Thursday, June 22, 2006

PH: Faith and Character Development

My bookcase holds a few really meaty titles on character development. Ann Hood, in Creating Character Emotions, gives spectacular advice on restraining from the temptation to write like other writers, but rather to write from life. She says:

“When we copy a writerly voice, we put up a barrier between us and the emotions of our characters.”

As we develop faith as a thread in our fiction, we can fall into the same trap, only instead of copying a writerly voice, we might copy a “spiritual voice.” By that I mean that we might harbor ideals about what a spiritual person is supposed to act like. Therefore, by the story’s end, the writer that’s reaching for an easy faith element might fall into the same sort of device and paste in an ideal Christian value. This type of device serves only to flatten your story and eliminate any sense of expansion you were trying to create. But even worse, what that practice creates for the reader is a barrier to understanding the journey of an authentic life in Christ. I fell into that practice early on, so this is as much a confessional as anything else.

Some Christian writers know exactly where the faith element is going to fit into their plot. Every Christian writer has a different method for developing the faith thread. Mine changes with every new story. But knowing my story’s faith elements in advance is like trying to figure out when God is going to cause my life to change lanes. I plan for the big picture, but I’m always aware that conflict or good news or deals falling flat will throw a cog in my plans. And so it is with our story characters. The faith element in each story is as much a surprise to me as the reader. Allowing it to happen naturally comes with a lot of practice. But if you haven’t had the chance to put a lot of words into print, I’ll offer an exercise. Assuming you have a character laid out on a railroad track somewhere on your hard drive, try these considerations:

• Faith does not fix every detail of our lives, so it shouldn’t fix everything for the character. Using memory, write a time in your life when you prayed and things seemed to get worse. What emotions did you feel? As you write down these feelings, what subtext rises from the expository thread? Now show in a scene either disappointment or anger juxtaposed against what should be a “spiritual” or “saintly” tone. This is a good exercise for eliminating the temptation to write easy sentimentality.

• Think of a conflict that happened recently. Did you handle it perfectly? Write out how you responded. If you are perfectly happy with your response, then it still might have churned up an inner unexpressed feeling. Write out the unexpressed feeling as interior monologue.

• Imagine an object that has spiritual or perhaps even sacred significance to you, something very personal. If you died, would anyone else notice that object or would it get thrown out? What feelings bubble up when you think of that object either getting salvaged or thrown out? Now try writing that scene you just imagined into finely specified exposition in your story.

• If you have come to live a life of faith, you might have had an immediate conversion, leaping and excitedly telling everyone you met about your conversion. But assuming that, like most people, faith came into your life more like little plots of real estate slowly being surrendered, write out a timeline. Create those little dots that show either progress or delay in spiritual growth. You are the only one that’s going to see it, so also include the times you took one step forward only to take three jumps backward. Now put one of those backward-jump times into immediate scene. That scene will speak volumes to some reader one day.

• Have you ever imagined yourself standing up against a foe courageously, your faith as your scabbard, God’s Word as your sword? Then did you wake up in the middle of the night to hear an unnerving sound inside your house? Or have you walked into a public setting only to come face-to-face with a disruptive stranger who makes you feel threatened? Did you respond either time as you imagined? Write out how you responded in narration, in other words, a scene that shows action, and then develop a scene of interior monologue juxtaposed against an opposite reaction.

One scene I return to often is found in John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies. The minister Clarence has an awful epiphany that he no longer believes in God. His realization is one of sheer terror. Updike orchestrates scene so well you can sense the setting eroding as Clarence’s entire life is wrapped up in the material security of the church parsonage. A similar exercise would be to write a scene that shows your character attached to material things, believing God has provided them with a happy material life. Then allow a shockwave to challenge the character’s resolve. What is the continuum that will follow? What discoveries will the character make and what elements of life will the character now have to hold onto?

These are the sorts of writerly games Christian novelists play to develop faith in their character’s lives. The organic exercise is an excellent way to get away from the computer when your brain is no longer coughing up the story elements you need to build realistic texturing.

Patricia Hickman is the author of Whisper Town and Nazareth’s Song.


At 10:48 PM, Anonymous BJ said...

Really good entry, Patty. Thoughts to hang onto and think about a good long time.



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