Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: Five Steps to Being a Character

Characters are a big deal in the writing world. I talk all the time about how to make characters seem real and endearing, how to make conflict flow out of them, and how to analyze their personalities.

However, I haven’t written about one very important character: you.

If you’re like me, you often wish you were half as interesting as the characters you create or read about. Compared to them, your personality doesn’t seem so dynamic, your comebacks so witty, and your inner resolve so…resolved.

Let me tell you a secret: I’ve always wanted to be a hero. There is a strand of the epic inside me. I want to fight for something that matters. One of my earliest memories (no joke) is a daydream of saving someone from the burning McDonalds Playplace, where I was somehow paralyzed in the process. In my four-year-old mind, it made sense.

As I got older, I realized that my real world and my daydreams didn’t always match up. My idea of adventure is walking barefoot in the woods while singing songs from The Sound of Music (and only then when I’m pretty sure no one’s around and the wind isn’t blowing toward civilization).

I am not brave. I am not important. On most days, I am just plain average, and on others, I am a petty, judgmental coward who you would want to read about for all of five pages of a novel.

Before you send me information on counseling centers, let me assure you that my self-esteem is doing just fine (often, it’s doing entirely too well and needs a good dose of constructive criticism). I’m a character in progress. After all, one of the reasons we enjoy following along with characters is because we like to see them grow and change. That’s what I’m trying to do.

I am not the hero even of my own story. God is. But, for some reason, probably the same reason my mom let me “help” her bake (read: let me track flour all over the house and lick the spoon), God chooses to work through average people like me.

Most people are not born heroes. To be honest, most people, including me, won’t even become a hero or a saint or an epic idealist-champion-who-fights-for-truth-and-justice. But all of us can become characters.

Note: I am not talking about being a quirky, class-clown type who people roll their eyes at and say, “He’s a real character.” Not everyone has that kind of personality. Here’s what I mean by being a character.

  1. Don’t just let things happen to you. No writer can pull off a novel with a character who is constantly a passive victim of circumstances, unless they’re trying to make a philosophical point like Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. At some point, the reader will yell, “Oh, come on! DO SOMETHING!” The same is true for us. When I pout, hold a grudge, or generally blame circumstances, my gender (girls, you know it’s true), or other people for the way I react, I am being a victim instead of a character. There comes a time when you have to take part in your own story by taking action and taking responsibility.

  1. Love people for their own sakes, not for yours. This is much, much harder to do than it sounds. Sometimes, I do nice things for people so they’ll think I’m a great and loveable person. Sometimes, in conversation with a friend, I will work things around to get in what I want to say and speak louder so someone else will overhear. Sometimes I find myself wanting others to ask me for help because it makes me feel good, not because I care about helping them. (Have you ever noticed that people portray honesty as a beautiful virtue? It’s not, not really. It’s more like a brave virtue that stares down ugliness and calls it what it is without turning away.) True love for others can’t be worked up and checked off a list. It has to come from a personal, daily experience of God’s love. This is something I’m praying about right now.

  1. Care about something. Do you even know how much I love being around people who are passionate about something? Writers aren’t supposed to use clich├ęs, but when I say “their eyes light up,” I actually mean it. In my mind, it’s like a little bit of heaven is bursting out, a little bit of what’s meant to be and what’s worth caring about and fighting for. Characters care deeply about something that matters.

  1. Do hard things. I personally believe that if God looks at me someday and says “Well done,” it will not be for the things I think of first. It will not be for book contracts or confronting problems or giving hugs or baking cookies or listening to friends vent about their awful days, because I love doing those things. They’re acts of worship, sure. Using my gifts, definitely. But they’re easy. I think God will mention the hard things, the things that maybe no one noticed at the time. If it cost me something to say hi to the new kid or forgive someone or spend an extended time in prayer, that will be what God rewards. The reason we love our favorite characters is not because they were cool people who happened to be perfectly suited to whatever challenge they had to face. It’s because they didn’t think they could do it, but they did anyway.

  1. Be yourself. I went through a phase in my freshman year of high school when I realized that I was not normal, and being normal seemed to be the goal of everyone else around me. For a while, I was just stunned that the world didn’t want Amy, the random and free-spirited and big-hearted Amy, and made fun of me instead. Then I realized that a large mass of insecure highschoolers didn’t accept that Amy at first because she reminded them of what they were too afraid to be. The world really wanted that Amy all along, and after a while, I was okay with that. There are two kinds of confident people out there: those with the genes and those with the secret. The confident people with the genes are popular and charismatic and talented because they were born that way, and they are used to people liking them. The confident people with the secret have learned to value love over fear. Some love their individuality too much to conform, but even that is too shallow of a basis. You have to love God and what He thinks of you to outweigh the fear of what others think.

Anyone can be a person. There are billions of us out there. But there’s a distinct shortage of characters in the world. We really ought to be taking care of that problem.

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