I’m reading the Love Comes Softly series by bestselling author Janette Oke. It’s a Christian family saga set in the US during the time we were still settling the “west.” One of the tools Oke makes good use of is juxtaposition. The Davis family is set up as a kind of ideal of Christian faith in the face of hardship. Surrounding the many characters of the Davis family are people who handle similar situations in less ideal ways.
In the first book, the one titled Love Comes Softly, the faithless main character Marty is forced to marry a stranger to survive after her first husband dies suddenly before they can even claim their new homestead. Her new husband is a widower with a very young child. He marries her because he needs someone to care for his daughter, and knows that she needs someone to provide for her. He’s also a Christian who teaches her about his faith. It’s a marriage of convenience, yet the new husband is also an example of the Christian ideal—genuinely caring for this stranger he’s taken into his home to raise his child, even though she starts out resisting and resenting his every kindness. This is the immediate juxtaposition in the story.
To add another layer of contrast, there is a woman whom Marty comes to admire. This woman is a friend to her and a helping hand through much of the hardship Marty has to endure. Over the course of the story, Marty comes to discover that the man she knows as her friend’s husband is really her second husband, and this too began as a marriage of convenience. Both the man and the woman lost their spouses while having young children to care for, so they banded together to raise their collective children.
While both families are set up as “good people” and good examples of the Christian faith, one primary and (in Marty’s case, necessary) difference is that Marty’s marriage of convenience is not consummated until after they fall in love. The other woman slept with her second husband before they loved each other, and still carried the scars of that choice.
Another example of juxtaposition is three-fold and comes in a later story. A member of the family becomes disabled in a very particular way. In contrast to him, there is a man who used to be a doctor who only takes up his practice again when he realizes that this family member will die if his leg isn’t removed. This is the hardest thing the doctor could do, because he stopped practicing medicine after another man—his own brother—chose to take his life rather than live without his leg. The third contrast is a man who was injured in a similar way. Though he was able to keep his leg, he still experienced the pain of his injury and his abilities were limited by his rather severe limp. He was also bitter and disheartened because of the accident. The way the member of this strongly Christian family handles his disability is contrasted against the brother who committed suicide, but he also becomes an example to the man who was still struggling to come to terms with the injury that disabled him. In this story, this one misfortune becomes an opportunity for many blessings.
While I read a wide variety of books, the only kind of fiction I write is speculative fiction. One component of speculative fiction is the tendency to set-up a bigger-than-life character as the hero. In other words, we’re asked to identify with an ideal. Now, I’m all for these extraordinary characters who face bigger-than-life circumstances and come out on the other side triumphant.
It’s not particularly believable when they come out the other side unscathed. It’s completely unbelievable when they come out the other side unaffected—if they’re not affected, then what’s the point, right? Thinking about the books I do like and the characters I do find believable, I can’t help but notice the subtle (or not so subtle, but usually subtle) use of juxtaposition. Sometimes early mistakes are contrasted with better choices further along. That’s an element of character arc. Other times it’s other characters that make the mistakes and the hero or heroine learns from them or chooses a different path for better reasons. This juxtaposition helps characterize both characters, making both more believable.
Either way, the point is that when you have a character that is essentially an ideal, part of the way to make that character believable is to acknowledge that most of us don’t measure up. Show the juxtaposition. And show why the character is better.