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Contrast to Compare

Yo, WUers! It seems like forever since I’ve posted. Like you, I’ve been busy juggling writing and real life.  I do want to give you a head’s up that Therese and I have been working on an exciting new initiative that will dovetail with the WU community, and that project has been my focus for the last few months. We can’t wait to share it with you! Stay tuned for details, they are coming soon.

Some of you may know (or remember) that I write YA novels for Working Partners LTD, a book packager. I had great fun writing the First Daughter series, and it was well-received by readers.  But sometimes I collaborate on projects that don’t sell for whatever reason (just like any writer).  Maybe it doesn’t hit the right niche or the trend has passed. And just like that, a year has passed. It’s disappointing, but that’s the way it goes in this industry.

But what IS exciting is getting the opportunity to try other project.  Currently I’m working on a concept that targets girls ages 9 to teen.  Without giving too much away, it’s what I call a bon-bon read – fun and quickly consumed, the kind of book that has them giggling, frothy and humorous.

How the process works is that I get the storyline and characters, do some research, give myself a basic schedule and then jump into the writing.  But as I started working, I realized something wasn’t clicking. The protagonist was bubbly, funny, empathetic—the sort of girl that other girls would like to have as a friend.  The story itself was amusing, the concept solid. But it was missing that spark, the thing that takes the story to another level.

Then it hit me: it was too sweet, too frothy. You know how sometimes a good dish is made all the better for an unexpected element? Like how sea salt brings out the creaminess in caramel, or how dried cranberries provide a zip in a savory dish? This character needed a trait to contrast with her overall sweet personality which would not only make her more multi-dimensional, but add internal and external conflict where necessary. She needed to be tarted up, for lack of a better analogy.

Contrasting character traits is a useful technique, one that can open up your storytelling and allow for more internal angst and external character-driven plotting. The stories I like best to read AND to write are when the main character has a trait that hews against their basic personality—and this trait brings out the best and the worst in them at inconvenient times.  Note I didn’t say flaw, but trait.  A character who loves deeply can also be fooled by love; a stubborn protagonist won’t give up until the killer is caught but can also get themselves killed in the process.

Let’s take, for example, everyone’s favorite gothic heroine, Jane Eyre.  Jane is mousy, naïve, and shy. She also has a will of iron.  Bronte made sure she fell in love with a jaded raconteur for lots of juicy external conflict.  But all the decisions Jane makes are based upon her principles, which she is able to hold onto because of her immense willpower tempered from a difficult childhood.  She looks weak, but inside she’s strong enough to give up the love of her life when she has to.

Katniss is the anti-heroine willing to do what’s needed to win the Hunger Games, including killing to survive. But she holds something more dear than her own life: when she loves someone, she will do everything in her power to save them even if it costs her own life.

Faramir’s sense of duty and family honor is strong in The Lord of the Rings. When his father, in his madness, asks him to sacrifice himself, Faramir can only give one answer–yes–even though he knows he will never win his father’s approval.

Do you have a contrasting trait embedded in your characters? If not, consider doing so. The result could be adding a richer layer and more satisfying arc for your characters.

About Kathleen Bolton [1]

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton [2]. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway [3]: 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 [4].