Editing with the Elrics: Creating Complex Characters through Contradictions
One of my writing mentors, David Farland, gave this advice in a writing tip: create complex characters by giving them contradicting attitudes.
The first time I read that I said, Huh? Isn’t that inconsistent characterization? Won’t it look like a continuity error, a mistake? I get internal conflicts, but straight-up contradictions? Really?
I had a hard time understanding this at first because in my head “contradictions” meant undefined characterization–having moments where your character was out of character. I mean, how can you establish a character when he contradicts himself? How can you lay a foundation for one with that advice?
I get it now. It’s kind of like having a conflicted character, but not exactly. Not all conflicted characters are contradicting ones, but I think all contradicting characters are conflicted–whether or not the character realizes he is himself.
In Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, we learn in episode two that years ago the protagonist, Edward Elric, had an afterlife experience of sorts where he met God.
But then in episode three, Ed says he doesn’t believe in God. And later still, he says he doesn’t believe in praying to a god. There is even one part in the series where he very vehemently proclaims himself an atheist.
And yet… in other parts, he talks about God and gods as if he believes they exist. He even suggests that he and his brother should pray to God once, even though Ed’s not a fan of the guy.
Is this bad characterization?
So which is it? Does Ed believe in God or doesn’t he?
Well, both. He's conflicted. By seeing him contradict himself, we learn, that whether or not Edward himself is aware of it, he’s conflicted. By giving him contradictions, Hiromu Arakawa has made her protagonist complex. Some days Ed believes in God and some days he doesn’t. Ed’s not simple. But Ed’s not a “conflicted character” in the sense that he’s pining away over his identity and belief system. So while it’s an internal conflict he has, it’s not really an “Internal Conflict”–an important part of the plot.
Is this making sense? I hope so, because it’s kind of hard to explain.
Let’s look a the character Greed to contrast. At the end of the series Greed is internally conflicted because of how he’s grown and developed as a character. Is he going to chose to side with good guys or bad guys or just himself? He’s conflicted, but he’s not contradicting himself; he’s just changing and reevaluating his self-identity. That makes still make him complex.
Ed: Contradicting view on God, but only internally conflicted about it on a subconscious level.
Greed: Conflicted on a conscious level, but not contradicting himself, just growing.
Both are complex but in different ways.
The truth is, is that you can do what Arakawa did with Ed and Greed all in one character, if you want. Stay with me.
If you read or watch Trigun, you’ll see the writer, Nightow, is great at using contradictions to create complex characters. His protagonist, Vash, is an outlaw with a $$60 billion bounty on his head, but he’s also a pacifist. His other character, Wolfwood, is a trained assassin, but also a priest. How can these characters be both of these things at the same time? You’ll have to watch (and frankly read) to get the whole story, but the contradictions make them complex.