Thursday, May 26, 2011

Believable character change

For Christmas, I love making sugar cookies with cookie cutters. It’s fun to slather colored powdered-sugar frosting for that extra layer of sweetness over those recognizable holiday shapes.

Even though frosted differently, those cookies all look the same. There’s not a lot of difference between my cookies and the ones my kids create. And they taste exactly the same—sweet perfection.

One of the challenges writers face is creating characters who don’t look like all the others. Characters who aren’t stamped out of the same dough everyone else is using.

God changes lives—just not mine
I was reminded of this during a recent sermon. Our pastor at
Springs Community Church, Eric Carpenter, had just begun a series called “Practical Atheist,” focusing on Christians who believe in God, but live as if He doesn’t exist. (Based on Craig Groeschel’s book, Christian Atheist.)

At the beginning of the sermon Carpenter said, “It’s like when we say we believe in a God who forgives, but refuse to accept His forgiveness personally or refuse to forgive others. We believe in a God who changes lives, but don’t believe we can change in meaningful, deep, abiding ways.”

That’s when I thought of the characters in my current manuscript. Are they cookie-cutter Christians, cruising through life with a few bumps and scratches that are easily covered by a new layer of “holiness” frosting? Or are they authentic Christians even while living real, flawed lives?

And if they aren’t, what would my book be like if they were?

Creating misery
My characters—and yours—need to suffer, and not just a little. I need to find each one’s core weakness and exploit it. Then exploit it again and again and again.

We need to find the point in each character where they’re a practical atheist—where they don’t fully trust God or haven’t completely made Jesus their Lord, even though they outwardly claim otherwise. And then we need to make them miserable in that exact area.

When we do that, we can help the character—and the reader—find their way back to God or more fully turn their weakness over to His strength.

And that’s when our characters step out of the cookie cutter and start to live and breathe. That’s when the story we’re telling becomes transformational—for the author and for the reader.

Are you having trouble with your characters? The Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild’s 16-lesson Journeyman course has excellent lessons on advanced characterization techniques as well as on dialogue, point of view, plotting, researching, storyworld, voice, and much more. Or, in just seven lessons, complete our Fiction That Sells course where you’ll learn about creativity, plotting, characterization, scenes, point of view, dialogue, and self-editing.

Both courses come with exclusive one-on-one instruction, encouragement, and support from an experienced mentor. For information:

Michael Ehret is the Editor-in-Chief for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. He has written for newspapers and other print and online outlets. He edited several nonfiction books, was the senior editor for a faith-based financial services and insurance organization, and is the ezine editor for American Christian Fiction Writers.


Ane Mulligan said...

Excellent article, Mike. EVen Christians respond to trouble like non-Christians sometimes. :)

Tina F. said...

LOVE this analogy. It's so true. It's sort of hard to right about a Christian who is NOT cookie-cutter. It's so easy to write what we think "should" be a Christian character as opposed to reality. Again, I love this. Thank you!

Michael Ehret said...

Thanks Ane and Tina. Finding that character weakness and picking on it like a scab is tough ... it can be hard, too, because we all know the right we should be doing (as Paul noted so eloquently).

The temptation to write as we know it should be rather than as it really is, is strong.


Nicole said...

I want some of those cookies. NOW!

Michael Ehret said...

Nicole: See last word in my previous post. :)