It’s all about the but
noun: contradiction; plural noun: contradictions
- A combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another.
- A person, thing, or situation in which inconsistent elements are present.
- The statement of a position opposite to one already made.
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.
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