Fiction writing doesn’t offer many shortcuts or magic formulas. But today I am going to give you a secret ingredient in that coveted recipe for memorable and realistic characters. What is this ingredient? Dichotomy.
If we expect our characters to jump off the page into three-dimensional living color, we have to give them multi-faceted personalities. Human personalities are wonderfully (and sometimes frustratingly) varied. No one is 100% good or 100% bad; there are multitudinous shades of gray in all of us. And so it should be with our characters. Take a look at the following list of classic characters and the dichotomies that made them so memorable.
1. Long John Silver
(in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson)
You’d expect a treasure-hungry, bloodthirsty pirate to be bad right down to the tip of his peg leg, but few of these bad boys reached the legendary status to which Captain Silver attained thanks to his fondness for an upright youngster named Jim Hawkins. Silver may have been a nasty cutthroat, but his affection (and his actions to back it up, even when the going got tough) made him worth remembering.
2. Aunt Abby & Aunt Martha Brewster
(in Arsenic and Old Lace by Frank Capra)
At the center of Capra’s madcap classic are two of the sweetest little old ladies you’re likely to find anywhere this side of your grandmother. In fact, they’re so sweet viewers would be likely to pass them off as maudlin clichés—were it not for their unforgettable desire to help lonely old men… by poisoning them.
3. Mr. Darcy
(in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen)
What discussion of dichotomous characters would be complete without mentioning the multi-faceted Mr. Darcy, whose brooding paradox of arrogance and bashfulness, tactlessness and generosity hoisted him to the top of the pile as one of literature’s most fanatically loved characters.
4. George Bailey
(in It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra)
Grumpy, disillusioned, dissatisfied George Bailey appears on our television screens every Christmas. He’s an unhappy and even unlikable man for much of the movie, but what we love—what we keep coming back to see year after year—is the inherent goodness, the unfailing selflessness hidden away beneath all that grumbling. We resonate with George Bailey, because we see that same mixture of good and bad every time we look in the mirror.
5. Alan Breck Stewart
(in Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Alan Breck Stewart, the brash Jacobite soldier, isn’t our idea of a gentleman—anymore than he is protagonist David Balfour’s. Rough and rude and crude as he may, Stewart’s last impression upon us is his unfailing honesty and integrity. But neither his brashness, nor his uprightness, would be nearly as memorable in isolation.
6. Jack Aubrey
(in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian)
O’Brian’s deft ability to sketch characters has given us the inherently flawed and inherently lovable lifelong royal seaman Jack Aubrey. Aubrey’s brilliance at sea and in battle contrasted with his naïveté and even ineptitude regarding matters on land gives him a marvelous stamp of authenticity. And who could forget his unexpected penchant for classical music?
7. Jason Bourne
(in The Bourne Identity directed by Doug Liman)
Killers with a conscience are perhaps one of the most common dichotomies in fiction. But few are as well rounded as the movie version of amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne. The entire story is driven by the question Why would a man with an obviously integral sense of morality willingly choose to become a professional killer?
8. Mr. Magorium
(in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium by N. E. Bode and Juliana Baggott)
This whimsical children’s story is certainly a stretch on reality. But the age-old wisdom and the intrinsic innocence of toy-shop owner Mr. Magorium still resonates. How can a man who knows so much still maintain such a childlike sense of wonder and imagination? The question is never answered, but we end up being so fascinated by the character of Mr. Magorium that we hardly care.
9. King Kong
(in King Kong directed by Peter Jackson)
The great ape of classic cinema may not be the best character ever put on film, but he remains memorable simply because he presented such a beautiful dichotomy: a primal, instinctive killer who bestowed his own version of kindness and gentleness on the one person he loved.
(in Léon (The Professional) by Luc Besson)
More or less duped into being a killer for hire, émigré Léon lives a life of silence and loneliness, bestowing his affections only in his diligent care of his Japanese peace lily. Jean Reno’s characterization gives us a brilliantly subtle character, whose seeming simplicity only adds deeper layers to what could have so easily been a cookie-cutter character.
11. Tom Doniphon
(in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance directed by John Ford)
Rough and ready homesteader Tom Doniphon rides roughshod over pretty much everybody, including his longtime girl Hallie. But when the cards are the table and he has to choose between losing Hallie and doing the right thing, he proves that what you see isn’t always what you get. (Warning: spoilers.)
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