How to Write Paradoxical Characters

Paradoxical Characters: Erin Brockovich
Paradoxical Characters: Erin Brockovich

Paradoxical characters spring from the ever-present complexity of life itself. Paradoxical behaviour, in this sense, arises from conflicting values and traits in an otherwise likeable character.

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger writes:

To create warring elements, begin by establishing a strong characteristic in one direction then asking: ‘Given this element, what other elements might there be in the same person that would create conflict?’

In the film Erin Brockovich, for example, Erin’s paradoxes include:

  1. Her deep desire to succeed professionally, juxtaposed against her need to take care of her children.
  2. Her trailer-trash sexuality versus her ability and commitment through a lack of resources to fight a huge corporation.
  3. Her foul language and aggression juxtaposed against her desire to assist people find their way through the complex legal system.

In The Matrix, Neo is a hacker and merchant who is wanted by the law, yet, he is the one chosen to save humanity. The irony is not lost on the audience who, despite this, see him as a kind of modern day Christ figure.

If we think hard enough about the people we know we will find some fine examples of paradoxes drawn from real life. It’s part of the fabric of character: the bible-puncher who is involved with a prostitute, the club bouncer who is putty in his girlfriend’s hands, or the sweet old man with a foul mouth when it comes to dealing with the payment of bills.

Introducing paradoxes, or warring elements, into your characters will inject verisimilitude and interest in the stories you tell.


Paradoxical characters make for vibrant, interesting, and authentic stories.

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2 thoughts on “How to Write Paradoxical Characters

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting post. If I understand it correctly – Paradoxical Characters are characters with various masks for various situations. Like the series Dexter – the anti hero is a serial killer but also a family man. Propaganda can also be used as a filter. In the king’s speech Bertie must convey a image of strength during Britain’s darkest hour. The public image of King George VI can not be depicted as a weak man who has no faith in his own voice. this also applies to the image of the mocking-jay in the hunger games ( there is the character of Katniss Everdeen who must play devil’s advocate and embody the image of the mocking-jay) In a previous post you mention that a single character usefully has four traits. Could it be possible that a Paradoxical Character has two traits that are in direct contradiction with his two remaining traits. Selina Kyle is a interesting Paradoxical Character. She has trust issues and does not allow anyone to get close to her. However she really cares about people who mean something to her – she cares about people but it has to be on her terms and not anyone else’s.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Yes, Selina Kyle is a good example of this paradoxical or contradictionary character, Gerhard. And that’s what makes her interesting!


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