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    « A Trope You Can Throw | Main | Paradoxical Movie Stars »

    How to Paradoxify a Character

    We’ve been dwelling on paradoxical tropes over the past few posts.  Today, let’s get personal.

    When you want to describe any person memorably, toss in bad and good ingredients of their personality and let them have at it. This is especially true of someone you dislike. Watch the difference between a 100-percent evil description and one that’s a little more ambiguous. 


    Evil: She had a thin, quick, mean look about her—scary-looking even when she smiled, which was rare. 

    Ambiguous: She was lithe and smart and quick as a whippet, with the rare smile that a whippet makes just before it bites. 


    The Evil version is conversational, descriptive, and blandly unmemorable. The second version condemns the victim to an infamous eternity by starting out pleasantly—creating tension.

    Frederic William Henry Myers mixed used paradox to describe St. Paul. 

    Coldly sublime,

    intolerably just.

     The line makes us shiver. Whether you think Myers is playing fair or not, the technique is flawless: bad paired with good in each balanced phrase. You don’t have to be nearly as literary to be memorable. Just think of a way to balance the good and bad side of every trait.

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    Reader Comments (6)

    So are you saying that flattering makes the best insult?
    May 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCindy
    Flattery certainly seasons an insult.
    May 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    I like how the positive part makes you sound objective.
    May 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCandida
    Yes, but the main trick of a paradox is to lend tension to a story or description. My next book, Word Hero, devotes a lot of attention to figures that create tension.
    May 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    This is good advice for public speaking as well as writing and storytelling. Mix it up! My mother was a lion poised to attack, poised in beauty and silence.
    June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDorothy
    Great, Dorothy! But how about if you put the lion part last?

    "My beautiful mother sat silent and calm, a lion poised to attack."

    Remind me not to meet your mother.
    June 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro

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