Creating Complex Characters: Contradiction

By September 22, 2011Screenwriting 101

The following excerpt is from Taxi Driver, written by Paul Shrader

BETSY: You know what you remind me of?

TRAVIS: What?

BETSY: That song by Kris Kristofferson, where it says, “he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.”

TRAVIS: (uneasy) I’m no pusher, Betsy. Honest. I never have pushed.

BETSY:  I didn’t mean that, Travis. Just the part about the contradiction.

Contradiction.  If you could boil the secret to writing complex characters down to one word, it’s contradiction.

Think of Salieri from Amadeus.  He destroys rival composer Mozart even though he’s Mozart’s greatest (and often only) fan.

Contradiction. The simplest way to create a complex character is to contradict who a character appears to be and who they are deep down inside.  Movies are great at this.  The film medium is perfect for capturing surfaces.  And drama is great at peeling away the layers to a character’s essence.

In films, surface characterization is created through the casting of actors, hair/makeup, set dressing/props, dialogue and so on.

What does this character look like?  Healthy?  Obese?  Ugly?

How do they dress?  Sharp?  Disheveled?  Flamboyant?

What does their home and office look like?  Messy?  Pristine?  Minimalist?

How do they talk?  Like a Professor?  As little as possible?  Foul-mouthed?

The answers to these questions give us an impression of who a character is.  But, that’s not necessarily who they are.  Actions are the ultimate proof of someone’s character.  More specifically: actions taken in a crisis.

Think about Elle Woods from Legally Blond.  On first glance, she seems like the clichéd ditzy blond.  But, put her in a position where she has to prove herself (like Harvard Law School) and you find that as the saying goes, she’s smarter than she looks.

The angelic little boy who’s actually the Devil (The Omen).  The gentle giant (Of Mice And Men).  The frail green creature that’s the most powerful Jedi warrior in the galaxy (The Empire Strikes Back).

Create a contradiction between the surface and the essence, and you’ve added some necessary complexity to your character.