Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Irreconcilable Opposites in Characterization

Last week I told you about the workshop I took at the South Coast Writers Conference in which Eric Witchey described the process of creating emotionally driven fiction. I thought it was very eye-opening. My attitude towards my own fiction was instantly changed. Now I had another concrete test to judge it against.

It rocked my writing world a bit.

In that same workshop, Mr. Witchey touched upon another subject, but didn’t flesh it out very much due to time limitations. That is the idea of irreconcilable traits within our main character and tying them to our central theme.

The premise of this idea is that the most memorable characters often embody two or more mutually exclusive, often extreme, aspects.

For instance, when a character is both a dedicated pacifist and given to violent rages, we immediately pay attention. We do because we know the two cannot exist for long within one character without something giving out. It is a guarantee of dramatic tension.

Now if these irreconcilable character traits are also linked to the central theme of the story, the reader is going to be grabbed by bonds of sympathy and be at the writer’s mercy.

Mr. Witchey a four step approach to developing irreconcilable characteristics in your characters.

Build a character from opposing roles or beliefs gathered from the character’s background and environment.

As you gather these opposing characteristics, you will begin to generate a series of “how” and “why” questions. How did a man subject to violent rages become a pacifist? Why?

Articulate the irreconcilable opposites of the character as succinctly as possible.

To be most effective, you—the author—must be familiar enough with the characteristics to be able to state them succinctly. You get here by answering the “how” and “why” questions generated by the previous question. How does it manifest? Why did they develop?

Articulate the controlling or central them of the story.

Every solid story has a central theme. We, as the authors of a work, must be able to articulate this theme, since in order to properly build the story we must build with and around it.

As soon as the reader perceives the irreconcilable opposites, they internalize the expectation that the opposites will be resolved before the story’s central theme plays out.

Every scene of the story strains or changes the character’s irreconcilable opposites and move through the central theme. Anything that doesn’t impact both the irreconcilable differences and the central theme must be cut from the final draft.

State the change in irreconcilable opposites at the story’s point of transformation.

The character strains until they can no longer live with it. They will either have to change, or they will die. In the example cited of the pacifist with anger issues, he will either have to commit to a pacifist life, no matter what the personal cost, resign himself to his violent nature, or find some third path, somewhere between the two.

But it critical that a change has to happen if you want the story to truly resonate with the reader. Without change, nothing is resolved and the reader is left with the feeling that the story doesn’t accomplish anything.

Nothing was resolved.

This is just another tool to use as you craft and revise your fiction. Like any other tool use it as you see fit.

Wishing you all good writing.


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