Wednesday, September 7

Are You Characters Contradicting Themselves?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Back in June, I caught that nasty flu that was going around and spent a few miserable weeks napping and watching a lot of TV. One of my distractions of choice was the show, Bones. It had been a long time since I’d seen the first few seasons, and while it was fun to re-watch them, one thing did annoy me.

The character Temperance “Bones” Brennan is a world-class forensic anthropologist who is very literal-minded and repeatedly say she doesn’t like psychology and doesn’t do motive.


She’s a bestselling author who writes mysteries.

Writing is all about characters and why they do what they do. Motive is what’s driving every character to act—especially in a mystery.

Someone who doesn’t understand why people act and how emotional minds work would never be able to write great mysteries.

It’s a TV show, I get it, they wanted to make her famous and awesome on multiple fronts. And for all I know, her books are more procedural and less character, but that’s not how they’re described or referred to in the show itself.

One major aspect of the character, Bones, contradicted the core of who she is—and that bugged me every time they brought it up.

Don’t get me wrong—contradictions in characters are wonderful things, as they show the various layers of a person and turn them into real people. But when creating a character, be wary of where those contradictions lie. You can’t have a world-class swimmer who can’t swim. If two skills or traits of a character absolutely rely on opposite personality traits or skill sets, it’s going to feel wrong.

When creating a character, consider:

Do any traits go completely against the core of that character?

People believe one thing and act in contrary ways all the time. That whole “do as I say, not as I do”
cliché. This is a solid character contradiction and a writer can create an interesting backstory to go with such a character. But when the core of who they are prevents the skill or trait they’re exhibiting, it stretches plausibility.

(Here's more on fleshing out flat characters)

Is the character lacking the necessary skills to possess a particular talent or trait?

This is a common problem in Chosen One stories or Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters. A character exhibits a trait or talent, yet there’s no groundwork laid to show how they got it or why they can do it. It’s even worse when the character is introduced as someone who had no access to or way to learn any of said skills. They need a skill, so boom—they have it.

(Here’s more on Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters)

Are the contradictions of that character believable?

If a character is socially awkward and has trouble understanding personal relationships, think twice before making them the celebrity host of a popular TV talk show that interviews people about their lives and relationships. Aim for contradictions that fit the personality and history of that character. A good example here is how many actors are painfully shy, and they got into acting as a way to combat that. They might be in the limelight all the time, but only if they’re playing a role and being “someone else.” Off-screen, they stay away from the public eye.

(Here's more on maintaining believability in our stories)

Good characters will have contradictions, so choose them wisely. Make sure they come from real places within that character, based on their experiences and personality. Creating a well-rounded character takes work, but it helps to look at the entire character as a whole and not just a bunch of pieces stuck together. Make sure what they do and how they think fits who they are at their core.

Have you seen any character contradictions that bugged you? What about your own characters? Are their contradictions believable or could they use some tweaking?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. In a later episode, Bones realizes that Angela, who is her expert on all things emotional, has essentially become a co-writer.

    1. That would help explain it, but they should have done that from the start :)

  2. I am so glad that I'm not the only one who noticed this. Also, the whole idea that she is an FBI special agent's partner is a real stretch.

    The "I'm a literal minded scientist type" works better in Rizzoli and Isles where their personalities play off each other and their is no conflict in Mara Isles job(s).

    1. I'll accept a lot on a TV show--they need to bend the rules to create entertainment--but sometimes it goes too far.

      I love Rizolli & Isles. They did do a great job with Maura.

  3. Please forgive the spelling in the above comment.

  4. Contradictions seem to happen so often on TV - very annoying. Maybe we notice it more as writers.

    1. Maybe. I think there's also more binge watching now, so it's easier to see large chunks of the series on one sitting. Things we don't notice on a weekly basis jump out when you watch it back to back.