1. viktor
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    viktor New Member

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    Complex but contradictory characters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by viktor, Sep 30, 2010.

    Hi all,

    I was wondering what your opinions are on this theory I heard. It basically states that for a character to be realistically complex they need to have contradictory traits. For example, one of my characters is an intelligence officer who switches back and forth from being kind and understanding to being a homicidal nutter.

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    I feel like it's hard to find a balance between having the characters be too one-sided and being too contradictory. What are your thoughts?
  2. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict New Member Contributor

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    When I think of contradictory character traits I don't think of ones so wildly differing as murderer vs kind person.

    I would think most of us are contradictory in some respects but that it doesn't affect the essence of who we are. For example, my sister is extremely kind and thoughtful and would help anyone but she is also prone to bouts of selfishness in certain circumstances. People can act out of character when they feel strong emotions such as fear, anger, love...

    You just have to observe what's around you. How do people act in different scenarios? I would think that if you try too hard to add too many dimensions to a character, the reader may be confused. I can also see why a flat character would bore a reader.

    It's an interesting topic.
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's an oversimplification, like most formulas for character creation.

    A character possesses traits, but a character is not wholly defined by traits. Good characters mirror the unpredictability of real people. They have moods, they change over time, and sometimes they just do off the wall things.

    Watch real people. Resist the urge to apply adjectives to them, and just pay attention to what they do. You ren't trying to analyze them so much as build up a catalog of behaviors.
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Member Contributor

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    Do you have contradictory traits the way you've described? Do the members of your family? Your friends? Your co-workers or anyone else you know?

    Your characters should behave like people, for them to be believable. Do you believe your intelligence officer character? From what you've said, I wouldn't be likely to. He doesn't sound like a character; he sounds like about six lines of a computer program. He's simple, not realistically complex. That's what happens when you base your characters on theories that can be expressed as algorithms.
  5. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma New Member Contributor

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    I use my characters interaction with others and their surroundings to provide contradiction in their characters.

    I have one almost caricature type character - he is verbose, fire and brimstone, commands respect. Almost scary. As head monk he is really scary, as a father he struggles, as headmaster and lover he is kind. As a friend loyal etc. However he is consistant in his situations.

    My MC alternates between being a brilliant king and a seventeen year old boy, but the latter is in private and at school he is the king when dealing with presidents and situations.

    Like yourself I have a secret service agent - he is a kind loving son, big brother, lover, friend. However when the situation calls for it he breaks a mans neck and when my MC has to execute a man he is ready with advice about how to do it. His personality doesn't change though. He is still himself he treats it as a job.

    However your character could be a psychopath, multiple personality etc which changes things, it is possible to make caricatures believeable. My characters are all believeable as themselves but I don't think they are realistic.

    Also don't expect much from characters in your first draft you don't know them yet. I am working with characters in my second bookl I created for my first book BUT I am viewing them from a different character. I have realised Socrates needs to get to them. His younger brother Angus knows them very well. Like any relationship it takes time to build.
  6. stubeard
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    stubeard New Member

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    I know exactly what you mean, but here's an example.

    It's hard to learn how to write good music, but the more you study it and do it the better you get. You don't become a good songwriter before getting good at it! Finding the balance you are looking for will be a symptom of you becoming a better character-crafter, rather than a cause. The more you observe the world, study characters in other writers' fiction and practice creating characters, the better you'll get.
  7. w176
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    w176 New Member Contributor

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    No. Character can have traits that seem contradictory, but always is a logical part of a whole.

    Take someone thats very outgoing, always center of the party person. But that every now and then takes day or weeks off and don't wanna see anyone.

    On the surface that might seem contradictory
    "Whats up with Anna? She always so social."
    but usually its just the flip side of the coin. If you always are the center of the party person and people expect you to be that, and always be the spinning nave of the group, and the one everyone always talk with, the only way to take a step back or a few days rest is dont see anyone. Because otherwise everyone will be on you expecting you to be the social drive of the group.

    Or someone that things it really important that things are fair every now and then flips out does something that is very obliviously is selfish and not fair at all. Just to prove why its important and get revenge on everybody else they might perceive as being selfish and unfair.

    Or someone very clingy that every now and then does everything to push the person they cling to away from them. Just because they have a hard time themself handling feeling dependent and needy, and at the same time as they cling to the person strive of emotional indelendence.

    People dont have random "contradictory" traits. But... People often have traits that seem contradictory but is diffract expression of the same underlying need or principle. (As the fair person in anger acting out in an unfair manner to prove her point)
    Or expressions of two different needs, at odds with each other. (As in the example with the cling person who at the same time try to push someone away striving for independence)
  8. HorusEye
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    HorusEye New Member Contributor

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    Yet again it comes down to knowing your characters. Not by a list of properties but as people. I bet you cannot write a list of properties for a friend of yours which defines their character, but you still know who they are and what would seem out of character for them. Knowing people is an intuition thing, not an academic thing.

    I have one character in particular I could never describe with properties. He writes his own lines of dialogue and does what he pleases and I let him be who he is. If I tried to put him in a box, he would get seriously pissed and do all the opposite things out of spite. While he's a minor character I think he's also one of my best characters.
  9. w176
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    w176 New Member Contributor

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    EDIT: FAIL POST.
    Mixed this post up with the dialogue thread. Sorry HorusEye. The text below is totally irrelevant, but i still keep it under a spoiler tag since even if I totally misunderstood tthe post sounded sort of intelligent.

    Well... The OP says that she knows her characters, but got a problem with dialogue. Getting to know her character more wont give her the know-how, the insight or the practice to write dialogue that works, feels right and is interesting. It might help, but still it not really enough.

    The same way being fit and knowing you body might help you learn hand walking, but you still need specific practice and instruction to learn to walk 500 steps on your hands. Some people might learned it after a few tries on their own, but most people needs instruction and a practice.

    From what the OP says it seems like he needs help with dialogue specifically, and knowing her character more wont help on its own.
  10. SashaMerideth
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    SashaMerideth New Member

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    All of us have contradictions. I'm like really smart for my age but still talk like a ditzy valley girl. I have tried to stop online though.
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma New Member Contributor

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    It works good for Dolly lol Actually her Backwards Barbie song is a good one on adding contradiction and depth to a character. She has the most amazing ability writing characters in her songs.

    I actually think she may be one of the best writer of characters ever lol Dolly Parton and Shakespeare are two people I turn to for ideas.
  12. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends on the type of character and their place/purpose in the story. The protagonist or main character should likely have depth, especially within a novel. A short story, that might be different.

    Not every character needs depth or contradictory traits.

    Here's an article I wrote a while back that gives specific examples (if you're interested):
    Seven Common Character Types
  13. Lothgar
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    Lothgar New Member

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    It sounds to me like what you are describing is a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" type of character (with the twin opposite personalities). I've seen such characters (in literature and real life) where a character is the nicest so-and-so around, unless he's been drinking and then he turns into a violent, family abusing, bastard. In those cases there was always some form of trigger (alcohol, drugs, Post traumatic stress, etc.).

    As a footnote, it has been my experience that actual homicidal nutters usually don't get through the screening process to become intelligence officers in the civilized world. Those that are actually insane are deemed unreliable at best and a danger to others at worst, thus excluded from sensitive positions dealing with classified material. However, it isn't uncommon for spies to pretend to be any number of things to infiltrate groups and organizations, but there is a big difference in pretending to be a psycho and actually being a psycho.

    On the flip side, I understand that in despotic dictatorships in the third world, psychotic individuals who enjoy torture are more common in the role of interrogator. One would suppose that it all depends on the setting of the story.
  14. viktor
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    viktor New Member

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    Good point. I might have to tone down the crazy for this one.
  15. Ruth Jacobs
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    Ruth Jacobs New Member

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    A sociopath would have those traits, though kindness and understanding are part of their facade. If you are going to use the sociopath there are numerous other traits and common behaviours to take into consideration, so it would be useful to research the personality type to create an authentic and complete character.
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, a sociopath has no understanding that his or her actions are unacceptable. He or she may have a flat emotional state (affect), or exhibit inappropriate emotions, but it's not a facade.

    A facade would be characteristic of an organized individual who knows what he or she is doing is illegal/immoral, but chooses or feels compelled to do it anyway. He or she is deliberately concealing the signs that could lead to capture or warn a victim.
  17. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Member

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    That theory isn't entirely accurate. It's true that realistic characters come from some level of contradiction, but it's more about what you don't do with your characters than what you do. A character whose traits flow together and echo one another, who does what he says and is highly predicable, is unrealistic because he has absolutely no contradiction; that doesn't mean that a character needs to have all opposite traits to be realistic. It's important that your characters stand for something, that they still have enough connected traits to have a definitive image; if there's too much contradiction the character becomes purposeless, and that's not good storytelling.

    And sociopaths often do understand what society considers right or wrong by observing others, but they don't personally feel the need to follow these boundaries; if they do, it's calculated. A sociopath doesn't feel remorse or sympathy, but he does have the ability to imitate these emotions outwardly. Such people are usually aware of the fact that they are different, that other people don't feel the same as they do.
  18. Islander
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    Islander Senior Member Contributor

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    It should be noted that terms like "psychopath" and "sociopath" have changed meanings several times during the last hundred years, so it's possible to mean very different things when using those terms.
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