Characters with Contradictions

It’s all about the but



noun: contradiction; plural noun: contradictions

  1. A combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another.
  2. A person, thing, or situation in which inconsistent elements are present.
  3. The statement of a position opposite to one already made.

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Search Google for the word contradiction. The definition that first appears on the web page isn’t a vague description; it is actually quite to the point—as it should be, after all the dictionary is meant to be clear and concise. So, how does contradiction apply to you the writer?

Simple: contradiction is complexity.

I have read and learned from many books about the craft of writing, (Stephen King’s On Writing is my stand out favorite) and countless writing blogs on character development. Some say: you don’t want to have a character that is a cardboard cutout; you want your characters to be three dimensional; you want your characters to be likable. The first two statements are merely complimentary. The latter of the three is just pandering, like the mother that sends her child off to school with cupcakes for the whole class, so the other children will overlook the kid’s snaggletooth smile and play with the poor tike.

In order to engage your reader, don’t make your characters likable, make them relatable. Advice I often hear from author blogs is: give your characters flaws; Give your characters weaknesses; give your characters motivation—even if it’s simply a glass of water; give your characters layers. Contradiction encompasses all of these themes.

Take for instance the debt collector that torments people over the phone for late payments, but can’t pay her own student loan bills and has to work a low income office job just to get by, or the politician with a tough pro-life stance, but is forced to pay for a mistress’s abortion to preserve his candidacy hopes. Think about the thrill seeker that base jumps off of tall bridges, but fears the sound of popping balloons. These are interesting characters because they are in a constant struggle to reconcile their own conscious contradictions.

Giving contradictions to a traditional character archetypes is a great way to freshen up a stale, overused hero, villain or sidekick. Personally, I love the challenge of reinventing an established, tried-and-true, character archetype, and twisting them into such a contradiction that the reader is forced to analyze every step of the narrative to figure out how the character came to being.

Nuns Lighting Cigarettes

There are many characters that drip contradictions in literature, television, movies, and video games that make them— not likable—but relatable. To name just a few:

  • Holden Caulfield, of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, wants to stop time. He wants to be a protector of innocence—a catcher in the rye, as the title would suggest—but also wants to stay innocent himself. Not wanting to grow old, Holden covers the patch of early onset grey hair with a cap which becomes his trademark. As a first person narrative Holden Caulfield is subjective to the environment around him, and it is easy to see the contradiction in his thoughts and actions.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the portrait of the American dream: fame, fortune, and recognition—but Jay Gatsby is reserved and mysterious during the lavish parties at his estate. Gatsby later reveals to, Nick Carraway (the narrator), that his ownership of such gaudy trappings is a ruse to gain the attention of Daisy Buchanan: the object of great obsession to Gatsby; the one thing he can never have.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduces us to a strong female character that defies the stereotypical cheerleader archetype. Buffy is a ditsy high school teenager—but also happens to slay demons when she’s not engaging the football fans in a rousing call to arms.
  • John Haught, a character from my new book The Prick of Time, is a man that works as a CPA for an accounting firm, but has no control over his own finances, and embezzles money to further his own reckless spending. Also, John cheats on his fiancé, but when he admits his own transgressions to her, John is taken aback, and plays the wounded victim when John’s fiancé reveals that she vengefully cheated on John when she became aware of his philandering nature.

Contradictions don’t make a character likable; they make the character real—and therefore relatable. In my personal life, the people that I have the strongest emotions toward (good, or bad) are the people that are so similar to me that it makes me feel uncomfortable as if I will be held liable by their actions—guilty by association if you will. If your reader finds similarities in your characters to themselves it will create an emotional response that is engaging and memorable.

People say this, but do that. People are this, but act like that. Well written characters are no different. Contradictions are everywhere; they make the world interesting and keep you guessing.

It’s about the but

Writing takes time; drafting takes forever.

I brainstormed the idea for The Prick of Time back in 2010. At the time, my creative focus was on spoken word poetry and music writing. I was inspired so strongly that I took a spiral bound notebook to the Irish pub down the street and wrote the first draft over the course of a few hours—and a few pints. I had not written a fully formed story since high school, which I hate to admit was more than 10 years previous to this foray into fiction. I was completely ignorant to the disciplines of writing good prose: proper grammar and mechanics; subject/verb agreement and style; I was even blind to the fact that the story shifted from present tense to past tense—and back again.

Subsequently, the second draft of the story (at the time it was merely called the Stopwatch­, which I later found was too telling of a title) was simply the process of transcribing the handwritten first draft onto the computer and using the spellcheck function. I was excited to share my work and gladly shared the short story with friends and family. I received absolutely no response—it was that bad.

I knew I had a good story; why was it so poorly received? Did I simply engage an unwilling audience? Had the general public become such mindless zombies that they couldn’t understand the beauty of the storytelling if it wasn’t a hit TV sitcom or IMAX movie? It never occurred to me that the reasons for the poor reception to my first piece of writing was because it was simply a poor example of writing. Defeated, I placed my dreams of becoming an author on the back shelf.

Fast-forward two years: I had left drug and alcohol treatment with a chip on my shoulder, and I was ready to take on the world. I was in the honeymoon phase of my recovery, and my optimistic worldview convinced me that the universe was conspiring in my favor; I decided to seize upon the opportunity to write; not merely as a hobby, but as an occupation.

I had about ten or so ideas that I thought would be great fodder for a book. But first, I had to slay the beast that was my first story. I decided I must rewrite the Stopwatch. At first, the rewrite was an attempt to reclaim a piece of my ego that was lost due to rejection. Upon completion of the third draft I thought, this still feels wrong. I scrapped the first three drafts and rewrote the entire manuscript. What I began to figure out was that each time I wrote a new draft, new ideas and new subplots boiled to the surface.

I became a member of a weekly writing workshop facilitated by David Allen Lambert and began to understand the process of writing, from gestation to birth, followed by infancy and into adulthood. I was awestruck by the personification of a work of prose because it fit—natural, organic, and precise.

The fourth draft was pivotal; I had found a theme. Mind you, the end of the story never once changed—only the path to get there. The fifth draft had three variations of one chapter (I choose to take a philosophical direction but I found that it wasn’t necessary and felt preachy and pretentious). I concentrated on making my writing more concise for the fifth draft. On the sixth draft, I tied up some loose ends and finally felt secure in having the completed manuscript checked by Ruben Ruvalcaba—a friend that I trusted in the fine art of proofreading. The seventh draft was what has become the definitive finished work, The Prick of Time. The eighth draft was simply a formality—Smashwords (the website that I used to upload my book to Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Epub, HTML, and other online publishing platforms) was very particular about formatting for e-publication.

In the end, the process of drafting taught me that a good idea is only as good as the attention span it can hold. If you lose your reader in the first few lines of prose—whether because of misspellings, poor mechanics or pace—you lose your reader’s trust; and thus, you lose everything.

the Searchlight Effect

I once heard a joke a long time ago about a drunkard looking for his lost keys under a street light. A police officer comes along and helps the man look for his keys. After a time the police man asked the drunkard, “Are you sure that you lost your keys around here?” To which the drunkard replied, “No, I lost them in the park but the light is better over here.” Amusing but far from the hilarious observations made by the late comedian, Mitch Hedburg.

It was only recently that I discovered the term “the streetlight effect” is used in reference to observational biases in the fields of social sciences and research. Scientists often look for results by taking information that is available instead of taking the time to explore the darker regions of undiscovered sciences. Modest measures are suggested as solutions and then hastily disproved. In other words, the scientists often found someone else’s keys in the light.

I have heard this system of thought applied to the search for extraterrestrials in that cosmologists are searching for signals on a very small spectrum of the overall wavelengths of the universe and that we are very unlikely to find intelligent life using our current flawed system of research techniques. Imagine that radio telescopes are listening for alien EDM (I imagine aliens probably prefer classical music, but for the sake of this argument, the aliens rave at the Andromeda disco) and the Kepler spacecraft is looking for earth like exoplanets that have life similar to our own, but the intelligent life out in the universe is somewhere in the spectrum of non-carbon life. Stephen Hawkin supposed this might be true along with the hypothesis that if there is intelligent life out in the universe that it would likely be malevolent and be stockpiling nukes (his actual words). Oh Stephen, you loveable, lazy, optimist in your tiny, smart car.

So, how does this whole observational bias about a silly drunkard looking for his keys under a street light apply to me, Mr. Brian Philipsen. Other than the drunkard part (which I am happy to say that I am two and a half years sober) I have found that this process of thought applies to me and my process of creative writing. I don’t know if it is true but Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.” When I have trouble finishing a chapter that I am writing because the prose doesn’t fit I simply look to change a few words here and there using a thesaurus as if the problem is that the word doesn’t sound right. The problem isn’t the word I use or even the situation the word is being used in. It is the effect of the writing process that blocks my creative self from effectively communicating my ideas to my deliberate self or the conduit of thought to paper.

I am in the midst of analyzing my writing process and of those around me to discover new pathways for the thought to reach the page and eventually the reader. I know I am a creative person. I have ten stories in a bare-bones and scaffolding kind of outline just waiting to be put on the page. I don’t have any problems with writer’s block (it is more like what to sit down and work on writing first). I have trouble making my words come alive and not sound wish-washy or repeating ideas into redundancy. I understand that I am still finding my voice and this can take years but I hardly patient enough for such a thing.

I have learned in recovery to take it one day at a time and that helps me be mindful of the moment but there is always a nagging self at the back of my mind kicking me in the butt and telling me to make up for lost time. I wasted my twenties getting wasted and not writing, although, I did daydream and brainstorm some very good ideas which are now the brick and mortar for the material I will build my future novels with.

Writers Unite! Is a workshop/writing group I am putting together to figure out all things writing and networking. I have read many books about process and they all give different scenarios and exercises to better the writer but I need something more interactive– something with interaction, experimentation and discussion of results and sharing those conclusions with other like-minded people.  It is my hope that by doing a workshop I will be able to share what I know and learn what works for some and what might get me out of my own tragic opinion of my juvenile prose.