How to Write Paradoxical Characters

Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich
Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich

 

 

Paradoxical characters arise from the complexity of life itself. A paradox, in this sense, represents a deeply baffling complexity in a character navigating through life.

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

Paradoxes do not negate the consistencies, they simply add to them. Characters are more interesting if they are made up of mixed stuff, if they have warring elements.

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

Why Paradoxical Characters are Good Characters

In the film Erin Brockovich, for example, Erin’s paradoxes include her desire to succeed professionally, juxtaposed against her need to take care of her children.

Her trailer-trash sexuality versus her ability and commitment to fight a huge corporation.

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.

Summary

Paradoxical characters are an important part of creating vibrant, interesting, and authentic stories.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

2 thoughts on “How to Write Paradoxical Characters”

  1. 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. 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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