We all understand the importance of contrast in our lives. You can’t know happiness without sadness. You can’t fully appreciate what you have unless you’ve had less. But writers often don’t consider how contrast is important to a successful novel.
Not only does contrast help us to put things into perspective, it’s also more entertaining.
There are lots of ways contrast can enhance a novel. Let’s take a look at a few.
It’s not uncommon for aspiring writers to write stories in which all the good characters agree with each other and all the bad characters agree with each other. We know in our own lives that this isn’t a realistic scenario. Opinions differ widely even among similarly minded folks.
In novels, it’s easy to create very homogenous groups of people where everyone has very similar opinions, and this can get very boring very quickly. Here are the most common (unrealistic) scenarios:
Everybody Hates the Antagonist
Whether the antagonist is an evil king or queen, a murderer, a kidnapper, or just someone who doesn’t want our protagonist to succeed, it’s easy to write someone who everyone hates. But would everyone really hate the antagonist? After all, even murderers gain followers (albeit unstable ones) and certainly people agreed with Hitler.
Everybody Loves the Protagonist
There’s nothing I hate more than a universally loved protagonist. The idea that someone could exist who is so nice and so pretty and so fun that everyone loves them is preposterous. Even the best person in the world has haters, even if they hate the person for their own reasons (like jealousy).
Everyone Has the Same Religious and/or Political Affiliation
This is common among fantasy and science fiction novels (whole civilizations will often be written as if everyone agrees on all matters of religion and politics) but it can happen to any novel. We know in real life that everybody has their own opinion, even within the same religious or political group.
Good Events & Bad Events
Many writers think of novels as a long series of bad events. The problem with this is that if only bad things happen to your character, you deprive the reader of the satisfying roller coaster ride of emotion. If the reader doesn’t experience your character’s triumphs, their failures will begin to feel stale and boring.
A long series of bad events can also be a drain on the reader. It’s good to have moments of levity, moments when the reader can smile, and not just moments when the reader feels sorry for the character.
The Protagonist at the Beginning vs. The End
Perhaps one of the most interesting contrasting elements of the novel comes from the protagonist. After all, a novel is really about the character’s journey and how it alters them for better or worse.
One of the most interesting ways to create contrast in a novel is to think about taking two snapshots of your character – one at the beginning of the novel and one at the end. Now these snapshots are more than just visual, they also capture the essence of the character’s personality.
At the beginning of the novel the character might be angry, vengeful, and petty, but by the end of the novel the character is accepting, forgiving, and less judgmental of others.
By creating contrasting versions of the same character, you ensure that an interesting and exciting journey takes place, one that has deep effects and implications.
Consider contrast in your own novel.
- Do you have any characters, families, or groups who seem to agree on almost everything?
- Is your novel a long series of negative events without any accomplishments or successes?
- Do you have a strong contrast between your protagonist at the beginning and at the end?
If you want to have some fun today (and I’m sure you do because it’s Friday!) try searching for two pictures to represent your character – one to represent who they are at the beginning and one to represent who they are at the end. Focusing on these two pictures can help remind you to develop that contrast!
Please do not forget to submit to Workshop 3 by 8am EST Monday!
Discussion Question (please discuss below):
Do you find it hard to create contrast in your novel? If so, which of the three areas of contrast discussed above are the hardest to master?
8 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #8: The Importance of Contrast”
I think the contrast between the protagonist at the beginning vs. the end is tricky when you’re writing a novel that you plan to be the first in a series. If your protagonist has a complete transformation in the first novel, there’d be no place left to go. So I guess it would need to be more incremental, but would that be satisfying to the reader if each book should be able to stand alone? Do you depend on the story arc of each novel to be strong enough and satisfying enough to make up for the fact that the character does not reach the end of her arc until the end of the series?
For a series, I would try to break the larger arc down into smaller parts. If the character learns to be a leader across the series, maybe all he learns in the first book is how to say no to things he doesn’t agree with. In the second book, maybe he learns how to stand up for what is right. Maybe in the third book he learns how to lead others towards what’s right. I hope this makes sense and helps!
Yes, that makes sense. Thank you. 🙂
Great post! I love stories that aren’t black and white — the protagonists are good, and the antagonists are bad — and are more gray. Those types of stories always keep me on edge more; it leads to more unpredictability in the characters (if you always know the good guy will do the good thing, what’s the fun in that?).
Creating contrast is one of my favorite parts in a novel (which doesn´t mean it´s always working just fine!) So, the first two versions are nothing I am afraid of.
But, I have some issues, when it comes to the protagonist. I have a very special picture of my heroine, And I see her in the end of her journey. So, knowing where I want her to be, itis hard to have her weaker, softer, perhaps just more … plain? when we first meet her.
I try to show as much of her development as possible, but I´m always tempted to oversee that she´s not ready yet, to be just heroine.. – if that makes any sense. 😉
My novel has several characters who are going through similar journeys. I was planning on having some of them having huge breakthroughs by the end but one or two still unable to move past their issues. I figured this seemed more realistic.
•Do you have any characters, families, or groups who seem to agree on almost everything?
Yeah–I struggle writing in non-agreement between family members and between close friends. I KNOW it’s needed, and so I’m working at it, getting somewhat better.
I feel much better about how I’m developing my protagonist’s contrasts from beginning to end of the story. I’m intentionally causing him to experience severe negative inputs in order to have his story be more realistic. Again, Ellen has put her finger on something I need to gain skill in.
Taking a “snapshot” of a character at the beginning and at the end is a great idea. I love that imagery. It’s really useful. Thanks.