How to Write Fascinating Characters by Making them Contradictory (AND it's JuNoWriMo!)

Jun 1, 2011

It's here, my friends-- JuNoWriMo! Pick a writing goal, any writing goal, and join the party! I may not be as active in the blogging world this month as I try to bang out my personal goal of 2,000 words a day, but I'll still be around.

Let's talk about something to get the JuNo writing gears flowing. Characterization is a big focus for writers, as it should be. We often talk about how to make them likeable, and relatable, and complex, but today I want to talk about making them fascinating.

You see, my favorite characters were the ones that were larger than life. They have huge imaginations like Anne Shirley, or brilliant, tortured minds like Ender Wiggin. Those characters stick with me because they stand out in a crowd. One way I learned to do this is quite simple: give your characters contradictory traits.

In Brandon Sanderson's writing class of pure awesome, we did an exercise with characters. We started by picking a gender and age of a character who might be walking down the street in our story. Then he had us yell out a profession they might have-- and picked the most contradictory one. For example, we had an 80-year-old woman who was an assassin. Then we picked another character trait that was opposite the profession. Our 80-year-old assassin was a champion knitter.

See how fascinating that character is? We don't even have a story for her to be in yet, but we already want her to be in a story because we want to know what she'll do. She stands out in the crowd.

If you're doing YA, you can still do this with characters who don't have a profession. Pick a hobby instead, and then pick traits that contradict your expectations. Here are a few examples from my JuNoWriMo project, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee:

Estelle, the French ballet teacher who is Muslim. (And yes, that actually CAN work with her religion.)
Kai, the bouncy-ball-collecting nerd who is sometimes frightening in his intense desires to save the world.
Kai's father, the minister who became a bar tender to reach more people.
Gena, the pacifist ballet-dancing protagonist, who wants to be an astronomer and ends up fighting the system to save the world.

See how fun it is to create contradictory characters? They're a lot of fun to write, too.

So, my friends, do you like to write contradictory characters? Who are some of your favorite contradictory characters in books or movies? What other strategies do you use to make your characters larger than life?


Christine Murray said...

I'm loving the idea of a knitting-mad octogenarian characters get any cooler?

Kimberly Krey said...

Great writer food for thought. I'll be hearing this post as I'm typing out my wip. BTW, I LOVE Ann Shirly too!

Ezmirelda said...

Great post! I love characters who have contradicting traits as well. :)

Kittie Howard said...

Some great ideas and definitely food to mull over. I love's the unexpected that serves up a lovely surprise.

Janet Johnson said...

Fun idea! I'll have to try this. I'm afraid my characters just don't live up. :)

KM Nalle said...

Oh! This is going to help me right now! Wonderful tips. I have my JuNoWriMo post set for Saturday.

Eric W. Trant said...

That's a good point. I always say the best-looking guy in the band is the drummer, but the most obvious is the lead-singer.

So all the girls go for the lead-singer.

Make your characters stand out and it doesn't matter about the other chars.

My latest wip, for instance, is about an East Texas redneck in a spacesuit sitting in a lawn chair trying to get to the moon.


- Eric

Julie Musil said...

I love this tip! I'm mulling over characters for my next story, and this helps a lot. I wish you good luck as you conquer June!

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

A classic example of this is Miss Marple: little old lady and crime-solving ace. Love it!

Good luck with JuNo!


Michelle Merrill said...

That's awesome. And I really do have a writing goal for June. I want to finish a complete revision on my novel. You know the one :) I'm actually five chapters short of one full revision and have already started another. So let's make that two full revisions! Here goes nothing. Good luck with your goal. You'll make it. I have no doubt about that.

Stacy Henrie said...

What a cool idea - don't know that I've ever thought of doing contratictory characteristics like that.

With school out, my goal for June is to get up early and write before my kids get up. :)

Lisa Gail Green said...

LOVE it!! What an awesome exercise. I'm going to have to try that. Just tweeted...

RaShelle Workman said...

All right, Shallee. I'm going to get 5K (at least) on my latest WIP - REFLECTION. Thanks for the tips.

Unknown said...

Great advice! To be honest I don't think that I've ever given much thought to purposely making characters contradictory. I've done it on accident from time to time, but I think this will be something that I'll be giving a lot of thought to with my current WIP.

Jolene Perry said...

Yeah, I just have to be IN THEIR HEAD. Even if my people aren't doing anything spectacular, we often are feeling things that are.

This month I'm doing last edits on two projects (one co-authored) and finishing up a first draft on something else.

OH - and keep working on my sunburn :D

Ruth Josse said...

This is all kinds of awesome:)

John said...

Am I the only person, who has problems with this key? It doesn't work at all. Maybe, I do something wrong. Can anybody explain me?
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