1.05.2017

Unexpected Opposites

Devising original characters is a challenge for an author. Stereotypes abound in every field of fiction, such as the strong, silent man or the chatty, sarcastic woman. When writing out scenes for a stock character, an author can find that the connection comes easily, but the results are same-same. Same as so many other books, screenplays, etc. It’s like a rock singer who turns the microphone toward the audience to sing the chorus of a familiar hit.

How can you reach beyond the tried and true? One way is to combine personality traits in novel ways. Let’s take the example of a shy person. The accompanying adjectives that come to mind are insecure, mumbling, or timorous. If you identify a quality that doesn’t fit the mold, though, you can broaden your approach. For instance, a shy person can still be confident. Such a character is underestimated, surprising, even threatening in his surges of power. That opens a lot of possibilities in both plotting and scene work.

Or take the opposite type: the extrovert. Ideas that come quickly to mind are articulate, commanding, or charismatic. Yet that assemblage too may lead, down the road in the manuscript, to boredom. You can almost hear echoes of a TV sitcom star. So, again, reach for the uncommon combination. What about an awkward extrovert? The woman was born with her foot in her mouth—and she won’t shut up. She keeps on plaguing those around her with her unwanted utterances.

Such basic contradictions are only a starting point. You can compose a character that essentially fits a predictable mold—because he needs to wield a gun, say—but then assign a drawback, along the lines of a tragic flaw. A married businessman, bored with his straight-ahead success, is lured by his pubescent fascination for dressing in women’s clothes. A prostitute is attracted to a far-right evangelical sect. An action-adventure actor starts quoting from Proust.

Beyond creating a character that stands out as different, you are also providing richness in the characterization. Inherent in opposition is tension. You juxtapose character qualities in the same way you juxtapose characters. Considering how much time we all spend fighting our compulsions, you are mirroring the complexity that makes life interesting.

Exercise: Once you have chosen two opposing character traits, try to think of the most extreme examples of where they could lead. What’s the worst thing an awkward extrovert could blurt out, under which circumstances? Who is the worst person to expose that cross-dresser? See if you can work up scenes and then judge whether the character can still hang together as a congruent whole.

“Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin.”
—Hermann Hesse

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