Character Contradictions

I love the Geico cavemen. Every time the commercials flash across the t.v., I stop what I’m doing and pay attention. My current favorite is the therapist commercial: Talia Shire listens to a caveman complain about the disrespect he gets from Geico and how the insurance company’s ad campaign is ruining his life. Even his therapist wonders why he’s making a fuss—he is, after all, a caveman. You can feel his frustration building as his Blackberry buzzes….how is he going to change the negative stereotypes about cavemen when he can’t even get his therapist to understand?

I wondered why the Geico cavemen tickle my funny bone. Then I realized it’s because of the contradictions in their character. Metrosexual cavemen are just plain funny and intriguing. A hairy caveman with a protruding frontal lobe debating blow-dried cable television newscaster-bots about caveman abuse gets a belly laugh.

And that’s the key to creating a compelling character. Contradictions. A caveman beating on his chest in outrage–not so funny. A caveman with a Ph.D. in philosophy discoursing about his feelings–hilarious. Cavemen trying to make fire–boring. But cavemen walking through the airport with his tennis satchel–you get the idea.

Building contradictions into characters give you, the writer, somewhere to go when you need to inject what could be a routine scene with drama and tension. This is useful when the type of story you are writing happens to be one that isn’t necessarily life-or-death struggles. Perhaps you want to write a story about a tweenager who wants to be the prom queen. How do you go beyond the stereotype? Just like the creators of the Geico caveman did: they started by looking at the contradictions. Prom queen who is prissy? Yawn. Prom queen who builds motorcycle choppers in her father’s garage? Now we’re getting closer to an intriging story.

Have a flat character who doesn’t add any zip to your story? See if you need to build a contradiction into his character. It’s an easy fix and adds internal and external tension.
About those cavemen. Geico knows it has a good thing going. Their sensitive cavemen may get their own t.v. show. The cavemen have their own website Who knew that cavemen had to contend with so much bigotry and hatefulness when all they want to do is lead dignified lives?

I have a deep desire for roast duck with mango salsa right now.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.


  1. says

    FYI, according to Wikipedia, the song that plays during the airport commercial is by Royksopp, a kicking Norwegian electronia group. They are a must for any iPod.

  2. says

    I too love this ads. They are creative and witty, and that’s what makes them good. The other thing that works is that we only see a glimps, but it’s enough to know what’s going on. “Be cause I’m looking at it right now.” We don’t know what was said on the other end of the line, but that doesn’t matter. Perfect.

  3. says

    I agree, Bryan. The ads give you enough so you can fill in their lives. I imagine them coming home after a hard day at their internet start up, uncorking a really fine bottle of Pinot Grigio and relaxing to Sarah Brightman. For some reason, they seem like California cavemen to me:-)

  4. says

    Hmm, I have to disagree…oh, not with your argument about trying to go against stereotypes. That’s great advice and I suppose the cavemen are a great example.

    But they annoy me to no end. It’s one of those advertising gimmicks that I wish had disappeared after the first incarnation. That there is to be a tv show based on them just blows my mind. I suppose a Broadway musical is next.

  5. says

    I know many folks who hate the cavemen too, Stace, my husband for one. But I’d take the cavemen over the Gecko. That guy’s outlived his usefulness, imo. ;-)

  6. LauraG says

    This concept is one I’ve been thinking about for a while! I’m not sure I’ve ever related that concept to the GEICO cavemen, but it certainly works. GEICO definitely has something going here. If you have time, you can even digitally visit the cavemen before their big up-town party.

    All my favorite literary characters have strong contradictions, even if they’re not so obvious: Mary Poppins, in the actual books, for example. Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. Jean Valjean from Les Misérables. Will Ladislaw from Middlemarch. Edward Rochester—Jane Eyre herself. … the list goes on.