Character contradictions are what make a story fun to follow.
Since I live in Toddlerdom over here I see a lot of Pixar movies (shocker). The good writers at Pixar know what they’re doing when it comes to story lines, and one of my favorite aspects of their films is the contradictory traits of their characters: the cowardly T-Rex in “Toystory”, the Shark support group in “Finding Nemo” (Fish are friends, not food!), and my current favorite, the “I’ve got a dream” song from “Tangled”:
These characters are memorable, likable, and the reader/watcher bonds to them because they can relate. Contrary to societal categories, there is no soul on Earth that can be pigeonholed into a singular description. No one is all bad or all good. We are a mess of contradictions and that’s what makes us great.
The same idea should be applied to characters in books. Is there anything more boring than the beautiful, sweet, kind, patient, makes-you-want-to-smack-her heroine? Sure, she can be beautiful, but give that girl some bad hair days, maybe a scar, and a smart-mouth and suddenly she comes to life!
Equally with antagonists, give them some contradiction. Take Jaime Lannister from “A Song of Ice and Fire”. He seems without remorse, ruthless, and yet he’s never been with any other woman but Cersei. Monogamous. Now there’s a surprise from a guy like that. Disturbing as that whole relationship is, my initial hatred of him couldn’t help but thin a bit knowing he was capable of such devotion (especially since almost no one else in that series appears to be).
Be sure to apply this rule to names as well. Don’t give your bad guys names like “Dastard” or “Cruella” unless you’re trying to be tongue-in-cheek about it. Speaking as a new mother, no one looks down at their baby and thinks, “My sweet, little peanut. I think I’ll name you Son-of-a-” well, you get the idea.
Character Contradiction: Who they seem to be vs. Who they are deep down. Dig that well for your readers and they’ll come running back for more.