A flying dragon who is afraid of heights. An elephant who doesn’t want to drink the water because of potential bacteria. A brilliant doctor who saves lives, but doesn’t get along with people.
What do they all have in common? They use contrasting elements. They put two opposing elements together and then sit back and watch the conflict of those elements create compelling interactions with other characters and within the overall narrative.
Contrasts are a great way to spice up characters and plots. Not only do they create conflict, which is essential to any great story, but they are also quick fixes if a character gets boring or stuck in a rut.
The concept of using contrasts partly comes from the literary device of irony. Irony is one of those words that people often use, without really understanding what it is. It doesn’t really have to do with humor, although it’s often used in humorous ways.
The most common kind of irony, situational irony, relies on giving the audience something they don’t expect. As writers, creating this fresh twist that defies normal expectations is a great way to pull readers in. While there are certain conventions within genres that should be followed (most of the time), anything a writer can to offer a fresh, relatable tweak on material will often pull in more interest from readers, as well as agents and publishing houses.
Here’s three ways to use contrasts with characters:
1.) Internal contrast. Make the character want something or need something that is direct opposition to their own personality. Author Nadine Brandes does this well in her book A Time to Die, where the main character desperately wants to make a difference, but is naturally inclined to be shy, lazy, and self-doubting. This contrast creates a great inner conflict.
2.) Internal to external contrast. Make the character’s innate abilities clash with the realities of using those abilities in the outside world. This is used in the show House, where the main character is a brilliant doctor who craves the challenge of impossible cases, but has terrible people skills. This conflict of abilities versus practical realities can feed into great plot twists.
3.) External contrast. Make the character directly contrast with someone else or something else in their world. This is most often used in odd couple pairings in comedies: the slob and the neat freak or the workaholic and the laid-back dreamer. While these are obvious stereotypes, they can be scaled back in other genres to create compelling character interactions.
So what about you? Have any examples of great contrasts in your favorite fiction, whether it be novels, TV, or movies?
Janeen Ippolito is an English teacher by day, a sword-fighter by night and a writer by heart. She has a B.A. in Cross-Cultural Studies, Writing, and ESL and has a passion for using humor and cultures in speculative fiction. She is the author of Culture-Building From the Inside Out, an eBook how to write cultures in speculative fiction, and the upcoming Character-Building From the Inside Out, which features quick tips on solving common character issues. In her spare time she makes brownie batter, reads, and grades papers while watching speculative television shows. She loves connecting with, supporting, and promoting fantastical fiction on her blog, so feel free to visit and get in touch!