Saturday, January 6, 2018

Authentic Contradictions

Michael Hauge is a Hollywood script consultant whose plot workshop several of us attended at the ACFW conference in Indy a few years ago. He's a keen observer of what animates characters in books and movies, as well as real life, and he made this comment in his Christmas e-mail greeting:
...All those people cramming the malls and clogging the freeways and jostling onto airplanes and enduring long lines so their kids can talk to Santa are doing so in order to bring a bit of happiness to others...Their actions are all driven by a desire to offer someone else a sign of their love or affection or gratitude.
As Michael notes, our holiday actions speak more ardently than our words. We tell our friends and family how much we love them, but we make it even clearer when we brave those crowds at the mall.

On the other hand, holiday stress may cause us to act contrary to our motives. While we want to do something special for those we love, we groan at the thought of elbowing through crowds to buy gifts for them. Nerves fray. Patience fails. Emotional outbursts flare.

Just before Christmas, I overheard a woman criticizing her husband with venomous sarcasm because they had waited so long in a supermarket checkout lane. She stormed out in a fit of pique, her partner following meekly behind, and they abandoned a cart full of groceries selected for their holiday feast. Her actions contradicted her motives.

"Contradiction is character," says New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik. Be mindful of such contradictions as you write. Complex persons (i.e., authentic ones) often do just the opposite of what they intend.

Joe Allison has been a member of the Indiana Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN. His non-fiction books include Setting Goals That Count and Swords and Whetstones.




  1. Yuur final statement is so true! Now, as an inexperienced writer, how do I make sure that the contradiction doesn't make my character totally unlikable?

    1. You raise a good question, Linda. If you draw the reader close enough to your character that she empathizes with that person, the contradictions will make sense. Suppose your character is a conscientious dieter who takes an extra piece of chocolate cake, then feels guilty about it. A contradiction, yes, but the sort that makes your character more human--and more likeable.

  2. Fascinating observation. I've often described myself as "a bundle of contradictions!"

  3. Interesting thoughts, Joe. I'm not on Michael's email list, but I have listened to his CDs quite a few times. Good insights!