Monday, December 16, 2013

Something to learn from Jesus' Story Telling Style in Relation to Character Development

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!


12 comments:

  1. Thanks for that Hayley, and good on you for completing that novel during NaNoWriMo. I really agree about the importance of seeing the nuances in characters in Christian fiction. I respond much better to a character if I can see their weaknesses alongside their strengths. It makes it more real and you feel like you can relate to their struggles and victories. Hope your novel's a bestseller :)

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    1. Thanks so much, Nola. We will see. Got a bit of work to do on it before it will be ready for market. Have to make it worthy of this article. :)

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  2. Hi Hayley

    I agree with when you say "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 find your comments about the morally questionable characters in the tale of the Good Samaritan providing a foil so that we can appreciate the GS actions more clearly interesting. Some great points about keeping our characters real and not being tempted to wrap things up with a bow.

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    1. Thanks so much for commenting Jeanette. Yes, I think if we examine Jesus' story telling style there are lots of keys there. One of them is to keep a clear focus on the story in terms of simplicity. Often there were big reveals, but usually the person was intrigued because the tale was presented in such a vivid way.

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  3. Great post Hayley. Thank you. Very useful and helpful to me since I am still in the learning phase of writing fiction. I do agree that we can take our cues from the Master storyteller. And yes I also agree that human beings are not just black or white - there are plenty of shades in between. And that we are very complex creatures created by an amazing complex God. So seeing inside our characters, their motivations and their struggles is very important. Thanks Hayley. Well done on your latest story with NaNoWriMo! :)

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  4. Thanks, Anusha. I'm looking foward to reading your novel when you get it finished. The craft of writing has the same preparations as acting. When you are studying a character as an actress, you have to imagine the full background story, who they were, what made them who they are today, how their character was shaped, their nuances, etc. The more clear you are about the character, the better your performance becomes. So it stands to reason in writing a book that it is going to be the same. And I found it very interesting doing the book that I started out with some stereotypical characters, but as I am developing those characters across three novels, they are revealing more and more of themselves as they are being reflected by the characters that surround them. The conversations, the assumptions, the judgments, the conflicts are all helping to shape the main character and it is their realness of emotion that is engaging the audience. After all, the essence of entertainment is drama and if you want the person reading to connect with the character, to feel like they are sitting inside our hero/heroine's head and heart, you need them to feel what they feel and see what they see.

    I'm sure your book will be fabulous! You do everything with excellence. :)

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  5. Thanks so much for your very encouraging words Hayley. Bless you. I was to write my first adult fiction book this year. But God had other plans for me in giving me a job that was all consuming so I had to place my book on hold. I am having an operation in January and will be bed bound for 3 months. So that's perhaps the right time to study a bit more about fiction writing and then take the plunge. What you have said is so true. Yes, in order to identify with the characters we have to really get under their skins and make understand all that makes them tic. A challenge but a very exciting one. I'm not sure how I will go - but many thanks for believing in me! :)

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    1. For me the characters wrote the book, Anusha. The discipline of coming to the table was the hardest part but I found I got so excited I just had to do it. Like last night I was exhausted and I worked a bit on my next novel but I was too tired to keep going. I had the whole scene in my head, so I grabbed my voice recorder and just talked it out. I think if you get a really good handle on your character, they will bring the drama etc into the story. :)

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  6. Thank you for this piece, Hayley. It expresses how I feel about what I observe in so much faith-inspired writing, but until now my I could only address it from a technique standpoint based on my tertiary background. Your use of Jesus' parables just hits the nail on the head! May I have your permission to refer to this in my creative writing workshops?

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    1. Absolutely. That is a wonderful compliment. Thank you. :)

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  7. Today's readers often miss a part of the surprise in Jesus' parables. We need to flesh them out for folks these days. A few examples here (as with blogs, they are in reverse order; might be helpful to start from the bottom) http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/category/parables-of-jesus/

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