dichotomous characters and why they work

11 Dichotomous Characters – And Why They Work

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.

10. Léon

(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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Oh, this is SUCH an important part of keeping our characters realistic. Often writers want their good guys so good and their bad guys so bad in an attempt to make the characters larger than life. But they end up like the balloons in the Macy’s parade–big on the outside but quite flat when all the air is taken away.

    Much better to write characters that are just like us, but with the good or bad skewed to one side. (Sometimes waaaay to one side ;).

    Great post, K.M.!

  2. Great selections for examples. I always try to put something likeable and not so likeable in each of my characters.

  3. This is something I don’t always succeed at, but I feel like I’m finally understanding.

    It’s also why comic book characters like Batman and Spiderman are so popular — their foibles make them more human, and more likable.

    There was something I heard awhile back that said the scariest villain is the one whose decisions you can see yourself making in the same situation.

    Interesting stuff.

  4. @Kat: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with extremes. After all, there are plenty of extreme people in real life! And I admit to a fondness for larger than life characters. But even the most extreme people are still wallowing in shades of gray.

    @Amy: I had a lot of fun making up the list!

    @Matthew: Yes, Batman and Spider-Man are both great examples. It’s their inner battles, more than their brawls with the bad guys, that makes them perennial favorites. Great quote about villains!

  5. I’ll keep this in mind as I’m writing my “novel” in NaNoWriMo.

    So far, so good. I just started this morning and have written 1,147words.

    I’m a bit sluggish this morning but after a bit of procrastinating I sat myself down and went to work.

    I need all the help I can get so I’ll be back again and again as I write my way to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

  6. Hey, I didn’t know you were NaNoing! That’s awesome! Best of luck. Go Shad-DY! Go Shad-DY! :D

  7. Great point, and great examples. I’m trying to build up my characters. I’ll be thinking about this as I muddle through my revisions.

  8. The great thing about dichotomous characters is that they’re twice as much fun to write!

  9. Hmmm… you’ve given me something I’m going to be pondering… I’m not even sure I can answer your poll question!

    I’d like to think my characters are dichotomous, but I just don’t know… Something to work on, for sure.

  10. The dichotomy of some characters is certainly more subtle than others, but if you take a close look, it’s usually not hard to spot.

  11. Great example, Katie. I love characters who are complex, who aren’t just black and white.

  12. Good point. I was mulling the MC’s in ‘Homebody’ over before I posted my last thought, and I’m having trouble spotting in Amanda. Rick I think shows it more than she does, but maybe I know him better (for some strange reason.)

  13. @Tamera: Complex characters just bring so much more to the table. They’re more enjoyable both for readers and writers!

    @Liberty: Funny how some characters open up to us more than others, isn’t it?

  14. Great post idea K.M., and well executed! I love complex characters. Perfection is so dreadfully, painfully boring.

  15. I remind myself of that sometimes when life is less than perfect. It’s all the more wonderful because of the imperfections!

  16. I have tried to give my characters character, not sure if they have enough oomph yet though.

    Interesting post, thanks I will follow for more good information.

  17. I note that GJ is in place of my name, not sure why so am saying hello again as a test.

  18. “Oomph” is the word exactly! Thanks for stopping by.

  19. What a great post!!!! It’s funny, many of those are my favorite fictional characters, simply because of their complexity!

  20. It’s true. Complex characters = Good characters. Even if you don’t end up liking a complex character, you will remember him!

  21. Great list of all my favorite characters! :)

  22. Glad you enjoyed it!

  23. Wow, that is quite a list. A very good one. I think dichotomy is extremely important too. Who wants to read about someone who is one-dimensional- boring!

    Ole’ George Baily- he’s a classic. Jason Bourne is a good one too! His was built in from the start.

    Very helpful post, thank you :)

  24. Yeah, George and Jason are two my favorites!

  25. LOVED this post…especially all of the movie clips! I sat here and just laughed over the Arsenic and Old Lace by Frank Capra clip. I love memorable characters!

  26. Arsenic & Old Lace is a hoot. I just watched it here recently, and it was actually what spurred this whole post.

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