In general, paradox is a statement that at first seems contradictory, but contains an underlying truth. In fiction, a paradox can be a situation, person, object, or concept that is either a contradiction or has contradictory characteristics.
Let’s look at a couple examples.
This first example is a string of paradoxical statements from the short story “The Duchess and the Jeweler” by Virginia Woolf.
Statements: “They were friends, yet enemies; he was master, she was mistress; each cheated the other, each needed the other, each feared the other.”
Paradox: It is difficult (and yet easy) to imagine being friends and enemies with someone (frenemies), to cheat, fear, and need someone all at the same time. Though these seem to be conflicting (or contradictory) characteristics, they can exist easily in the complex relationships that people (and characters) develop with one another.
The second example is a paradoxical situation from the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Situation: The plot revolves around the romance between Giovanni and Beatrice, Rappaccini’s daughter. Raised in her father’s beautiful but toxic garden, Beatrice herself is poisonous. Her poison soon spreads to Giovanni, and in his panic he finds an antidote. However, as poison had been her life, the powerful antidote was her death. As soon as she consumed the antidote she passed away.
Paradox: For Beatrice, poison meant life and antidote meant death. On the surface, it seems to be a direct contradiction, but Beatrice is no ordinary girl. Because of the special circumstances of her childhood, she is unable to be cured.
So what’s the point of a paradox?
A paradox does a great job at emphasizing and heightening tension by putting the opposites that create the contradiction next to one another.
A paradox can also grab a reader’s attention. Much like an oxymoron (which is basically a condensed paradox), the obvious contradictions presented in a paradox cause readers to pause and consider the statement or situation. Some readers might re-read the passage to make sure they understood what the writer had written. Others might just make note of the contradiction and move on. In either case, the writer caught the reader’s attention.