Having recently completed the NaNoWriMo challenge, I felt deeply grateful for the opportunity to put my hand to creating a novel from scratch, and in particular, the opportunity to work on character development. I certainly don't profess to know it all, but drawing upon my past experiences as a professional performing artist and actress I thought I'd share an exhortation with us as a writing community.
Having received feedback on my novel about how much this person was enjoying the character development, it got me thinking about characterisation in relation to story-telling and what are the essential elements that help the reader to connect with the character in the story.
It really is no different now than it was in Jesus' day. He often spoke in parables and those parables often focused on the character of the person he was talking about, whether it was the wicked servant, the woman caught in adultery or the woman by the well.
So I think it is a great opportunity for me to remind us as writers that our characters ought to be three dimensional. That their actions, express their thoughts, which expresses the intent of their hearts and all of this is reflective of their life - their past experiences, core beliefs and status in life. And that the intent of their heart can move through the many wonderful dynamics of emotion before arriving at the place that we intend in terms of a resolution.
The Good Samaritan tale took two people of questionable character before arriving at the Good Samaritan's door. Were the other two characters essentially evil? No, they were just regular people who had perceptions that were skewed. Were they necessary to the plot or couldn't Jesus have just skipped to the good part and told us about the Good Samaritan and his actions?
Each character, with their full personality of strengths and weaknesses, was required for us to fully understand the beauty of the Good Samaritan and his actions. And further, the background information about why it was such an incredible act of kindness even further helps us to better understand this character in the development of the story. So we see that all of our characters play a part in painting the bigger picture and in colouring the transformational journey and eventual resolution and we need not rush to the conclusion, but savour the journey.
I think there can be this tendency in some Christian literature that black must be really black and that white must be really white and there is little space between being lost and then being found, but I think the conversion experience can be way more subtle as characters make their way through the grey mass in between.
I think of Francine Rivers, who I greatly admire, having read her book, Redeeming Love, and having a transformational personal experience as a result. Francine was able to take both characters through this transformational journey as the story progressed. She wasn't afraid to show the depths of humanity in each of the characters, to expose their negative and positive nuances, and their gradual realisations about themselves and their personal position in life, then to lead each to a resolution. But even with Francine's book, I found the resolution a bit predictable and I couldn't help thinking, 'Yeah, yeah'. At the time I was asking myself, how could that have better resolved? What would have been more satisfying? And I realised that I wanted to know more about the personal relationship Angel (the main character) was developing with God along the way. That she went from being this lost prostitute, the reluctant wife, to suddenly getting saved and everything being wonderful. And yes, in some ways that is a salvation experience, but there was not enough for me about the emotional depth of Angel's conversion experience and then how that was going to be played out. Consequently, I walked away, loving the book, but with this niggle of I wish the book had ended differently, that I had been allowed to see inside Angel's heart more.
It just felt to me that because it was a Christian novel it had to be tied up in pretty packages but I feel that we ought not to be afraid to lose some of our characters along the way because that is real life. Tragedy strikes and we cannot control the outcome, so we need not think everything has to be tied up in neat bundles, kind of like adding a sugary syrup to foul tasting medicine.
So my exhortation to this group of wonderful writers, is to take their cue from Jesus. He was perhaps the best story teller of all time, and he did paradigm shifts to perfection. He had central characters and supporting acts, he juxtapositioned to perfection (if there is such a word), placing light and dark side by side so that there was this immediate contrast and not being afraid to call the distinction and expose the greyness. I guess what I am trying to say is don't be afraid to express the realness of your characters, be they good or evil. Life is messy and our books should express that messiness. Even good people have days when they are grumpy or sad and good people die just like bad ones. What does the scriptures say? "The rain falls the just and the unjust"...
Get into the depths of emotion with your characters and take the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotion as they experience the full gamut of the character's world. Then when they finish reading, they will be satisfied and desiring more. It is possible to write great fiction and not give people the cringe factor or feelings of disappointment when things resolve unrealistically. And I do believe it is possible to write the Christian conversion experience into a story and it be incredibly powerful, rather than the feeling that it's addition to the story is just because it bears the title of Christian fiction.
And above all, keep writing!