People are paradoxes. Choose any real person you know and try to describe them, and you’ll likely come up with a pattern like “very x and y, but surprisingly also z.”
When I’m having trouble developing characters, I sometimes go as far back to basic as possible. That means taking a list of dozens of character attributes and more or less playing roulette with them. If I want to start off simple, I go with three traits: two that complement each other, and one that seems to mismatch completely.
For example, let’s say I need a supporting character and all I know is I want someone snarky. What complements snarky? Lots of things: witty, fun, abusive, clever, crass, critical, pessimistic. I think I’ll make this character critical of others, which comes across in his snarky comments. Now, what trait would be totally unexpected in a critical, snarky person? I’ll take the exact opposite of one of my complementary terms: optimistic.
That seems like a difficult combination to pull off, right? May, you’re some kind of writing masochist.
But characters who fit too nicely into a personality mold aren’t interesting. More importantly, they aren’t real. I’d rather read about a critical, snarky optimist and find out why he’s like that, than read about a critical, snarky pessimist whose past is basically spelled out in his scowl.
Sure, May, but how exactly do you write someone like that?
I clung to the cliff face, heart pounding, though hell if I knew where all that blood was going since I couldn’t feel my fingers. Jork dangled above me, staring down into the abyss as though wondering, of all things, where in that darkness his cigarette lighter had fallen.
“You could look a bit more worried,” I said. “Or angry, or you know, anything other than calm.”
He shrugged. “You want me to tell you how you effed up? How you somehow managed to get tricked by a little girl with a bag of dynamite who obviously wasn’t the coconut seller she claimed to be?”
“Cuz I’d be hanging here all night if I did that.”
“How is it,” I asked through clenched teeth, “that you can be so negatively analytical about everything else and then have no logical response to falling off a cliff?”
“Just because I don’t trust people doesn’t mean I don’t trust in the universe to get us out of here.”
I tapped my forehead against the rock. “In one direction or another.”
Written in roughly five minutes, but you get the point. 🙂
For some help coming up with personality traits, here’s a handy generator from a site with many other handy generators.
Got a paradoxical character? Feel free to share them in the comments!