Making Your Characters Contain Multitudes

The novelist Paul Harding praises John Cheever’s short story, “The Jewels of the Cabots,” for teaching him how to write characters with convoluted and contradictory inner lives:

Cheever is a writer who helped teach me to think about characters like a sphere: You’ve got the north pole and the south pole, a polarity with opposite charges contained inside one whole. But then there’s these magnetic fields created between the two of them, which is where the real complexity is, where the real intermingling of those contradictory impulses take shape.

So I strive for these polarities in my own work. You have to be careful that you’re not dogmatic or schematic about it. But the more I think about it, I’m aware that—in all art forms—contradiction is the essential move or method for art.

In music it’s counterpoint. In landscape painting it’s the contrast between the foreground, which is always dark, and the background, which is light. And in writing, it’s death and life. The imminent arrival of death—what greater thing to set life in relief against? In Enon, the whole thing is just a sonata—it’s just one voice—against the threat of utter darkness. The darker it gets, when we arrives at just one remaining pinpoint of light, that pinpoint becomes all the more beautiful and resplendent for its rarity and clarity against the gloom. You put contradictory things next to each other, and in the intermingling of them you get something like the mystery of human experience.