave chap, but it’s no more than a physical challenge and has limited potential to cause him trouble. True character contradictions affect life choices, relationships, or make people do things that get them into trouble.

Contradictions at a simple level can round out a character so they aren’t a cardboard cut-out. But the deeply conflicted are story time-bombs.

Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

I haven’t forgotten I owe you a post about blog design, paid-for themes, self-hosting and SEO. But I thought it had been too long since I tackled a meaty writing subject. Fear not, I will be posting more about blogging in the next week or so. And in the meantime, tell me…

How do you use contradictory characters? Do you have a favourite in fiction?

19 thoughts on “A foolish inconsistency – round out your characters with contradictions

  1. You’re spot on with this, Roz. Contradictions in characters are what keep me turning the page, not plain vanilla predictability. I want to puzzle out what’s motivating characters to do things. Harlan Coben seems to have characterization honed to perfection, and he sometimes uses unexpected behaviors to create his next compelling plot twist. In the end, he leaves the reader wondering if the good guy was really a bad guy or vice versa. I love it!

  2. Hi Roz! I’m with TeacherWriter – you’re spot on. Two of my central characters are walking contradictions (and in fact contradiction is a big theme in my novel). One of them is a psychotic Englishman and a serial killer, who was an African-American pacifist Christian in his past life. I found I was able to introduce facets into his character that would not normally be associated with a psychopath for that reason.

      1. Sooner than you think! I’m about to sort out a WordPress blog today. The book’s been published as of two days ago. 😀

          1. It’s called ‘Systems – A Novel’. You’ll find it on smashwords for now. I’ll post the url (to the blog) in my name when I have it.

  3. I definitely love contraddictions in characters both when I read and when I write. I feel like they make the characters more real, as nothing in life is all white or black, so nobody behaves coherently all the time. Of course we (writers) tend to “exaggerate” a bit this fact, but it’s just because we are writing fiction 🙂
    Actually my stories comes from something contraddictory that my characters do, which (hopefully) arises a lot of curiosity in the reader, who wants to know why he/she is behaving this way. Moreover using contraddictions is a way to surprise the reader, because they are not predictable.

  4. “It’s the enigma.” Oh, yes! What a lovely way to say it. Curiosity is the greatest motivation for reading that’s ever existed.

    1. Hello Victoria (quick hug to celebrate your new, and rapidly filling bookshelves). I remember having a very entertaining discussion at a novel-writing group about whether likability was more important or curiosity. Most of them didn’t want to admit that it was the latter.

  5. I like that and its certainly something that some of my older characters are missing. If I go back over them one of these days, that’s definitely something I’ll try working into them. 🙂

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