Friday, October 28, 2011

Characters – Surprise & Contradiction

A friend of mine recently gave me a CD that celebrates Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, with various authors (including Bradbury) reading and commenting on that wonderful book, a book that hasn’t been out of print in the last 50 or so years. As I listened to the first paragraphs where the main character, Montag, is burning books, I was drawn in by the poetry of the piece, but also by the glorious contradiction in his character. He’s a fireman, see? A fireman burning books. Now Bradbury is having a bit of fun, or maybe just showing off his brilliance. If you’re going to write a story of a dystopian world where books are burned, why not make your main character a fireman, someone we readers think of as the person we want to show up to stop a fire in progress—but in this world, firemen are the bad guys. The main character is part of the story’s problem—and has lots of room to grow and change as the story moves on.

When I think of my favorite characters from other books and TV shows, it is often contradiction that makes certain characters stand out and makes them, well, my favorites. Often in the contradiction is the surprise factor—and in that unusual aspect is what makes for a memorable character. Here are just a few of my favorite contradictory-filled characters from TV and books:

Ender, the main character from Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game is the strategic master upon which the Earth’s fate rests. And he’s just a kid (six in the opening scene).

This character spends his days working on the police force as a forensics/blood spatter expert—at night he goes looking for criminals to kill and dispose of. (Dexter from the TV series of the same name.)

He’s a drunk, half-blind U.S. Marshall with a shady military past who is a fifteen-year-old girl’s only chance of finding justice for her murdered father. (Rooster T. Cogburn from True Grit by Charles Portis)

He’s a golden lab. He can also spell and would probably beat you at Scrabble. (Einstein, the dog, from Dean Koontz’s Watchers.)

She’s a restored 1958 red and white Plymouth—and she’s alive. (The car, Christine, from Steven King’s novel of the same name.)

He loves car racing and wants to be reincarnated as a man (Enzo, also a dog, from The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein).

As an android with a positronic brain, he is capable of amazing computational thought—but more than anything he longs to understand human beings and experience human emotions. (Data, from Star Trek The Next Generation TV series.)

Here’s one of the characters from my novel, Blackheart:

Noel August is a 16-year-old girl who likes boys, pop music, dressing in pink and can talk to angels. Hopefully you can spot the contradiction (or at least unusual attribute). Yeah, it’s the pop music thing.

So who are your favorite contradictory characters? If you’re a writer, what contradictions have you given your character(s) to make them strong and memorable?


Shawn Enderlin said...

I would add Buffy to your list - how could you forget?? ;-)

I'm a big fan of the "Are they good or are they bad?" contradiction. Rooster T Cogburn would fall into that category, as would a significant percentage of vampire characters ever created. :-)

Other notable (fangless) good/bad characters:
Raistlin Majere - Dragon Lance
Londo Molari - Bablyon 5
Gul Dukat - Deep Space Nine
Elric of Melnibone - Eternal Champion
Gaius Baltar - Battlestar Galactica (remake)
Severus Snape - Harry Potter

Of course there are more, but that's just what pops out on my shelves.

And the award for biggest waste of a potential Oscar/Hugo worthy good/bad character goes to: Anakin Skywalker.

Mark Teats said...

Hi Shawn. Funny thing is a random thought about Buffy is what made me think of writing this post in the first place... so it was a big omission on my part!

Jon said...

Here's two good ones for you, Mark.

Jaime Lannister for Martin's Songs of Ice and Fire series.

He starts out getting caught having sex with his sister by a ten year old child, who he then throws out a 6 story window. And by the third book, you will go: He's not so bad. I can see how life brought him to that moment.

Logen Ninefingers from Joe Abercrombie's First Law series.

Sometimes known as The Bloody Nine, he is a feared warrior from the Northern clans, a Named Man, who occasionally flips out in battle and has a pyschotic break/goes berserker and will kill friend and foe in his rage. But he's trying to change, trying to be a good person...

Jon said...

Also, speaking of Anakin Skywalker, I watched The People vs. George Lucas last night and... it still hurts, man.

It still hurts.

Qlaudie said...

Oh yeah, Buffy. And then from Buffy: Spike. Nice lists, everyone. I'm with you, Shawn, that bad or good? character is the best.
How about Kreacher from Harry Potter? How unexpected and great was that?

Shawn Enderlin said...

omg how could I forget Spike??? :-)