Writing Characters as Paradoxical People


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?”

“Well–“

“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!

Too Much Depth


If you’ve ever taken a class (or gone to a workshop, or browsed online articles) for writing advice, you’ve been subjected to the Laws of Character Development.

§ 18(2) art. 12: Thou shalt not have cardboard characters.

§ 327 art. 96: All characters shall have motivation for their actions.

§ 843 art. 2: No character is to ever have the name Bob, Bella, Mary Sue, or Vagastagnakor — unless it is a means of making their lives utterly traumatic or to bring the joy of irony to the reader.

No amount of awesome plot can make up for lack of character depth. No depth means no motivation, no sympathy, no interest.

Okay, I don’t need to repeat what innumerable others have already said. I’ll be hitting this topic from the opposite side of the field.

Some character-building worksheets go into excruciating detail. They want you to know your protagonist’s favorite brand of cereal, or what flavor gum they carry in their backpack. And while this is nice for discovering little attributes that you never would have considered otherwise, it can also lead you down a dangerous road of over-developing your character. Is knowing that Bridget likes watermelon bubble gum important to anything in the story? Is there even any reason why she should prefer watermelon over every other flavor?

Sometimes too much development, and hence too much depth, can actually… tangle up the story.

This is exactly what happened to me, even though at the time I wasn’t even consciously developing Bridget’s character. I had her strengths and her weaknesses; I had her flaws, her ticks, her dreams and hopes and fears. Her backstory grew organically from these; I realized only after finishing the second draft of Ciphers that I’d been hinting at a milestone event in her past all along.

As soon as this revelation occurred, however, certain actions of hers that didn’t stem from how this event changed her stopped making sense. I found myself thinking, “Why would she do this? True, I gave her this character trait early on, and it’s not like this trait and that one (the one influenced by that major event) are mutually exclusive in real people…”

Ah, in real people.

Real people are seldom defined by a single event in their lives; we take in millions of little influences every day, from friends, family, strangers, and celebrities. A thirty-second ad on TV can be the difference between going out and ordering in, as well as every little thing we’re exposed to as a result of that decision. Sometimes these little things define us more than the big things. At the very least they define us just as much.

Fictional characters don’t have the luxury of experiencing a ton of little things off-screen, or even on-screen really. So they can only be defined by the milestones: big achievements, big failures, traumatic events, the most influential people around them, like parents. And because we have this limitation, our view of them must be appropriately limited so as not to confuse the readers.

And trust me, if your character has a certain personality trait, there had better be a good reason for it — even if that reason is never fully revealed to the reader. As long as the author knows the character’s backstory, the readers will find hints to it in the writing, and they’ll still be able to feel like they can relate to the character.

But the character’s backstory, motives, and actions must be coherent. And coherency is easy to lose when you start bringing out personality traits that don’t fit in with the defining event of their lives, or vice versa. It can also disappear fast when there are too many defining events squeezed in, making for a set of traits that you may as well have chosen by throwing darts. Now, keep in mind that you can have multiple events if they all contribute, as a group, to a single set of traits. Or a secondary event sealing in the character a trait which the first one had only set to budding.

So here are some new entries for that law book:

1) All major personality traits and motivations should be coherent with the character’s backstory.

2) Backstory should consist of one or two defining events.

3) Multiple events should serve only to reinforce the same set of resulting traits or motivations.

 

Thoughts? Questions? Rebuttals? Give me your words in the comments section!

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