Given the plethora of books, TV series, and films available nowadays, there is a danger that stories and the characters that inhabit them become stale and repetitive—poorly disguised imitations of themselves. It’s therefore important that we find a way to make them fascinating and colourful to avoid turning them into mere cliches.
One way to make a character more fascinating is to inject paradoxical elements into his or her personality. In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, quotes the novelist Leonard Tourney on the subject: Tourney writes “Characters are more interesting if they are made of mixed stuff, if they contain warring elements. To create these warring elements, you begin by establishing one, then asking, ‘Given this element, what elements are there in the same person that would create in that person a kind of conflict?” A ruthless hit man who donates all his money to a foundation for war veterans is an example.
“Paradoxical characters make for fascinating stories.”
But an all-out war between traits, however, is not the only way to create paradoxes—your character/s could merely display an unexpected conjunction of personality tendencies, habits, hobbies, or interests:
In A Fish Called Wanda, Otto is presented as nervous, dumb and jealous, yet he meditates and reads Nietzsche. This is surprising, which makes the character instantly more fascinating.
In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character, Will, recently paroled from jail and now a janitor at M.I.T, solves a difficult math problem posted on a blackboard that has stumped everyone else. Although this is not necessary a display of contrary traits, it does make us wonder why such a smart man ended up in jail and now works as a janitor.
To quote Seger, “Human nature being what it is, a character is always more than just a set of consistencies. People are illogical and unpredictable. They do things that surprise us, startle us, change all of our preconceived ideas about them.”
As writers we should seek to do no less.
Characters who display paradoxical or unexpected traits, traits that have been skillfully selected, make for fascinating stories.