The subject of characters in Christian fiction has been coming up on this blog a lot recently. I’ve appreciated E. Stephen Burnett’s excellent series “Fiction Christians From Another Planet” — Patrick Carr’s guest post about writers using real people as models for their characters – and Rebecca LuElla Miller’s contemplations on the lack of realism in what passes for realism in today’s culture. It’s an interesting conversation, and I’d like to add my meandering tuppence.
Our characters are often (usually?) inspired by real people. Sometimes we snatch someone from life and conscript him into a story. More often, though, I think we lift a trait from one person, add a snippet from another one or two others, and create a composite creature. It’s probably safer that way—the real-life models are less likely to be offended.
Nevertheless, it’s important that our characters seem real, even recognizable. Don’t you appreciate it when you run across someone in a book that reminds you of a person you know? It’s like an unexpected meeting with a friend, and it makes characters engaging and believable. But inconsistencies in characters’ personalities will make our readers jump ship.
I’ve never watched a lot of TV because it often doesn’t hold my interest. I used to enjoy the early seasons of NCIS because of the quirky, well-drawn characters. Recently, though, I’ve soured on the show, because some of those old friends have been acting out of character.
We run into trouble when we try to make the characters fit the story instead of the other way around. If we want our characters to break character, we must give them a believable motive for doing so – and introduce it well in advance of the surprising event.
Back to the NCIS illustration: Ziva is the daughter of the head of Mossad and a former member of that organization. She was bred, raised, and trained to move through the complexities of international intelligence and intrigue with hardbitten style. But she turns down an offer of marriage by a man who genuinely loves her, because he’s a spy and doesn’t have a predictable 9 to 5 job. Really? If we’re going to swallow that, we need concrete, plausible reasons why her expectations vary so diametrically from her experience.
Or how about the adorable Ducky, brilliant medical examiner also trained to profile suspects. Am I supposed to believe he’d be taken in by a woman who commits serial murders in order to provide him with an interesting new case? I get the impression the writers come up with story lines to titillate, then force their characters at gunpoint to play along. I’m sorry, but as a viewer, that just doesn’t work for me.
I promised you meandering, and I won’t let you down: When the TV show Justified first came out, I started watching with my husband and kind of liked it. It’s based on characters created by novelist Elmore Leonard. Preferring a good book to watching TV any day, I checked out one of Leonard’s books from the library. I didn’t like it, but couldn’t immediately put my finger on what bothered me. After watching bits and pieces of a couple seasons of the show, I figured out the problem: the show’s writers seem to overlook the fact that there is good in the world. Everyone’s evil: every father’s a drunk, every cop’s corrupt, every woman is a self-serving floozy, every preacher is a charlatan, and every churchgoer is a brainwashed puppet. Even the sweet little old lady who bakes apple pies heads up a ruthless family drug cartel.
Yes, stuff like that happens. But I can’t justify (pun intended) showing the seaminess of the world without balancing it with an accurate flip side. Reality is multi-dimensional, and our characters must reflect that. Otherwise the story becomes a cartoon—and not a very good one.
Hollywood is known for its unrealistic portrayals of Christians on TV and in movies. Did you see the recent Bones episode in which the Texas oil tycoon/buffoon discounts evolution and believes in a young earth? He buys newly-discovered ancient artifacts and destroys them. Because of their alleged antiquity, he doesn’t want to believe they exist and doesn’t want anyone else to believe either. He strikes me as a self-portrait of the writers, who apparently don’t think logic and rationality exist in Christian circles and go to ridiculous lengths to keep the actual facts from their viewers.
But as the aforementioned posts have pointed out, all too often, Christian fiction also fails to present an accurate picture of reality. Why? Are we trying to avoid offending someone? Do we want to show that Christians don’t pose a threat but are just the same as anyone else? The unbelieving world might not be offended by what we write, but they’re laughing at us, and rightly so. They know we’re manufacturing Christian Barbies and Kens to fit worlds no real person would populate.
Those who refuse to accept the gospel are offended by it, and we can’t help that. Better to tell it straight and offend than not tell it at all. The fact is, real Christians are a threat to the devil’s realm. He knows it even if we’re afraid to face it. We used to be just like everybody else, but once we put our faith in Christ, we were supernaturally transformed by the power of God into new creatures.
Unspoken or not, that’s the reality. Let’s not be afraid to show this inconvenient truth both through our lives and through our stories.