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Contradiction and Character


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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

The spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction— the breakthrough of appearances toward an unknown reality. —Jean Cocteau

The Nature and Dramatic Purpose of Contradiction

A contradiction in character is something about a person that piques our interest because it betrays what we expect, given what else we know or observe about him. Like characters who harbor a secret, those exhibiting contradictions instinctively arouse our curiosity, which is why contradiction provides such a useful tool above and beyond considerations of verisimilitude or inventiveness.

In truth, once one trains an eye to seek out contradictions, they can be seen virtually everywhere. They express a seeming paradox of human nature: that people do one thing and exactly the opposite; they’re this but they’re also that. That doesn’t mean everyone lacks integrity or is inauthentic; it means people are intrinsically complex.

Some contradictions are physical, like the bully’s squeaky voice, the ballerina’s chubby knees—or the mother’s “hideous smile of malice” in Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children, or the old woman’s “intimate menacing voice” in Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity.” Ever notice how much more chilling a threat becomes when spoken in a calm, soft voice? (Think Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when she tells Billy Babbit she will inform his mother of his sexual dalliance with one of the girls McMurphy snuck into the ward.)

Some seemingly go no deeper than nicknames—the killer in Richard Price’s Clockers named Buddha Hat—or an otherwise unassuming housewife’s suggestive tattoo, as in John Hawkes’s Travesty. And yet even these seemingly inconsequential incongruities raise a suspicion of unexpected complexity, enigma, or depth.

Some contradictions are dispositional: A man is both garrulous but shy, outgoing but suspicious, brutal but childlike. Omar Little from the TV show The Wire isn’t just a shotgun-toting vigilante who lives by robbing drug dealers—asked how he earns his money, he replies, “I rip and run”—he’s also an open homosexual who treats his lovers with startling affection and tenderness.

The ultimate effect of amny such contradictions is that we never know exactly which aspect of the whole personality will assert itself in any given situation. This in turn creates tension almost every time that character appears in a scene. (Caveat: When Omar is carrying his shotgun, we’re pretty sure he’s not out looking for love.)

Some contradictions are behavioral: We feel divided— optimistic and yet wary, accepting and yet guarded. We’re both generous with family and friends but fearful of strangers, apologetic to our superiors, and resentful of our inferiors (or vice versa). Such contradictions routinely speak of a tension between whom we trust and whom we fear—and why. Whatever their cause, they remind an observer that what she sees in any given situation is not the whole story.

Beyond purposes of verisimilitude, contradictions serve two key dramatic purposes:

  • They defy expectation and thus pique our interest.
  • They provide a straightforward method for depicting complexity and depth. Specifically, they provide a means by which to portray:
    • Subtext (the tension between the expressed and the unexpressed, the visible and the concealed)
    • The situational subtleties of social life
    • The conflict between conscious and unconscious behavior
    • Suspense: We want to know what the contradiction means, why it’s there.

Contradictions can be used as foreshadowing. In the opening pages of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye Marlowe sees Terry Lennox for the first time as he’s all but falling down drunk from a Rolls Royce—a case of ironic juxtaposition. This is followed by even more contradictions: Despite Lennox being blotto, his enunciation would suggest he hadn’t had anything stronger to drink than orange juice. In fact, he’s the most well-mannered drunk Marlowe can remember ever encountering. That alone piques our curiosity, but there’s more: “He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white.” On closer inspection, Marlowe discovers the right side of Lennox’s face is “frozen and whitish and seamed with fine white scars . . . A plastic job and a pretty drastic one.” Why Lennox would go to the trouble of such an extreme alteration of his features but not dye his hair is, well, a mystery. But then that’s Marlowe’s line of work.

There are limits to what is credible. If we say someone’s behavior is “out of character,” we normally mean it doesn’t mesh with what else we know about him—a perfect case of contradiction. But in a script or a piece of fiction, if something feels “out of character,” we usually mean it’s not believable.

Contradictions that seem too extreme or implausible may enhance a comedic portrayal—the mob boss with the Yorkie, the cop who’s terrified of cats, the chain-smoking nun—but they can undermine a dramatic one if played merely for effect.

It’s often useful to ask whether the contradiction draws you, the writer, toward the character, or permits you an emotional distance. If the latter, you are “looking at” the character rather than emotionally engaging with her. The contradiction you’re considering therefore more likely resembles an idea, not a viable characteristic. If you can justify it, root it in backstory or other behavior—unearth scenes from your imagination that reveal how this character developed or previously expressed these seemingly contradictory inclinations in different situations—it will become less conceptual, more intuitive and organic.

Some people, especially those with “proper” standards of appropriate behavior, will always rankle at contradiction no matter where they find it. But rectitude and creativity are seldom pals. For the writer, things are thankfully a bit more fluid; the point is truth, not propriety. Even so, you can’t just stitch two opposites together and consider it a job well done.

Contradictions Based on Physical, Ironic, or Comic Juxtaposition

Anyone acquainted with gang culture, specifically street handles, has come across a kind of contradiction based on ironic juxtaposition: big guys named Tiny, brooders named Smiley, killers named Sweet–and the aforementioned Buddha Hat.

But there is also:

  • The beautiful young woman with the dwarfed limb—or a wig to conceal her chemotherapy-ravaged hair
  • The middle-aged mother who dresses like her teenage daughter
  • The scrawny bespectacled titmouse with the shameless comb-over who, with one drink down the hatch, can’t help but play the Romeo—or pick a fight with the cretin sitting one stool down
  • The aging gigolo shaving with a Lady Remington—as Richard Bone does in the opening scene of Newton Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone.

Contradictions Based on Our Need to Serve Multiple Social Roles

In his novel Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot proposed that each of us is obliged to assume a seemingly endless number of masks to fulfill the various roles or multiple obligations demanded of us. If one of those masks feels more solid or firmly rooted, that’s only because habit, created by the daily assumption of that particular role—dutiful daughter, querulous neighbor, taskmaster boss—has made it more routine, familiar, and natural. But all it takes is a sudden or drastic change in social setting and we find ourselves asking: What’s expected of me here? Who am I supposed to be? What do I need to do to blend in?

We conduct ourselves appropriately in a variety of different social situations: the dinner table, the office, the stadium, the chapel, the bedroom. We feel differing degrees of freedom to “be ourselves” in each of these environments, depending on who else is present, our relationship with them, our status. The persona that excels at the office presumably will not serve in the bedroom, and vice versa—unless one’s workplace is a bit on the louche side. But most people effortlessly navigate such diverse circumstances daily.

Consider, for example, the single working mother. At the office and at home she is a whirlwind: decisive, blunt, practical. Then a man with whom she’s very much smitten arrives to take her out on a rare date. Her children barely recognize her: She’s not just dressed to the nines, she’s charming, soft-spoken, giggly, deferential. They might well ask them-selves: Who is this stranger, and what did she do with Mom?

And in a completely different circumstance—say at the hospital with her dying father—the very same woman may reveal but another side: impatient, guilty, scared.

Contradictions Based on Contrasting influences

Throughout life we encounter people who, consciously or unconsciously, impact our behavior—and often those influences are contradictory. The fiercely pragmatic mother and charmingly starry-eyed dad; the disciplinarian coach vs. the empathetic and inspiring English teacher; the sweet, devout, and sentimental aunt vs. the witty, rational, skeptical uncle. We respond to each of these influences in proportion to the valuable lessons we carry away from them.

In Oliver Stone’s Platoon, he based the characters of Sgt. Elias (Willem DaFoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) on men he served under during the war. One was uncompromising, fearless (his face is disfigured by battle scars), and brutal; other witty, helpful, but equally courageous. The one believes the only rule of war is to win; the other sees war as an attempt, however wrong-headed, to achieve some kind of justice. The character based on Stone concedes that both men left their imprint on him, and he saw the truth in each man’s vision.

In Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home, her protagonist, Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, was abandoned by his mother and raised by this twin uncles. One was straight-laced and patriotic—ROTC, two tours in Vietnam, then a Texas Ranger—and deeply loved the America he hoped he could somehow help bring into being. He died in the line of duty defending that country. The other, a one-time defense lawyer now a constitutional law professor, has remained skeptical of America and doubtful it will ever truly achieve racial justice due to the ongoing appeal of white supremacy and race hatred. Darren loved and respected both men deeply, and he suffers an internal tug-of-war throughout the entire novel, asking himself first what one uncle would have him do, then what the other would expect of him, as he faces a series of thorny moral dilemmas with no clear way to discern right from wrong.

This form of contradiction is particularly useful for fiction writers because it’s embedded in other characters and therefore can be portrayed dramatically—the conflict can play out in scenes.

Contradictions Based on Competing Morals or Goals

We consider ourselves upright and conscientious—until we encounter an envelope filled with cash (David Mamet’s House of Games). You have been faithful to your spouse for years—until one night alone in a strange place (Tobias Wolff’s “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke”). In Peter Carey’s novel Theft, Michael Boone is torn between his helpless love for the mysterious Marlene, who appears out of a driving rainstorm one night, and his duty to his severely disturbed brother, Hugh.

Some of the greatest drama in history has been premised on such conflicts: Antigone must choose between loyalty to the state or love of her brother; Orestes must choose between incurring the wrath of Apollo or being set upon by the Furies; given the foreknowledge that he will die during the sack of Troy, Achilles must decide whether to continue and earn a warrior’s glory (kleos) or accept the chance offered to him by his goddess mother, Thetis, and return to Attica and live out his days in peace.

These are core conflicts at the heart of the drama, but similar, smaller conflicts premised on contrasting morals or goals can also be employed to enhance characterization, portraying the many contradictory forces tugging on the character: the unforgiving nun (Doubt), the criminal psychologist with a gambling addiciton (Cracker), the prostitute mother (Bellman & True).

Contradictions That Result from a Secret or Deceit

The fact that someone is hiding something provides an obvious opportunity for contradiction, since sooner or later the thing concealed will inadvertently slip out, supplying the kind of inexplicable behavioral turn that by its very nature intrigues.

In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the impact on Maxim de Winter of the death of his wife, a woman he both cherished and despised, festers just under the surface of his civility only to erupt in inexplicable bursts of caustic temper that over time take on such a menacing aspect that his character seems increasingly likely to crack apart—suggesting that Rebecca’s death might not have been a tragic accident after all.

In Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, Marguerite St. Just wonders what happened to the man she married. Once a charming baronet of soldierly confidence, filled with romantic ardor, Sir Percy Blakeney’s become a parody of himself, playing the part of the slow-witted dandy when out in society and refusing to so much as touch her when the two are alone. Ultimately Marguerite will learn the foppery is a disguise, intended to conceal Sir Percy’s role as the leader of a band of English noblemen dedicated to saving the lives of French aristocrats facing death under the Reign of Terror. His affection will return once he learns that rumors he’s heard, that Marguerite was responsible for the Revolutionary Tribunal’s execution of the Marquis de St. Cyr, failed to state that she’d denounced the Marquis because of his savage treatment of her brother, and had never intended that he be killed. In both cases, Sir Percy’s concealment of the truth—his identity as the Scarlet Pimpernel, his belief his own wife was a French conspirator—creates the behavior his wife finds so baffling.

Contradictions Based on Conscious versus Unconscious Traits

This kind of contradiction shares common ground with several others, especially those based on serving a number of social roles, those based on contrasting influences, and those based on deceit.

The entire construct of the ego, the persona we project to others, relies on a certain level of repression, concealment, and camouflage. This says a lot about who we want to be, who we pretend to be, who we’re afraid of becoming—and how we want others to view us. To this extent, we all live a lie, or at least conduct a certain amount of behavioral legerdemain, every moment of every day with everyone we meet.

And yet one of the key attributes of suppressed traits is that the suppression secretly increases their power. By bottling up an impulse to be openly flirtatious or reckless or mean, we secretly create the pressure cooker that guarantees someday, somehow, it’s going to slip out.

The tension created by these two antagonistic impulses— to control our behavior so we “get along” and to let go and “be ourselves”—forms one of the core conflicts of our lives. And conflict is inherently dramatic.

Understanding this intrinsic war within can be helpful when allowing the character to act unpredictably. For every trait we publicly exhibit, its opposite lurks somewhere in our psyches. These shadow traits may be feeble and ill-formed from lack of conscious use, but they exist— meaning that if a character acts unbelievably, we can make what he does seem more organic if we find a way to root it in the battle between the character’s conscious and suppressed behavior.

Contradictions can show both what the character intends and what she’s unaware of in her own nature—and they do so in one quick stroke, no belabored psychoanalysis necessary. Attempts by authors to portray the working of the unconscious often devolve into laborious explanatory exercises, or else the author stands in for the unconscious, reducing the character to a psychological specimen—or a puppet.

In the TV series Mad Men, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) fully embraces the übermale ethos of 1960s Madison Avenue. He’s not just the rainmaking prince of Sterling Cooper, he’s the alpha in virtually every group of men he encounters. Part of this is charade—he’s assumed a false identity to escape his shamefully poor upbringing and to hide other problematic aspects of his past, and diligently protects the mask he’s assumed—but it also speaks to his need to succeed. His role in the rise of Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) seemingly contradicts the narrow-mindedness of this ethos, even though his support is by no means unqualified or even consistent. But he’s the one senior member of the firm to see her talent and promote her rise in the creative department, a tribute to a sense of fairness he tries otherwise to conceal. More important, he sees in her a decency and a lack of artifice that he secretly admires—and envies.

Dispositional Contradictions

Each of the main characters in Charles Portis’s True Grit is intriguingly contradictory: Despite Mattie’s youth, she is indomitable, and savvy in business. LaBoeuf is courageous despite a foppish concern for appearance. Cogburn, the one-eyed drunken fat man, is relentless, cunning, and, in the end, valiant.

Jimmy McNulty of the TV series The Wire is a devoted father and a dogged cop, plus a hopeless drunk and an inveterate womanizer.

In her short story “The Other Place,” Mary Gaitskill deftly conjures a thirteen-year-old boy using nothing but his name (Douglas), his age, and three contradictions: The first is that he is keenly intelligent but hates to read; the second is that he has inherited an “essential tremor” that causes involuntary hand movements, and yet he loves to draw, and does so exquisitely; the third is that he draws both beautiful sketches of crows—they fascinate him because they are one of the few animals that are more intelligent than they need to be to survive—and detailed, vivid drawings of men with guns, or hanging from nooses, or cutting up other men with chain saws.

This type of paradox is hard to attribute to a cause—which doesn’t necessarily indicate a shortcoming. Readers and audiences do not need or want everything explained. But in devising a character like Cogburn or LaBoeuf or Mattie or McNulty, it’s necessary to intuit the psychic whole that embraces the contradictions and not simply slap them together and hope they gel. It’s likely, for example, that Mattie’s precociousness is partially due to her need to step into the role of responsible adult because of her mother’s lack of business sense and her father’s absence. But the fact that she possesses the ability and the determination is constitutional. She’s not her mother’s daughter; she’s her father’s.

Above and beyond all the other considerations discussed so far, contradictions are useful because they are inherently interesting. Our perceptions are instinctively geared toward seeking out what doesn’t fit. This is evolutionarily adaptive: It alerts us to threats. That unexpected sound we hear could simply be the wind in the grass—or a predator approaching. Your normally placid neighbor’s bout of cursing could be nothing—or something you ignore at your peril. The underlying message of every contradiction is: Pay attention.

Do Contradictions Need to be Resolved in a Work of Fiction?

In a word, no. But especially in instances where the contradiction is based on a secret, or a contrast between conscious or unconscious traits, and even in competing influences or social roles, the entire premise of the story often rests on the character’s coming to terms with a deliberate or previously unacknowledged disparity of behavior, and concludes with some attempt to resolve the tension created by that disparity.

However, in a great many other stories—Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home, for example, where her hero Darren Mathews in continues to feel the moral influence of his both his incompatible twin uncles—the battle between conflicting influences or forces remains an essential aspect of the character.

Identify one or more characters from your current work-in-progress—or from a work of fiction or film you’ve recently enjoyed—and ask if they exhibit any of the following contradictions:

  1. Physical, ironic, or comic juxtaposition
  2. The need to serve multiple social roles
  3. Contrasting Influences
  4. Competing morals or goals
  5. A secret or deceit
  6. Conscious versus unconscious traits
  7. Dispositional or constitutional contradiction

Does that contradiction remain intact at the end of the story, or is it in some way addressed ore resolved?

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About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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