Some of the most memorable characters in literature have a dual nature. They are, in effect, two different and distinct characters living within one body.
Perhaps the most famous is Jekyll and Hyde.
Dual characters are conceived as such by the author right from the get-go.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein monster was such a character: both a ferocious killer and a philosophy-loving gentle giant. Long John Silver was a cold-blooded pirate on the one hand, and a warm and loving father figure on the other. Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine, was outwardly a stiff-necked society matron but, inside, a hopeless romantic. Carrie, of course, is a dual character: one side, a gawky teenager yearning for acceptance; the other, a young woman with terrible, godlike, psychokinetic power.
How do you create such characters? Think of them as being ego states. According to the psychological theory of transactional analysis popularized by Eric Berne in Games People Play, the ego exists in three distinct ego states, the parent, the adult, and the child.
When in the parent ego state, we say things like: "Wear your seat belt." In the adult ego state, we're rational beings—reflective and wise—and we say such things as: "I've made a list of all the reasons to build the new deck and feel we should, as it would add $15,000 in value to the house for a $12,800 investment." In the child ego state, we might try to get ahead of someone in traffic who tried to cut us off. "I'll teach him to cut me off!"
In creating a dual character, think of the ego states as going further than simply reflecting an attitude. Think of the ego states as being separate characters altogether, when in one ego state the character would say and do things he or she would never do in the other ego state.
Here's an example:
Suppose you have a character who's a major in the army in World War II. He's a brilliant tank commander, battle-hardened, tough, an astute tactician, fearless, gutsy, determined, ruthless, hard on his men; a by-the-book disciplinarian who will tolerate no disobedience to an order whatever.
Let's call him Major Broderick Rawlston. He's a pug-faced guy, chomping on a cigar, short, but broad-shouldered and immensely strong from lifting weights. A bulldog in soiled fatigues, two Colt .45 automatics swinging from his belt, he often carries a silver-tipped riding crop.
He was brought up in an army family: His father was in General Pershing's army in the First World War. He was taught from the time he could crawl that the highest duty on earth was to defend one's country. His ruling passion is to be the best damn tank commander in the whole damn army, bar none. If he has a flaw, it's that he drives his men, his tanks, and himself too hard. In his wake, he leaves a lot of dead Germans and a lot of spent shells ... and a record number of cases of combat fatigue in his own ranks.
His men call him "Raging Rawlston." He's dramatic in every way. We could make a pretty interesting character out of him and his story would be well worth telling. But we could make an unforgettable character out of him if he had a dual nature.
Say Raging Rawlston as a child liked to draw pictures, which his military-minded parents thought was pretty silly stuff and did everything from bribery to ridicule to discourage. He didn't stop, though: He became a closet artist, painting in secret during stolen hours. In college, he frequented the local artists' colony and hung out with artists, never telling his military friends or his family. While hanging out with the artists, he was in his artist ego state: his usual pug face softened, the hard cast in his eyes disappeared, and he looked contemplative, serene.
By the time he's a forty-year-old major fighting Nazis he is long practiced in keeping his two natures separate. One of his dual personalities wants to be the greatest general; the other wants to create a masterpiece with oils on canvas. One side of him is iron hard, the other is pillow soft, yet both exist in the same man. When in his military ego state, he sees what his parents did for him as a good thing; in his artist ego state, he deeply resents it.
Raging Rawlston has a great potential as a character when we put him to a test to expose who he really is. Say he drives his tank through the wall of a church. To press the attack, he must drive his tank through another wall, on which he knows that a valuable Renaissance fresco is painted. His two selves would be at war with each other. Such a character could be well worth knowing.
Women characters may make good dual characters as well. Take Hilda O'Farrell. Let's say she's a society matron living on Nob Hill in San Francisco. She has a Pekingese with a rhinestone collar that sits on her lap all day. Born fabulously wealthy, Hilda was raised with the notion that she should shrewdly manipulate her holdings to increase them, which she does through her business manager.
Through and through a snob, she has her nose stuck pretty much in the stratosphere. She enjoys theater, ballet, and reading Architectural Digest. An avid bridge player, she's twice been on championship teams and finished second and third in the world invitationals. She detests disorder and has a fetish for cleanliness. If you wish to make the claim that you are somebody in San Francisco, you must be invited to Hilda's Sunday soirées. She's thirty-seven and has been through four husbands, all much older than she: All left her even more wealthy.
Now then, on to her dual nature.
Hilda is a practical joker. She can't help herself. Though she's a snobby socialite, she enjoys nothing more than seeing another snobby socialite made the butt of a practical joke. She realizes that her dual nature is incongruous, but that's the way it is; she just gets giddy sometimes and can't control herself.
Most of the time she's the snob, but sometimes a twinkle appears in her eyes and her other self takes over.
Hilda could be a very interesting character indeed. What if she married a presidential candidate? The king of England? The possibilities are awesome.
How about a more serious character? Let's call her Ivy Dan-forth, who in her younger days was the motherly sort. A gentle soul, a homemaker who loved children, a devoted wife to her husband, Dillon, a businessman—the wholesale plumbing-supply king. Ivy knew she was old-fashioned, but she was brought up to think of a woman's place as in the home, blah, blah.
Then Dillon keeled over from a heart attack and Ivy was thrust into the plumbing-supply business, which teetered on the brink of disaster. She took charge and saved the business, but in the process she had to become a hardheaded businesswoman, and did.
As our novel opens, at work she hires and fires and wheels and deals and has built the business into the largest plumbing-supply house on the planet, but at home she's still a mom who likes to bake fresh bread and knit sweaters. A woman with a dual nature.
The trouble comes at age forty-seven when, at the hospital to visit her daughter and new granddaughter, she meets Dr. Wayne Marlow, who is quickly enamored of her gentle ways, and love quickly blossoms. But will he be able to deal with her dual nature, of which he is not aware?
The possible complications are intriguing.
Here's another example:
Let's say there's a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. He's shy, timid, seemingly cowardly. Wears glasses. But he has a second nature: He's the man of steel, who wears his underpants on the outside, is faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound ...
Remember "Kung Fu" on TV? Remember Caine? The hero was a dual character, a mild-mannered fellow, bowing and scraping and playing his flute, until provoked and then he became a tiger. How about The Three Faces of Eve, where three personalities inhabit one body. And the Godfather, Vito Corleone, who was a kind, loving father and a ruthless brutal gangster.
To make your characters worth knowing, give them intriguing backgrounds, make them have unusual ideas and insights, let some of them be wacky, contrast them well with each other and their setting, maybe give them a dual nature. And take some risks with them, make them fresh.
And since your characters are going to change in the course of your damn good novel, you'll need to apply some advanced techniques of premise, which, as you might have guessed, is the subject of Chapter Four.
Was this article helpful?