When you think of some of the most iconic characters in film and literature, there’s often an interesting contradiction at the heart of charater.
James Bond is capable of heroic action stunts, but he’s sauve and debonair.
Hannibal Lector eats people, but he can be charming and intelligent.
Dolores Umbridge is a strict rule follower, but her rule following leads her to pure evil.
What is it about characters like this? Why do we find them so palpable and memorable?
Why character contradictions work
The reason I think we find characters like this intriguing is twofold:
- It feels true to life. We all contain multitudes, and a character who can’t be easily put in a box automatically feels more complex.
- It makes us want to know more. When we can’t easily wrap our heads around two facets of a character’s personality, we find it intriguing. We want to know more.
Much like conflict within a novel and competing desires, we read on to try to see how it will be resolved. And when a great character embodies a conflict, we can’t get enough of them.
The challenge of character contradictions
The real challenge with writing characters like this is that you have to find a way to make seemingly contradictory traits believable. You have to find a way to reconcile the differences.
This might mean showing simultaneous character strengths and weaknesses, it might be via a compelling voice, or by crafting a compelling backstory. It’s trickier to make it work, but when you arrive at an interesting character you’ll be amazed how quickly they come alive.
Do you have a favorite character who embodies contradictions? What do you think the author did to make it work?
Take to the comments!
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Art: Augustus Leopold Egg – The Travelling Companions
Eleanor Oliphant in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a great example.
On the one hand, the character wants to be totally independent and not rely on anyone. She doesn’t really like anyone. However, she’s extremely lonely and doesn’t know it, but she needs a real friend, someone she can connect with. Sometimes she scorns beauty products and other times she’s into them. It showed the vulnerability of the character, but it also helped us relate to her. It definitely made her feel real.
Oh… and it’s totally in the title too. Obviously Eleanor is not completly fine or there’d be no story.