The Irreconcilable Self: Creating character paradoxes

This week we’re looking at how to infuse our characters with irreconcilable conflict and make them, as Paula Munier says, “walking contradictions.”


As Nancy Kress says, “You can build more plausible, complex characters if they want not just one thing but two that are in conflict.”

Karl Iglesias calls these two things in conflict “paradoxes–contradictions within themselves.”

“Simply stated,” says David Corbett, “a contradiction is something about a person that piques our interest because it betrays what we expect, given what else we know or observe about him.”

“Think of this interior clash as being an argument between two sides, raging inside the character,” says James Scott Bell.  “Like the little angel and the little devil that sit on opposite shoulders in a cartoon, these sides vie for supremacy.”

However, “in creating genuine inner conflict, it is not enough simply to create inner turmoil,” says Donald Maass. “True inner conflict involves wanting two things that are mutually exclusive. It is most effective when it tears your protagonist, or any character, in two opposite directions.”


Mr. Corbett lists six types of character contradictions, “in descending order, from the seemingly most superficial to the more substantial and meaningful”:

1. Contradictions Based on Physical, Ironic, or Comic Juxtaposition.
For example, a homeless girl in full makeup and perfect hair; big guys named “Smalls”; or a guy in a suit drinking out of a sippy cup.

2. Contradictions Based on Our Need to Serve Multiple Social Roles.
As Mr. Corbett Says, “The tension created by these two antagonistic impulses–to control our behavior so we ‘get along’ and to let go and ‘be ourselves’–forms one of the core conflicts of our lives.”

3. Contradictions Based on  Competing Morals or Goals.
For example, most people want to earn money, but they’d also rather be free than go to work.

4. Contradictions That Result from a Secret or Deceit.
Where keeping the secret leads the character to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

5. Contradictions Based on Conscious Versus Unconscious Traits.  
For example, a character can be consciously mean to their spouse’s friend because they’re unconsciously attracted to the friend.

6. Dispositional Contradictions.
For example, a character can be violent in some circumstances and tender in others.


According to Mr. Corbett, contradictions serve several purposes:

  • They defy expectation and thus pique our interest, because we never know exactly which half of the personality will assert itself in any given situation.
  • They can economically depict character complexity and depth.
  • They can portray subtext (the tension between the expressed and the unexpressed, the visible and the concealed).
  • They can depict the situational subtleties of social life.
  • They create suspense, because we want to know what the contradiction means, and why it’s there.
  • They can be used as foreshadowing.


Mr. Maass provides two processes:

1. Opening Extra Character Dimensions

  • Step 1: What is your protagonist’s defining quality; that is, how would anyone describe your protagonist?  What trait is most prominent in his personality? What kind of person is she? Write that down.
  • Step 2: Objectively speaking, what is the opposite of that quality?  Write that down.
  • Step 3:  Write a paragraph in which your protagonist actively demonstrates the opposite quality that you wrote down in step two. Start writing now.

Do this for a few more of the character’s qualities.  “Go for broke,” says Ms. Munier, “the more qualities, quirks, traits, and tendencies you can come up with, the better.”

2. Creating Inner Conflict

  • Step 1: Thinking about your protagonist in the novel as a whole, what is it that your protagonist most wants? Write that down.
  • Step 2:  Write down whatever is the opposite of that.
  • Step 3: How can your protagonist want both of those things simultaneously? What would cause your protagonist to want them both? What steps would he actively take to pursue these conflicting desires? Make notes, starting now.
  • Work on sharpening the contrast between these opposing desires. Make them mutually exclusive. How can you ensure that if your protagonist gets one, he cannot get the other? Make notes.

Eric Witchey echoes Mr. Maass’ processes and takes them a bit further (getting into character arc / inner journey, which we’ll get to later):

  1. Give your character two contradictory roles, and state them like this:  Character embodies [one extreme characteristic] and [opposite extreme characteristic].
  2. Answer how and why the character got each of those roles.  “It’s necessary to intuit the psychic whole that embraces the contradictions and not simply slap them together and hope they gel,” says Mr. Corbett.  In other words, the same backstory should provide the how and the why for both opposite extremes.  (We’ll get to backstory next week.)
  3. State your controlling thematic premise.  Your thematic premise and your character’s irreconcilable traits should be closely linked.  One should generate the other.  This also dictates the next step…
  4. State how your character’s irreconcilable self will change through the story, and state it like this:  Character becomes the embodiment of [characteristic that wins out OR new characteristic].


“For a character juggling two values, both should feature in his thoughts,” says Ms. Kress.

One way to dramatize the inner conflict, is to show a scene (as close to the beginning as possible) where a character wants to do something and starts to do it (prompted by one trait or value), but then decides not to do it (due to the opposite trait or value).  And be sure to also show “your character’s attitude toward his choice,” says Ms. Kress. “Will it be hope of eventually attaining the alternative he didn’t pick this time? Anger at having to choose? Resignation? Self-blame?”

For most of the story, this second value will continue to trump, until the character transforms and either chooses the opposite characteristic/value or a new characteristic/value.  (Again, we’ll get to this more when we look at character arc / inner journey.)


“It’s often useful to ask whether the contradiction draws you, the writer, toward the character, or permits you an emotional distance,” says. Mr. Corbett.  “If the latter, you are ‘looking at’ the character rather than emotionally engaging with her.  The contradiction you’re considering therefore more likely resembles an idea, not a viable characteristic.”

Once you’ve written a draft, Mr. Maass would have you ask yourself, Is your character “complex and multidimensional only in your mind, or actually on the page?  Take a careful look at your manuscript.  On which pages, exactly, do you specifically unlock extra sides of your protagonist’s personality?  Can you highlight the passages?  How many of them are there?  List the page numbers.  No, really don’t just read this paragraph and congratulate yourself. Do it for real. Scroll through your manuscript, highlight, and count.”

Mr. Corbett cautions that “there are limits to what is credible. If we say someone’s behavior is ‘out of character,’ we normally mean it doesn’t mesh with what else we know about him–a perfect case of contradiction. But in a script or a piece of fiction, if something feels ‘out of character,’ we usually mean it’s not believable.”

And, finally, Mr. Maass reminds us, “Inner conflict does not need to be limited to your protagonist. Any character can be conflicted.”

So go forth and get conflicted.


Well, that’s it for me.  What about you?  What sort of tools do you use when developing the complexities of your characters?  Tell us in the comments!

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We’ll look at the paltry list of character contradictions I’ve seen in the books I’ve read lately.  So far just one.  Might have to resort to movies and shows.  See you then!

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