Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Contrast in Characters

"Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things. The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist." ---Margaret Laurence


These words struck me as true. I think that, as writers, we are sometimes tempted to over- simplify characters because we are afraid that a character with too many contradictions in her nature won't be "believable." But sometimes the reason that we are drawn to characters, as writers and as readers, is because of the paradoxes in their personalities. When I first read the above quote, I thought of two things: First, I remembered a more experienced writer who advised me to create antagonists based on people I admired rather than people I hated, because the characters would be that much more interesting and complex. I have tried creating an antagonist based on someone I truly admire, President Obama, and the result was chilling. All the things I found so comforting in an ally--his unflappable calm, his fatherly sense of command, even his devotion to his family-- were truly intimidating in an enemy.
The other thing I thought about when I read this quote was a game I sometimes play in the car. I will read the bumper stickers on the cars around me and try to get a sense of who the owner of that car is trying to present herself to be. Then I'll try to think of something that contradicts that image and imagine a character based on that. For a simple example, that woman with all the pro-life stickers has had an abortion. When? Why? Or maybe it's just that the guy with the Bart Simpson stickers and the mud-flap girls graduated at the top of his med school class or the teenager with the punk radio station stickers is a violin prodigy or the VW van covered with peace stickers belongs to a former army general. I like to imagine what life circumstances would create these characters. I know that we can not make our characters as complex as real people-- this is fiction and a certain degree of simplification is necessary-- but I still find it interesting
when characters contradict themselves a bit.

1 comment:

Robbie Knutson said...

Excellent point. It's easy to hate the Orc, or the slavering homicidal maniac, but it's even easier to forget them. Clearly admirable villains are the ones that really get under your skin and stick around in your head for a while, if not forever. (Hannibal Lector's massive intellect and charming demeanor almost made you want to invite him over for dinner...almost.) I think it's just as true for heroes. Wolverine is the most popular X-man. He's also the most flawed and least friendly. Way to make a point in favor of challenging characters. Cookie cutters are easy but the cookies they make aren't very filling.