I. What is Contrast?
Contrast means difference, especially when that difference is very noticeable. It usually shows up in pairs: steak and salad, salt and pepper, table and chairs, hero and villain, etc.
Contrast often means “opposite”: for example, black is the opposite of white, and so there’s a contrast between black ink and white paper. But contrast can also happen when the two things are just very different. For example, cats and dogs are definitely a contrast, but they’re not opposites.
II. Types of Contrast
The types of contrast are basically infinite, but these are a few of the most common ones:
- Visual Contrast: Maybe the simplest form of contrast is purely visual. It often includes colors, such as black and white or green and purple. But it could also involve shapes, sizes, etc.
- Social/Cultural Contrast: rich and poor, male and female, Christian and atheist, Congolese, Brazilian and Turkish. These are all social or cultural contrasts
- Personal Contrast: Imagine two people who have different skills, habits, or personalities. One’s messy, the other’s clean. One’s tough, the other’s wimpy. One’s tall and skinny, the other’s short and squat.
- Emotional Contrast: within a single story, you can have strong emotional contrasts, e.g. between fear in one scene and love in another.
III. Examples of Contrast
Movie posters use visual contrast all the time. They’re especially known for using blue-and-orange contrast – in fact, so many posters use this technique that it’s become a cliché!
All the characters in The Simpsons are full of contrast, but Homer and Lisa are particularly striking. Notice how there are several different kinds of contrast here, including social, personal, and visual! This will be true of most of our examples.
Personal contrast usually takes place between two characters, but it can also happen within a single person! People often talk, for example, about how Thomas Jefferson was a man of contrasts: he wrote beautifully about freedom and equality, yet he owned slaves; he always loved solitude and the countryside, yet he spent his whole life in crowded cities working on politics.
IV. The Importance of Contrast
Contrast helps the reader see the attributes of each thing in the pair. A blue sky looks even more blue when you put it next to an orange bonfire, and the bonfire looks more orange next to the blue sky. Similarly, a kind character looks more kind next to a cruel villain, and the cruel villain looks more cruel. And so on.
Contrasts are often compelling to read because they simplify things. Once you know that one character is brave while the other is a coward, you can easily predict their actions, and this makes the story easier to read. But at the same time, contrasts can make room for all sorts of complexity, as in the Jefferson example above. In short, contrasts are important because they can fill a wide variety of functions within a story or essay.
V. Examples of Contrast in Literature
The two main characters in Of Mice and Men provide a striking contrast:
The story revolves around a friendship between these two opposite characters – a friendship that is particularly charming because of the way the two characters complement each other’s strengths. The two would never have survived individually in the rough world of Steinbeck’s novel, but together they’re able to muddle through…for a while, anyway.
Harry Potter has a foil in Draco Malfoy:
VI. Examples of Contrast in Popular Culture
R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars:
Rufus Wainwright has a song called Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk. The contrast here is obvious: cigarettes are associated with adulthood, sickness, and addiction, while chocolate milk is associated with childhood, enjoyment, and innocence. The song is all about how the singer contains many contrasts: in some ways he’s a bitter adult with a nicotine addiction; in other ways he’s just a child who loves sweets.
VII. Related Terms
Juxtaposition is when you place two things side-by-side, usually without explanation so that it’s up to the reader to work out their connection. In most cases, when people talk about “juxtaposition,” though, they’re talking about a juxtaposition between two things that are strikingly different from each other. So juxtaposition is a near-synonym for contrast.
A complement is a combination of two things that makes them complete. Individually, the things are OK, but together they’re unbeatable. Think about a superhero team with contrasting skills: one is physically strong, but the other is intelligent. Together, their complementary skills add up to the ultimate duo. The point is that the two things work together because they’re different. You could say the same thing about chocolate and peanut butter, or sand and waves at the beach. The contrast between the two is really what makes them work together.
(Don’t confuse this word with “compliment,” which means saying nice things. They’re totally unrelated.)
This is a very common kind of emotional contrast. In it, a serious movie suddenly lightens up with a joke or humorous scene. For example, right after the terrifying appearance of the giant shark in Jaws, the main character slowly walks back to the captain, trying to contain his fear. He then says, very calmly, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
In literature, a foil is a character who forms a contrast with the main character – often this is a villain, but it could also be simply a character with very different attributes. If the main character is sour and serious, the foil will be a jokester. If the main character is a tough, brawny fighter, the foil will be nimble and stealthy.