The Dichotomy of a Great Character


What does a pirate who is afraid of water have in common with a thief who has a conscious or a snowman who loves summer? What about that monster who is innocent and wants to be loved? That vampire who detests human blood? That sister who wants to save a life but must kill to do it?

At a conference awhile back I heard an agent talk about internal contradictions in characters. Basically, she claimed that the greatest characters, the ones who keep coming back around, are those with the greatest internal and external dichotomy –what they do contrasts with who they are.

This contradiction causes tension and conflict. We are being pulled to opposite ends. It begs resolution. How can we bring these two sides together so there is peace?

The agent discussed both classic and modern characters – I remember having my mind blown as I saw exactly what she was talking about and how it affected me as a reader and writer. I wish I could remember all of her examples, but I can’t, here are a few though… Frankenstein, Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (*the teenage ditz who cares only about shopping called to a powerful destiny), Katniss Everdeen, Captain Jack Sparrow (the pirate and a good man).

After the conference I brainstormed even more famous characters with that great contrast – even Jesus, who has unrefutably been around for a while and mimicked in tons of literature, is one of the greatest contrasts of all. He has all the power in the world to stop his death, but he knows he cannot use it if he wants to save the ones he loves. Can you imagine the reader? You have power to stop what’s happening to you? Why don’t you use it? Oh, the tension! Don’t we see this conflict in fiction all the time?

So what’s your character’s internal contradiction? Who are they and what do they struggle with in their identity? What opposite ends divide them?

If you can do this, you may just have the next classic character!

Nova signing off from China

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