Protagonists are not always the most cooperative bunch. You need them to knuckle down and get serious about fighting the good fight, and they’re still worried about Aunt May finding out they have extracurricular activities that can’t go on a college transcript (we’re looking at you, Peter Parker). Oftentimes, the antagonist is able to provoke them into the next stage of the plot, as it should be. But if that ever doesn’t work – if there are times that your protagonist is being stubborn, bull-headed, or otherwise recalcitrant – then you need a contrast character to proverbially kick them in the gonads. After all, the protagonist only mostly runs the show, and it can be useful to remind them of that.
Contrast characters are, primarily, characters that would do things differently if they were the protagonist. There are many forms a contrast character can take: the best-friend, the protagonist’s rival, a trusted confidant, to name a few. Whoever they are, they have a spot in the protagonist’s life. They can be friendly, or they can be hostile. Not every contrast character fully diverges from the protagonist – they could have a lot in common or nothing at all. What they do have is a difference that impacts the story; something that can be used to motivate the protagonist into the next stage of the plot or to put them in a certain mindset that makes them more pliable to what comes next.
If the contrast character is a rival, maybe the protagonist is feeling shown up, like they need to up their game to be just as cool as this other guy. For a more obvious use of contrast, maybe the best friend is mousy and bookish while the protag is boisterous and outgoing. Or, if it’s a trusted confidant, maybe there is a favorite bar that the protagonist likes to visit, and an insightful bartender who knows when the protag is avoiding confronting the real problem.
One of the best examples of the uses of a contrast character is Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. They are best friends who approach problems in very different ways. Holmes knows this is an asset, and Watson is devoted enough to not mind compensating for his friend’s shortcomings. They work well as a team, and their differences can push stories forward. Watson also serves to act as a mirror to Holmes – to remind the audience that for all his brilliance, Holmes struggles to find his place in the world amongst the people he helps. Their contrast defines all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and neither of them would have it any other way.
Alternately, we can look at a set of rivals such as Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. What they have in common is external pressure for them to perform or behave in a certain way. Their rivalry is a defining part of their characters, and seeing them clash we get a firsthand look at the pettiness in Draco (that he does grow out of, although it turns to resentfulness before he does) and the realistic optimism of Harry (that he clings to no matter what the odds are against him). Without Draco, we wouldn’t have seen just how all encompassing Harry’s sense of honor ran, and without Harry, Draco would have had one less example lighting his way out of the dark.
Big parts or small cameos, contrasting characters can be single scene entrants just as easily as full-fledged secondary characters. Single scene contrast characters are often more difficult to write, but they can be just as impactful to an audience.
Knowing how to use contrasting characters is just as important as being able to identify them.
Describe them from the protagonist’s POV, then describe the protagonist from their POV. If they are contrasts, there is likely to be criticism from one to the other. Ask yourself if their differences include characteristics the protagonist will need to either adopt, overcome, or resist. Sherlock, for example, would describe John as a brilliant mind, even if not as brilliant as his own. John would describe Sherlock as a frustratingly stupid genius whom he admired and had great respect for. Both must accept influence from each other – adopting the influence – in order to see the story through to the end. Conversely, Harry and Draco would include things on their list that others had told them to think about one another. Their resistance against adopting each other’s influence is part and parcel of their roles in the books – Harry for not sinking to Draco’s level; Draco for resenting that Harry’s choices often make him painfully aware of his own shortcomings.
A question for the end: Do you have any favorite scenes between two characters who disagree with one another? Can you name one thing you learned in a scene that featured two characters on opposite sides of an issue? Have you ever written a rival for any of your protagonists? Do your contrast characters have influence over the outcome of the story, or the protagonist’s actions within the story? The comments are always open.