Characters are interesting when they’re made up of contradictions. It’s those contradictions and the writers who recognize them that create the most memorable characters in works of fiction and nonfiction. If we give our characters’ free will—if we don’t fully know them too soon—they can take us to some interesting places that can either illuminate or complicate, or do both things at once, the thrust of our exploration of any particular subject. Our characters have to be able to surprise us, and the plot of a good narrative usually puts enough pressure on them until they can’t help but reveal who they really are. “The personal life of every individual is based on secrecy,” Chekhov writes in his story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” A good story doesn’t allow that secrecy to stand. A good story strips it away and leaves the character, to borrow from Woody Allen, without feathers.
Whether we’re talking about memoir or fiction, it seems to me that the central characters usually operate behind a facade. They have a story they tell themselves—they think they know who they are, what they feel and believe, and they think they know exactly how the other characters fit into that narrative—but from the very beginning a counter-narrative exists. It takes the pressures of the plot to work that counter-narrative up to the surface, and when it arrives, the character’s facade crumbles, even if only temporarily, and we see a truer story beneath it.
I’m interested, then, in the way prose writers bring these layers of truth to the surface. We’re wise if we train ourselves to think in terms of opposites and to understand we all have something submerged in the stories of our lives, whether invented in fiction or documented and dramatized in memoir. “The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story,” Flannery O’Connor says in her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction, “is called anagogical vision, and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” I’d add character to that list and the ability to see different levels of reality within individuals.
Here’s a writing exercise to help you work with contradictory layers of characters and their narratives:
- Write down everything you think you know about someone, whether an actual person or an invented character. You might use the prompt, “This is the sort of person who would. . . .” Act as if you know everything there is to know about this person.
- Create a passage that contains a moment of surprise, a moment where for the first time you know something about this person you didn’t previously know, something contradictory to what you’ve gathered in step one. You might use this prompt: “Then one night. . . .” Find a moment of surprise that contradicts the facade the person usually presents to the world.
- How can you make this contradictory layer of truth present from the beginning without being obvious?
Step number three is the really tough one, but as you continue to think in terms of opposites, I feel confident you’ll deepen your understanding of how to allow the contradictory to rise a bit at a time through the course of a narrative. It’s really a matter of sleight of hand as you get the contradictory into the story in a way that invites the reader to catalog it without fully understanding its significance until the pressures of the plot bring it fully onto the page.