First snowmen, now Christmas trees. What is it with me and extended metaphors at this time of year?
Something in the eggnog, I guess. Oh well. Here it goes. Your fictional characters should be like the following kinds of Christmas tree:
A Living Christmas Tree
This has nothing to do with whether you cut your tree in a lot or pulled it out of a deteriorating cardboard box (because my tree at home is the latter). What I consider “alive” has a lot to do with the decorations on the tree. Some trees have nice strings of lights, bulbs carefully arranged and within a narrow color scheme, and empty boxes wrapped in coordinating paper. Others are a hodge-podge explosion of colorful holiday miscellany (always wanted to use that word). Each ornament, from the “Baby’s First Christmas” with adorable six-month-old Amy grinning out of it, to the tattered handprint Rudolph made in Sunday School, to the bookworm inside a gnawed-out apple, has a story.
In the same way, characters should be more than empty decorations, placed in the scene to look good. They represent a lifetime of stories. The readers should feel like they happened upon a chapter in the middle of the character’s life, but that it goes on before and after the novel or short story begins. This might mean including some details about your character that don’t quite fit a stereotype. There might be some odds and ends, some quirks, even some things that seem ugly. But that’s what makes the characters seem real and gives them meaning.
A Charlie Brown Christmas Tree
Does anyone remember what the tree in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer looks like? How about Frosty the Snowman?
(If you do remember, congratulations on being really observant. Now go away.)
But, regardless, do we care what those trees look like? Does it matter? No, of course not. They’re just props, ones that look exactly like every other Christmas tree.
But everyone remembers Charlie Brown’s tree, the pitiful, half-dead, five-branch twig that good ol’ Charlie takes in, to everyone’s mocking delight. Why do we remember it? Because it’s given a central place in the story, and because, as Linus says, “It just needs a little love.” As strange as it sounds, we identify with that tree.
You want readers to have a similar feeling for your characters. They have to be relatable. And for that to happen, your hero can’t be perfect all the time. He can’t have all the qualities needed to accomplish the task at hand, or we won’t worry that he might fail. She can’t be free of faults, or we won’t care if she succeeds in the end, because we’ll be so annoyed with her that we stopped reading after a few pages. Give your readers a protagonist who needs something – love help, courage, a good slap in the face – and let us cheer at the transformation by the end.
A Candle-lit Christmas Tree
You might expect this to be about how your characters should shine light in a dark world and point people to Christ. That’s a nice thought. But that’s not where I’m going.
Although Christmas trees started out being decorated with lit candles (we have Martin Luther to thank for that brilliant idea, apparently), most families don’t do that anymore. Why? Because it’s too dangerous.
So be dangerous. In writing, I mean. Have characters who ask hard questions or ones who accurately portray the hopelessness of life without Christ or ones who wouldn’t be welcome in some churches. Not just for the sake of being controversial, of course. But because sometimes you have to take risks to really portray truth and light.
Again, I repeat: I am not asking you to torch your home this Christmas. No open flames are necessary when taking this advice. This also applies to young children at candle-lit Advent services, another brilliant idea (this one not by Martin Luther, as far as I know).
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
So I first wrote this as a joke. But track with me. This might just work. The partridge is unexpected – what is it doing in that pear tree? Why doesn’t it fly away? Are pears even seasonal in December? Who would want this as a gift, anyway? We’re intrigued. Your characters should be intriguing.
Okay, so that was a stretch. Ignore this one.
There are probably other ways to work out this analogy. So, find a Christmas tree and write it as a character. Bonus points if you can find a scrawny tree with lots of ornaments, lit candles, and a partridge.