How familiar is the action hero who fights to the end without showing a glimpse of doubt, shock or fear? Or the antagonist who sets in motion horrifying events but never shows a flicker of pain, guilt or remorse? We’ve all read those books and seen those films, and it’s understandable why it’s tempting to remove contradiction from fiction. If we present a character in one emotional state and a few paragraphs later show them feeling the opposite, haven’t we invalidated our own writing? Aren’t we running the risk of confusing the reader?

This is where we need to give the reader a lot more credit. In real life contradiction is everywhere. Take a look at the newspapers and find it on a grand scale. Is there a story about a parent who killed his or her own child? Creation and destruction. A high-profile bitter divorce? Love and hate. A whistle blower? Loyalty and betrayal. War? Oppression vs. freedom. These themes appear time and again in stories because we recognise contradictory behaviours in ourselves and in the world around us and we wish to better understand them.

Take a look at the minutiae of your own behaviour. For one day, note all the emotional reactions you have to the people you meet. For example, you might feel affection towards a family member and hostility towards a work colleague. Note how you talk and behave in each situation. It will be quite different.

Now observe all the emotions you feel over a few days towards your nearest and dearest. The people closest to us often evoke the strongest and most conflicting emotions. In the space of an hour we might feel affection and irritation towards a partner, and as a parent, love may compete daily with impatience, entrapment and guilt. All are real and valid and human.

 So how do we handle contradiction when writing fictional characters?

Amy Hempel, an American short story writer and teacher, puts it neatly: “A story happens, when two equally appealing forces, or characters, or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time, and they’re both right.”

Conflict is an essential element in all stories, opposing forces should not be easily reconciled; in fact, it’s better if they cannot be reconciled at all.

Characters must show internal conflict. Characters with flaws, who adopt different personas to suit different situations, are believable.

The author shouldn’t try to solve the conflict neatly, thus eliminating contradiction. Authors need only present the characters, theme, argument or dilemma, giving the reader the great pleasure of drawing their own conclusions on the story’s message.

Note: Even some words in the English language have dual contradictory meanings. E.g. Cleave – to split and to adhere. Sanction – to allow and to boycott. Bolt – to secure and to flee.

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