Monday 31 March 2014

Story, Character and Contradiction

Human beings are full of contradictions. We want what we don’t have. We get tired of what we struggled to get. We say one thing but do another.

It’s not just people who behave this way, throughout the universe things are happening that aren’t supposed to be happening. We think we know how something works and then it does something completely different.

We like patterns, we like working out the rules and being able to predict events. But there’s always an exception to the rule. An anomaly will arise. The unexpected will turn up with alarming regularity. And when this happens our reaction is to take a closer look. We are fascinated by contradiction and want to examine it for answers, even when there are none to be had.

This urge is powerful and is just as strong in the fictional world as it is in the real one.

If I tell you story a man who escaped from prison that could be a very interesting story, but if I tell you he escapes from a prison that was built on the claim that it was escape-proof and that this man was the only one to ever break out, that’s the same story but the framing of the premise makes it a lot more attention-grabbing (or at least it would if you hadn’t already heard it a million times).

The maiden voyage of the Titanic is a great tragedy that has become part of our cultural history (despite that terrible film) but part of its legend is that it was a boat specifically launched under the title of ‘unsinkable’. And then it sank on its first time out. That’s a massive contradiction that immediately captures the attention.

Not that contradiction has to be quite so on the nose. If my prison story is about a petty criminal who gets put in a high security jail and ends up learning all the tricks of the trade from the greatest criminal minds in the country emerging as an expert in all things illegal, then the contradiction there is simply that prisons aren’t supposed to make you better at crime.

Of course just because a contradiction exists doesn’t mean it’s going to automatically produce an engaging story. But if you can find the contradictions in your characters and their adventures and show them to the reader, it will make for a much quicker connection.

Not only does it trigger the part of the brain that wants to know why things aren’t happening the way they’re supposed to, it also makes the character in the middle of all this much more relatable. We have all experienced the contradictory nature of the universe, we have all done things we know we shouldn’t and faced issues by doing the exact opposite of what we always said we would.

It’s part of our nature to experience the world both as we would like it to be and how it actually is. What we believe, what we know, what we stand for and what we end up doing can all be completely opposite to each other and yet exist side by side.

Consider a story about a woman who isn’t happy about the way she looks and decides to lose weight. Her story is one of struggles with insecurity, self-worth and chocolate cake. All very relatable stuff.

Now consider a character who strongly believes in feminism and that women shouldn’t conform to some unrealistic and unhealthy body image. And yet when she looks in the mirror she doesn’t like what she sees. She looks at other women and they seem so much more attractive and happy. She joins Weight Watchers under a pseudonym.

Both stories are ostensibly about the same thing, but the clash with her own beliefs makes for an intrinsically more interesting character. It isn’t just that there’s more going on in that one, it’s that she’s finding herself doing the exact thing she tells others not to. That isn’t just coincidence, it’s part of our psychology. That’s why the politician who is most vociferous about the dangers of homosexuality is the one caught in a bathroom stall with another man, and the priest screaming about helping the poor is the one found to be embezzling all the church funds.

Not only is it a basic quality of being human, it is a huge relief to realise we aren’t the only ones filled with this ridiculous need to do things we know we shouldn’t. Which makes it an incredibly attractive thing to read about.

If I wrote about a hitman, a coldblooded killer wanted by every police force in the world, would you be more interested if he were an emotionless and disciplined man living a monastic, militaristic life as befitting his profession, or would you be more intrigued if his home was filled with exotic plants he cared for by singing to them and telling them stories?

There’s no reason why either story couldn’t be great, but in terms of drawing in a reader with minimal information, as soon as you mention the contradiction you are guaranteed at least a prick of curiosity.

This ability of contradiction to hook a reader can also be abused. You can establish an outlandish contradiction and never really follow through. The hitman cares deeply for his plants and that’s it, just a bit of colourful background.

How you use the contradiction to deepen and build your character is something each writer has to develop for themselves. But you should be aware that this resource exists and is available to you in just about any context you choose to employ.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.



Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sounds like finding the contradictions might be even more fun than coming up with the story.

Sweeper of Dreams said...

^I second that!
Cool post.

Catherine Stine said...

Great post! Certainly, characters with some contradictions are more 3D and real. I laughed at that picture too.

Patricia Stoltey said...

The hitman who relates to and is kind to kids, the beloved father of ten who bullies his work subordinates....the idea is intriguing. I could spend a lot of time just trying to come up with story ideas based on this excellent post. THanks!

mooderino said...

@alex - a fun game.

@sweeper - cheers.

@Catherine - adds a more interesting dimension to them.

@Patricia - a lot of the time fairly obvious ideas will pop into your head, but when you think of a good one it canbe very satisfying.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I had done it once for a short story, mentioned an outlandish contradiction and did not follow through it. As you said, it became a colourful background information with nothing else to it :(

David P. King said...

Too true. An important insight that characters may not be satisfied with what they seek to achieve. Throwing elements like that into a story make for good reading. :)

Anonymous said...

Great post! Made me think of the movie The Professional with Jean Reno. He cared for his plant and drank milk and yet he killed people for a living. The plant also features prominently from beginning to end.

Stephen Tremp said...

I love internal conflict and how group dynamics can change the best of friends into treacherous enemies that will kill or be killed. That's my kind of conflict.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - I've done it too, seemed like a good idea at the time and then just forgot about it.

@David - good for thickening the plot also.

@Missy - a good film.

@Stephen - some people will go to great lengths to avoid admitting the truth.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

It's not always easy to write the contradictions, but it certainly makes for interesting reading.

Al Diaz said...

I am so contradictory in so many ways and never thought on this for character building. What a contradiction!

Denise Covey said...

Yes, why shouldn't our characters be contradictory when we are such contradictory beings?

Unknown said...

Yup. If we all agree and everything made sense, life would be boring.

Unknown said...

Brilliant post about character, challenges, and contradictions. I'm tying hard to shoehorn a contradictory character arc into my WIP now. Wish me luck!

mooderino said...

@Lynda - makes a character much more engaging I think.

@Al - we are all full of contradictions so why not the characters we write?

@Denise - exactly.

@Lexa - luck!

Chemist Ken said...

Sounds like good advice, but I wonder if I'll be able to make use of it. I tend to think in very linear patterns (probably comes from being a chemist), so I naturally try to develop plots and characters that make logical sense to me, and trying to work in contradictions is something that's not second nature to me, even though I know I'm surrounded by them all the time in real life. Thanks for the idea.

Sarah Allen said...

Oooh, great post, as always. It's one of the reasons characters like Ben Linus from lost are my favorite. He was so manipulative and greedy but also so protective and caring of his daughter.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Leslie S. Rose said...

I try to mix it up whenever I catch myself falling into patterns. It's so easy to do. Love those contradictions you never see coming in stories.

mooderino said...

@Ken - it's the sort of thing that tends to strike home when you see it in action. When people you know do it, make a note and use it in your next story (with changed names, of course).

@sarah - good example. Villains can gain a lot of depth (and even empathy) through contradictions.

@Leslie - a well worked contradiction can be very satisfying.

nutschell said...

Contradictions make a story more exciting! But it has to be done well, otherwise the reader might think the author is forcing his characters to act in a way they shouldn't normally act. :D Another great post, Mood!


Margo Kelly said...

I agree with Alex above. Sometimes coming up with the contradictions and conflicts is the FUN part of writing a story! :) Great post.

mooderino said...

@nutschell - yep, it's just the set up, you still have to come through on the pay off.

@Margo - anything that makes writing more fun is aces with me.

Trisha said...

I definitely prefer characters to not be black and white, no matter what direction their character goes in.

Lydia Kang said...

I love contradictions in characters. That can be so incredibly telling. There was on character in the HBO series The Wire, who was a drug dealer and a pretty ruthless killer, but he had a dozen fishtanks and adored his fish like they were his children. It was amazing to see.

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