Something's Not Quite Right Here: Character Development
My dad’s dog, Joey, looks like a large blood sausage held up by four toothpicks.
Stop to picture that for a second.
Yep, he’s a chunkster. He weighs 109 pounds. A few weeks ago, Joey went in for his yearly checkup. The vet told Dad that Joey’s overweight, and that he should first, only feed him twice a day (Dad used to leave food out all the time for Joey, SMH), and second, cut his dog food in half and supplement it with no-sodium green beans. That way, Joey should still feel full without having all those additional calories, and therefore, lose weight, feel better, and live a longer, healthier life. Duh.
Dad is seventy-eight years old. Since we lost Mom in 2018, Dad’s lived alone, except for Joey who has pretty much become his service animal. He can’t go anywhere without him. So, if you’ve ever wondered if the old adage is true—you can’t teach an old dog new tricks—let me tell you, it’s not. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Dad learned to use a smartphone for the first time when he was seventy-six (I’m still shocked he gave up his flip phone), and he's adjusted what and how he feeds Joey. He has diligently obeyed the vet’s rules.
Well, sort of. Perhaps a more accurate saying is: YOU CAN TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS, SOMETIMES.
While Dad dutifully reduced Joey’s meals to twice a day and supplemented with no-sodium green beans, he hasn’t cut back on the most obvious detriments to Joey’s diet—things his vet surely doesn’t know about. Multiple Milkbones a day… limitless table scraps… and frequent trips to McDonald’s for breakfast burritos, a Joey (and Dad) favorite (a favorite that contains a heinous 800 mg of sodium and 17 g of fat each, and Dad gets four to split between them, BTW). I can almost see the confusion on the vet’s face when she sees Joey again and he’s a whopping one-hundred-fifty and having doggie heart attacks while Dad holds up his hands and explains he’s done everything she told him to. Yikes.
Worse, Dad doesn’t see the problem either. Is it denial? Selective hearing? Stubbornness? I don’t know. Dad will tell us, proudly, how he’s fixed Joey’s diet and in the same breath reveal that they both got a treat at McDonald’s today without seeing any contradiction between the two statements.
It’s the same with his own habits. Dad had a triple-bypass two years ago. While he understands that a low-sodium diet and exercise are the keys to good health, he has trouble connecting those facts to his actions. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to. No matter how many times we’ve told him he shouldn’t eat anything at McDonald’s, EVER, he continues to pop through the drive-thru whenever the mood hits.
So, when his actions don’t line up with what he needs to do for himself and Joey, we all get terribly frustrated. It’s like when I gave him a low-sodium cookbook after his bypass and explained that he HAD TO CHANGE THE WAY HE EATS, he agreed wholeheartedly (ha, heart-pun). He even told his doctors and nurses at check-ups how he had this great book to help him eat better. But, here we are, two years later… has he read it? Nope. Has he used one recipe from it? No. Does he still talk about having the book? Yes. As if having the book is enough… geez.
Something’s not quite right here. Seriously.
Like Dad’s insane eating habits, we are all contradictory characters. We eat the donut when we shouldn’t. We hang out with people who are bad for us. We buy things we can’t afford. We ignore things that’ll make us better and grab on tightly to the things that won’t. We are human.
And just like Dad’s inconsistencies provide fodder for more interesting conversations between me and my siblings, strange contradictions make for more intriguing characters in stories. Yes, I have arrived at the point. Finally. I feel like there should be a gong sound here.
Contradictions in characters not only make them more quirky and entertaining but provide conflict. If I were turning Dad’s life into a novel, for example, it might be about his struggle to save his dog’s life (and his own) while still doing the things they enjoy together. Okay, it wouldn’t be a blockbuster, but whatever. Dad would battle between his love for Joey and fast food; between what he knows is right in the long run and what he wants in the moment. The novel would be called The Burrito Diaries or Tortilla-Wrapped Death or Man’s Best Fiend or Love in the Time of the Drive Thru.
Just kidding... Or am I? Hmmm.
Anyway, the best characters are relatable. When actions don’t match intentions—something we can all relate to—there’s depth and conflict. So, make your character weird, inconsistent, illogical, or contradictory for your story’s sake. Let there be sausage-dog consequences to their non-sensical behaviors. Give your story a something’s-not-quite-right-here feeling. It’ll draw your readers in and make them drool… like your story’s a McDonald’s Breakfast Burrito, only less, you know, dangerous and bad for you.
In my Delilah Duffy mystery series, my main character loves the beach enough to move there, but fears the water and panics if she gets too close. Her love-the-beach, hate-the-water contradiction was one of the first character traits I gave her, and it's naturally fed the plot over four books (and counting).
Want more writing ideas on contradiction, try this. What contradictory characters have you seen in your story or IRL? Tell us about your neighbor—the watchmaker who’s always late—or the guy at work—the car designer who doesn’t drive. Reveal what doesn’t make sense. In this world, that should be easy. Right?
Share your contradictory ideas below! What doesn't make sense about your character? It might be enough to get us to read your book!
2022 Update: Dad just celebrated his 80th birthday. He and Joey have recently moved into an apartment, requiring them to go for long walks every day. Joey's lost weight, but instead of breakfast burritos, the two have moved on to enjoy McDonald's burgers instead. Two cheeseburgers for Dad, two hamburgers for Joey.