We all know the famous characters in literature: Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Percy Blakeney in the Scarlet Pimpernel. Also well known are the opposites that play against these famous protagonists. Without the opposite character, the initial one pales. Whenever I’m writing a novel I think about the opposites. Those characters that make the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the main protagonist interesting.
One of the most famous, of course, is Dr. Watson. He’s smart, logical and a war veteran with no lack of fear. Nowhere do I recall Doyle writing that he had an addiction or mental illness. Conan Doyle did a wonderful job juxtaposing him against Sherlock, who had a whole host of quirks, eccentricities and a full blown cocaine addiction. Under normal circumstances two men such as this might never have met, much less worked together, but Watson can see the decency along with the quirks and he’s unafraid to stay close to this mercurial, addicted and brilliant man. It’s through his eyes that we come to know and love Sherlock. Good thing, too, because I doubt that Sherlock telling his own story would have been so clear eyed regarding his problems.
Elizabeth Bennett has an entire group of opposites: her beautiful, sweet natured sister Jane, her strident, obnoxious mother, and her selfish and flighty sister Lydia. Elizabeth’s character fascinates because she keeps a clear and critical eye on society’s restrictions and refuses to bend to them. Her self esteem and resolve shines through. I keep Darcy out of my list of opposites, because he is much more like Elizabeth rather than an opposite. We never learn what happens after the marriage, but I can only assume that his choice of a less well connected bride rattled his crew and raised eyebrows, yet he ignored it all and married for love.
Percy Blakeney of the Scarlet Pimpernel is one of my favorites because he literally creates his own opposite. He’s the fashion obsessed and empty headed fop by day, and a savior of condemned aristocrats in France by night. This character is the closest to an actual spy and his use of society’s assumptions about people with certain characteristics is a brilliant manipulation.
I’m in the final stages of another Emma Caldridge manuscript, and I’m having those episodes of waking up in the middle of the night thinking “perhaps if I move that section, add some more conflict there and what the hell am I going to do with that chapter that I love so much but might not fit?” moments. This morning it was 4:00 am with me lying in bed listening to the rain hammer the roof while I mulled my almost finished manuscript. I thought about today’s post and the theory of opposites and decided that I would run through every character with an eye toward this theme.
I have no doubt it will enrich the story.
And who knows, maybe tonight, after it’s done, I’ll rest easy.
To the writers reading this, add your opposites and may you sleep through the night!