I made my yearly trip to Colorado Springs this past weekend to the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, and I thought I’d make a few comments about the meeting. Overall, it was one of the best writers conferences I’ve attended, and I’ve been to several. My criteria in judging a conference is based on the percentage of the number of talks and discussions I attended that were actually helpful to me in my writing or publishing or marketing. This year, all I attended were. (In previous meeting they haven’t always been.) Since there were many more sessions available that I could attend in the three days of the meeting, I had to select the ones I thought would be most effective for me. That wasn’t difficult.
I attended sessions on writing short stories, writing combat in science fiction (that’s right), how to pace a novel (excellent), constructing a critique group (eye-opening), a great session on the essentials for powerful fiction, one on using personification and metaphor, and even an enlightening session on shams and scams. All were filled with delicious tidbits of information essential to the burgeoning writer. Any one of which I could expand into a full blog post.
But what I want to concentrate on for this post is a comment that was made in one of the sessions that a protagonist, in order to feel real—that is, three dimensional—must be many things. The example the presenter gave was Sherlock Holmes. Make no mistake, Holmes is many things. Conan Doyle went out of his way to make sure. Holmes is a brilliant analyzer of human activity, yet he’s addicted to cocaine. He can be gracious to his guests, but at times can be maddeningly discourteous. He can be alternately brooding or pleasant. He sometimes takes his friend and colleague Dr. Watson into his confidence, but sometimes doesn’t. In short, Holmes has many dichotomies. He can be one or another.
So often in learning how to write, we are taught to be consistent. Consistency is important, to be sure, but not in every case. This frequently comes up in science fiction. If we construct a fictitious world on a dry, barren desert planet, it wouldn’t do to have the hero of the story step out onto a green meadow in a spring rain. Our protagonists and even antagonists must be consistent in their actions and responses, we are repeatedly warned. But the example of Sherlock Holmes indicates that consistency is not always the best case. All people, especially the protagonists of our stories, are a bag of contradictions. It’s not enough to have a person with a brilliant mind as the hero. That person must be made real. And one very effective way to do that is through the use of dichotomy. A brilliant university professor might beat his kids at home. Superman was afraid of kryptonite. Dichotomy is the key. Don’t be afraid to present opposites in your characters. All humans are flawed, regardless of what they think or say, and bringing this out in the story only humanizes them.