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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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