Characters lie at the heart of many great stories. The things that happen to them, or their desires, are often the impetus for plot to take shape. The way we give information about these characters: their wants, their likes and dislikes, their backstories, etc., are all part of characterization. This is the process of making these characters into people readers can connect with. One surefire way to engage in meaningful characterization is to use a technique called counterpointed characterization.

Counterpointed characterization is a technique used by writers that positions two or more different characters against, or, indeed, alongside, one another in such a way that this positioning helps to elucidate aspects of these characters that would not otherwise be clear to readers. In addition to doing characterization work, this technique can also be a natural way to create dramatic tension in a narrative. It is important to note, though, that counterpointed characterization is not the same thing as creating a foil for a character. To counterpoint two characters, they do not need to be opposites or versions of one another. They can be two distinct character types who exist alongside one another and who the writer wants to see what their proximity to each other might yield. 

There are many famous examples of counterpointed characterization that might help make this technique clearer. Jo March is the main character in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She is counterpointed against the responsible, proper Meg, the sickly, saintly Beth, the feminine, sometimes vain Amy, and the rich, aimless Laurie. By putting Jo alongside these characters, Alcott gives the reader greater insight into who Jo is. Readers see what she envies about her sisters and Laurie, and what she judges them for.

Another excellent, and more contemporary, example of this technique is found in Raven Leilani’s wonderful novel, Luster. The novel tells the story of Edie, a 20-something Black woman in New York City who forms a romantic relationship with a man in an open marriage who has an adopted daughter, Akila. While the man and his wife are white, Akila is Black. These two characters are counterpointed, not against, but alongside, each other:

“…I take a moment to really look at her, her shiny brown cheeks, her soft frown and Adventure Time nightshirt, her towering hair and balled fists. Because once upon a time my weird adolescent breasts were subject to the dissection of aunties everywhere, my BMI always a hot topic among the Jamaican deaconesses in our SDA church, I would like to mind my own business when it comes to the subject of Akila’s hair. However, it is a massive, two-foot condemnation of her limp-haired parents, who had clearly made some previous effort that did not pan out.

‘You’re the girlfriend,’ she says with no ire or judgment, which somehow makes it worse.”

This example is so rich and illustrative of how counterpointed characterization can serve a story. The moment above, in which Edie meets Akila for the first time, gives the reader an example of Edie seeing herself in Akila right away. By putting Edie and Akila in this situation, Leilani has a vehicle to weave pieces of Edie’s backstory and emotional landscape into the story with a light touch.

Counterpointed characterization is just one way to utilize counterpointing in general. Though this technique is the focus of this specific post, one might also benefit from seeing what counterpointing can do for other elements of a story. A writer might also counterpoint settings, ideas, desires, and more to see what surprises it might open the door for in their story.

— Debbie Miszak, Mid-American Review