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Bringing characters to life through internal contradiction

March 23, 2012

A recent blog post by Diane Kelly over at Criminal Element talks about why women love kick-ass heroines, like Ripley in the Alien series, TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the woman from Castle (I think). In her post, she talks about how the girls with grit have the self-assurance and poise that many women wish they had–the ability to take care of themselves and, if necessary, to take care of the men in their lives, too.

After several paragraphs of this, she says something interesting:

But here’s a dirty little secret. As much as we love our kick-ass heroines and enjoy venturing into their dangerous, high-stakes worlds, the truth is, for most of us, it’s only fun to play at being kick-ass. While we love reading about tough chicks, we enjoy the safety and security of our everyday lives.

That paragraph is the most interesting part of the blog post. It’s contradictory. And for our characters, it’s the internal contradictions that bring conflict and make them worth paying attention to.

InIn Plain Sight, the character Mary Shannon could be considered a kick-ass heroine. She’s taken care of her family and she takes care of witnesses for the Marshal’s service. Her job forces her to build walls between her and the people she lives and works with. She’s completely self-reliant, to the point that she turned away a fiance that she loved, and is entering into motherhood alone. And yet, she still yearns for the attention of the father that walked away from her when she was seven.

That internal contradiction is maddening in real life. Maybe you crave human companionship more than anything in the world and do stupid things chasing after its mirage. But on an interpersonal level, you also sabotage your closest relationships because you have a hard time trusting people enough to give them the access to hurt you.

Hello, you nut job. I'm listening.

There are entire buildings of mental-health professionals who can help with that problem–and many of them do quite well financially because that’s an uncomfortable place to be. But for a character’s discomfort is a reader’s manna.

When I write, I don’t pay enough attention to my characters’ internal contradictions. It’s not a standard part of my character outline. Going forward, I will remedy that.

What about you? Do you purposely draw out your characters’ internal contradictions?

One Comment
  1. March 23, 2012 9:14 am

    I like internal conflicts. When I know a character has a flaw, their situations and the way they handle them tells me a whole lot more about them. It makes them more rounded to me, because I get to interpret for myself some things that are left to the subtext level. It’s so much easier to relate to them because I question myself on how I would react/feel in the same situation with the same flaws. If it rings true, then the character development is successful.

    With conflicted characters, I find myself more sympathetic to the stupid things they do and more elated over their victories.

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