“Only by learning to live in harmony with your
contradictions can you keep it all afloat.” –Audre Lorde
Yesterday morning I got dressed in what has become a very
typical outfit for me in the last couple years. My soft cream shirt had lace
trim and a bow at the back. My boots on the other hand were shit-kicking brown
Docs, and what hung from my earrings could only be described as metal spikes.
Now I’m not, nor ever have been, a fashion plate, but the outfit worked for me
for one reason: its contradictions created balance. The look was neither so
sickeningly sweet that I’d drown in my own cotton-candy flavored vomit, nor
edgy enough to leave me looking like a grunge fan who hadn’t realized the
nineties died shortly after Kurt Cobain. Whether the final product was
fashionable, I neither know nor care, but few could deny it was interesting.
I was recently asked which characters I most enjoy writing.
My answer was those with the greatest contradictions, because, like my clothing
choices, I find them interesting. By contradictions, I don’t mean the flaws
that mar an otherwise good (i.e. boring) character, but the duplicities that
leave a reader shaking his head and nodding at the same time. When a writer can
take a character we think we know and have them act in a way that is both
surprising but also believable, that’s using contradiction to create interest.
That’s characterization perfected.
One of my favorite characters to write is Sage, because he
is my main character’s sharpest critic but also her best and most honest ally.
(And no, I still don’t think she should have ended up with him romantically any
more than Harry should have ended up with Hermione. Move on, people.) But Sage
wasn’t always two-sided. When I first started writing, he was just another male
who thought he was superior to my heroine because of his size, strength, and
gift. In other words, he was to me, as he would have appeared to a character
like Alex who just met him. It wasn’t until later in the story (and later in my
writing process) that he revealed another side of himself. At that point he
changed from being fun to write, to being interesting to write (and, hopefully,
I’m certainly not the first writer to discover that contradictions
make for the best characters. Nearly all truly memorable characters in
literature have at least one moment that turns the reader’s head. So how do we
do it as writers? Carefully. If done too soon, the reader may just be confused,
unsure of what is ‘normal’ for the character in question. If done too often,
you may create a character who appears unreliable or unrealistic. Your aim is
to turn heads, not to leave them spinning.
My advice is to take the time to develop your characters. Be
sure of who they are and why they are that way. (Tread lightly on the why,
though, because it likely touches on backstory, which may or may not have a
place in your plot.) When you’re sure your reader is sure, then dig a little
deeper. Find what your characters have been hiding. Find the one person or
thing that can make them act outside of the norm. If it works within the story,
include it. The more subtly you can do this the better. I have a bad habit of
always having another character notice and often comment on the contradiction.
This is likely because I love writing characters who enjoy making others
squirm. For the reader’s sake, though, I know I’d often be better off not
pointing it out, so that the reader could come to their own conclusion and make
their own internal comment on it. I guess my willingness to give advice
contradicts my reluctance to take guidance from others or even myself. You
could say that makes me interesting. Then again, nearly everyone has
contradictions like these.
Therein lies my point: real people are a bundle of
contradictions. Fictional characters are just authors’ images of ‘real people,’
sometimes exaggerated, sometimes understated, but, if done well, always
multi-faceted. If Monday through Friday I can be Mama Bear to my seventh graders,
calling them sweetie (this time of year, because I’ve yet to learn their names)
and smiling even when I want to scream, yet come Sunday turn into a screaming,
swearing football fan who loves the sound of crunching pads almost as much as
that of the fall leaves underfoot, than my characters certainly ought to have
their own contradictions. Contradictions in characters, as in ourselves, aren’t
two opposing forces pulling at one another; they are the differences within us that create the harmony between who we are and who we want to be.