How to Increase Tension in Stories Using Character Contrast
Contrast is one of my favorite buzzwords when it comes to character creation. Using opposites to force character growth and make characters stand out is one of the easiest and most effective ways of getting reader attention and making sure your story keeps moving.
Today I’ll give you an easy way to implement that in your own stories. It involves using what you already know about your characters and turning the tables to make those qualities pop.
Here’s how I often organize characterization:
The fun thing about characters is that, like people, they have layers, and a great way to create a layer is to create a clash or conflict between at least two elements of characterization.
Superheroes do this all the time. Take Superman/Clark Kent, for example:
1.) Appearance – Handsome
2.) Career/Job/What They Do – Saves the world (a lot)
3.) Personality – Strong and determined, generally introverted in most incarnations
4.) Motivation – classic Hero Archetype – because someone has to + because he can + to prove his worth
5.) Worldview/Beliefs – classic down-home American values combined with whatever he got from Krypton
In order to do achieve his goal and try to live a normal introverted life (which his personality demands) and to show humility/protect loved ones (which those down-home American values dictate), Superman has to lie about his alien identity and live as Clark Kent. This deception is totally at odds with the rest of his all-too-heroic demeanor and is often something played for humor and conflict as he sneaks around to save the world (and different versions of Superman emphasize the Clark Kent side vs. Kal-El side to a greater or lesser degree).
Superheroes often use dual-identity to create conflicts and layers within character, but this concept can work in any situation. All you need is to tweak one aspect of the environment or one essential layer.
Tweaking your characters’ core layers to oppose each other is a great way to create internal and external conflict (Click to Tweet).
Another example is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games:
1.) Appearance – Ordinary
2.) Career/Job/What They Do – Takes care of family, hunts, spends time with Gale
3.) Personality – Strong and determined, generally introverted in most incarnations, not interested in being heroic
4.) Motivation – The Explorer – individualist + wanderer + freedom to do what is necessary to get things done and operate their own destiny
5.) Worldview/Beliefs – rugged American individualism, plus independence, personal freedom, and devotion to family
So of course, author Suzanne Collins plunks Katniss in the middle of a dangerous political/literal game that requires playing within the rules of a flashy world comprised of the socially-adept. Of course Katniss’s entire being opposes this, but her core worldview means that her family must be kept safe. Threaten Primrose Everdeen, and suddenly Katniss has to bite the bullet and endure a host of trials and difficulties. To make it worse, she manages to gain a following based on public perception of her personality. For this reason, I’ve always found book two of trilogy, Catching Fire, to be the most compelling, because it features the strongest conflicts for Katniss in terms of characterization.
The more you tweak a character to be out of odds with a fundamental part of their own personality, their required role, or their environment, the more tension you build into the plot, and the more you provide opportunities for growth and change.