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.
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?