In looking at writing articles yesterday, I found a mention of Virginia Woolf having talked about finding ways to infuse contradictions into your characters (http://airshipdaily.com/blog/03102014-virginia-woolf-writing-advice) and it occurred to me that this is an area where most of us, wherever we are on our writing journey, could practice more.
In real life, the contradictions within people we know can be both fascinating and a source of difficulty. People say they want one thing and then do something that ensures they won’t get it. It happens all the time. When it’s our loved ones, it can be mind-boggling, saddening, and even infuriating.
How do we manage to hold within ourselves so many conflicting impulses? If we want X and Y and they’re mutually exclusive, does that mean we don’t feel entitled to one or the other? Why don’t we have sense enough to want whichever of the two is healthier? Are we paying lip service to what society thinks we should desire? Is one or the other urge unexamined, something we talk about but haven’t seriously considered?
The answer to many of the above questions, at any given time can be yes. And then, in a heartbeat, it can become no.
This may all sound like it’s on the edge of descending into something more along the lines of a self help essay, but the friction between what characters want and the choices they make are part of what drives good stories.
Creating contradictions within characters can be especially tricky, I think, because we aren’t necessarily all that good at seeing our own foibles, flaws and inconsistencies. As a result, one of the useful things a writer might ask about a character is: how is this person not like me?
Let’s face it: fictional characters are drawn from the well of the self, the author’s own personality and experience, or their interpretations of people they know. We’re doing literary impressions of our bosses, father-in-laws, BFFs, and Margaret Thatcher. It sounds good, but when the going gets tough and the plot gets rolling, many characters will end up reacting to story obstacles just as the author would.
So, when your characters reach crisis points, ask yourself: What would I do? Then see if you can get your imaginary friends to go down some other, perhaps darker, road.
(Alternately, ask yourself what any sane, sober or sensible person would do, when confronted with whatever problem faces them. Can the character be given a legitimate reason to do something extremely different?)
The idea here is a simple one: it’s to create character friction by deliberately resisting the current of your own personality.
The protagonist of my first novel, Indigo Springs, is named Astrid Lethewood and like a number of my heroines, she’s fundamentally tightlipped. If she is struggling with something, she’s apt to keep her mouth shut rather than confiding in anyone. She’ll even hold back information sometimes, until she either feels she has a grip on the problem or has lost control of it entirely.
In my day to day life, I am a big proponent of the general concept that if you haven’t got anything useful (and preferably nice) to say, STFU. And being a little taciturn isn’t a bad thing… if you’re me, living my life. But Astrid’s attempting to clean up an enormous magical spill with the aid of hundreds of people. Shutting them out isn’t her best move.
So, on the upside: conflict achieved.
But I don’t want all of my protagonists to be cautious and reticent. So when it came to be time to create Sophie, the heroine of Child of a Hidden Sea, I decided to actively work against this particular tendency. Sophie overshares. There’s hardly a thought that crosses her mind that isn’t out of her mouth a minute later. She rants, she asks questions, she freaks out when she’s upset and she emphatically doesn’t keep her own counsel.
She’s wildly different from most of my female protagonists, and she has very different problems. It was a fun and illuminating exercise.
Another–possibly simpler–way to try to give a character this same kind of charged focus is to do the following fill in the blank exercise:
My main character is basically an (angry, sad, confused, unemotional, analytical, homicidal, your adjective here) person.
Take that second adjective — say it’s “angry”– and ask yourself: what would an angry person do in this situation, on this page, with these people?
The goal here is not to make every character trait showcase how completely different from you your characters are. That’s impossible, in the first place, and undesirable in the second. Part of writing is about sharing the human experience. You are the only human experience you’re ever going to have.
Rather, this is an exercise in considering all of the options. Of questioning your default assumptions for behavior in any given situation. Of pushing your own boundaries, and giving yourself a little room to create people who do things you would never consider in a million years.
It’s not the only way to get to some character nuance. And it doesn’t always work: sometimes a character need to do exactly what you would in a given circumstance. Very few people are going to sprint over the edge of a cliff just because you don’t want to die a horrible falling death, right?
Stay away from high embankments; I’ll be back next week.
A. M. Dellamonica has recently moved to Toronto, Canada, after 22 years in Vancouver. In addition to writing, she studies yoga and takes thousands of digital photographs. She is a graduate of Clarion West and teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her most recent book, Child of a Hidden Sea, will be released by Tor Books this month. She is the author of over thirty short stories in a variety of genres: they can be found on Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and in numerous print magazines and anthologies. Her website is at http://alyxdellamonica.com.