Making characters memorable through contrasts

One way to keep your characters from becoming homogeneous is to make them contrasting. This keeps them distinct in the mind of the reader or viewer. Contrasts can be physical, personality, and culture based.


Ganymede TiltThe m/f writers have the edge on us m/m writers there, since there’s an obvious physical contrast of male and female. If the two characters are the same sex, whether we’re talking romance or just a pair of characters, use other traits like size, age, race, hair, clothes etc. Contrast a big beefy blonde guy with a leaner darker guy. I’ve used physical contrasts in most of mine without really thinking about it. Only when I read about this contrasts idea recently did I realise that’s what I’d been doing. I’ve got quite a few “slim lean guy and hunky guy” couples. Must be my thing! Stowaway Cover

It’s easy to go overboard with the “opposites attract” trope, so that readers will find it hard to believe the couple are going to make it. They are just too different. You have to give them enough in common to be convincing as a couple, but you can give them different “styles”. Someone who talks a lot with a more taciturn other half. A joker and a straight man. (That’s straight in the comedy sense.) An expressive emotional guy and a more stoic controlled one.

Higher GroundThey can even have some deep down fundamental difference in the way they see the world. That’s hard to pull off as it can make them seem incompatible. But it’s do-able. Adam and Zach in Higher Ground have different ideas about life and time, moving fast versus waiting, which are tied in to their chosen professions – Zach the geologist thinks life is so short in comparison to deep time. Adam thinks life is long enough to watch a tree grow, so what’s the big rush? Alex and Sean in Ganymede Tilt are company exec and union man. Jarvez the morally ambiguous contrasts with Alyn the man of principle in the Red Dragon series.

Patient Z Cover art by Scott CarpenterMitch and Cal in Patient Z are definitely an example of contrasting fundamentals. Mitch, the cop, is a man who’s always been embedded in a community, serving it. Cal on the other hand is a drifter, self-reliant who doesn’t want to be attached to any place or community. When writing it I thought of them as the farmer/settler and the nomad – groups who traditionally clash. Cal is the disruptive factor in Mitch’s settled life.

Cultural context

BB_TheCompanyMan_covertnSome differences overlap. Race and age are physical, but also give people different cultural contexts. (Watch out for a post next month about the “context” of a character.) Other cultural factors that can provide contrast would be class (we Brits are a tad class obsessed) wealth (not always the same thing as class), education level, political beliefs etc. Alyn and Jarvez have very different cultural contexts, from their family life and their working life, when they meet. They’re still trying to figure it all out.

Along with personality based contrasts the cultural ones create plenty of potential for conflict. So the contrasts of this kind not only make the characters distinct from each other and memorable, they create the tensions and conflicts that will help propel the story and the characters’ emotional journey through it.

So when casting your story think about your leads in particular. How do you keep them distinct from each other? What personality and cultural conflicts will create an interesting character dynamic and conflict. Think about the couples you love in books and if they contrasts of each other.

Here are a few of the m/m books or series I love that have nicely contrasting guys, both physically and personality wise and the writer uses those differences to really enhance the story. What are some of yours?



2 thoughts on “Making characters memorable through contrasts

  1. This post was such an interesting read! It actually made me realise how much I love contrasts in couples – especially physical contrasts. So, so many of my favourite couples have the blond and brunet thing going on. And physical differences are my weak spot.

    But reading about cultural/personality differences made me want to play with that way more. It’s kind of entertaining to see how far you can push those differences without your characters snapping and just driving each other crazy instead – and not driving each other crazy in a sexy way, but rather a “I hate you and your face, why am I even with you, what am I doing with my life” kind of way. One of my favourite short stories I’ve ever written – also the first I’ve ever published! – had that dynamic between the two main characters.

    Thanks for this post! It was a great read!

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