Back again for a last tussle with icons, my words in blue, Stephen’s in black.
Last week was a total bear…spent most of it in St. Louis, where my daughter’s high school robotics team was competing in the FIRST Robotics World Championships (details here). Thus this late reply and lack of commenting on the website. I’m going to keep the response part of this brief to leave room for summary comments on the series.
Yes, I think there’s a tendency, particularly in Christian fiction but not exclusive to it, for writers to become so caught up in the urgency of their message that they neglect the art of storytelling, and it is an art. Stories are meant to transport a reader or listener from their everyday life and immerse them for a while in something new and wonderful. We see the world through someone else’s eyes, or at another place and time. We might experience a world totally different from our own where things can happen that are impossible here. When that delicate bubble of immersion is lost through clumsy writing, or a sales pitch, or a product placement, or a reminder that there’s going to be a test on this material in a few minutes to make sure everyone’s been paying attention, the opportunity to communicate those things we care about can be lost forever.
Epic stories glorify our Author by showing the growth of characters into “icons.”
They can, but there aren’t many examples of characters, as compared to the total population, who actually manage this. And that’s okay. The community of characters we can rightly call icons in the truest sense of the word should be an elite group.
Okay, now you’re just yanking my chain. 🙂 Popularity only scratches the surface, and it’s usually transitory. An iconic character is timeless because they reflect an eternal longing within us. Out of the millions of characters conceived since we began telling stories, a few stand above the rest, and I think if we all sat down for an hour or so and composed our own short list of such characters, we’d agree more often than not.
By contrast, I’d been thinking about this first in the sense of a character trying to be like the ultimate Character/Icon, Christ (or a fantasy-world equivalent). Yet this is similar to a character who wants to be like an idealized icon in his story-world. Luke wants to be the best Jedi Knight. Peter Parker wants to be a great superhero. Aang wants to fulfill his mission as the Avatar, master of all four elements among the four nations. All of those are in a sense quests for “perfection.” They’re what drives the character’s actions.
And most of that is simply muddling through. The characters have only a glimmer of what it is they’re searching for and what it all means. We identify with them because we do the same kinds of things and make similar mistakes along the way in our lives. When the characters keep faith with their quests, and press on when everyone is telling them they don’t have a chance, they transcend their weaknesses and overcome their foes and obstacles. In witnessing their victories, we envision hope for an epiphany of our own, if we endure to the end.
The icon is a point of reference, a target, a bar set a few inches above our personal best.
Exactly. And it seems that in reality and stories, the threshold of “perfection” will always be higher than the person can ever reach. Christ is in His place and we’re in ours, unable to rise further because He was first and always. In reality, we should prefer it that way.
And yet, He calls to us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s compelling, and terrifying.
A character is trying to be an icon, an image of the Greater, but hasn’t yet arrived. This leads to a story’s plot. Heroes (and even villains) have not yet achieved their goals.
From the character’s point-of-view, I don’t see this happening very often. Characters are mostly trying to just live their life, or survive to see another sunrise. Their personal growth is something they don’t realize until near the end of their story, though that journey is visible to the reader and part of what keeps us engaged.
Dorothy’s trip to Oz becomes much more illuminating in retrospect when we realize it’s never been about making it back to Kansas–she could have gone home any time she wanted to. Her adventures help her understand that everything she’d ever wanted was right there with the friends and family she’d taken for granted. She’d been searching for a Wizard to solve her problems, but he had nothing to offer she didn’t already possess. The power of the story lies in the fact she spends most of it pursuing the wrong goal, yet through persevering on the journey, she gains a wisdom that is more valuable than anything she (or we, if we were encountering the story for the first time) expected.
- God is the Axiom, the image of no one. He is Himself, the I AM.
- Jesus Christ, fully God and fully Man, the second Person of the Trinity, in His eternal existence as the God-Man, is the “icon” of God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).
- As redeemed saints, Christians are “icons” of Christ (Rom. 6:5, 1 John 3:2).
- Likewise, story characters are “icons” of us, in their complexities and choices.
Sigh. Yeah, maybe. These are true statements, but as a formulation, it gives me an image of characters designed like little Russian nesting dolls, and that doesn’t feel natural. In a way, it’s emblematic of this entire discussion. The harder we try to make this icon metaphor fit into the practical business of writing and understanding literature, the squishier and messier it becomes. We began with something that sounded like an Ideal Form in the Platonic sense and we’ve come back around to characters that resonate with us precisely because they resemble our fallible, vulnerable selves. We’ve covered the spectrum from characters that represent our most noble and exalted aspirations to characters that give us hope because they’re slogging through the mud of life right beside us. Very different conceptions of “icons,” but each true and important in their own way.
And for me, that’s the bottom line. Show me Christ, of course, but don’t forget He’s the Way, the Truth and the Life. Show me truth. Show me truth in action. Show me truth lived out in a real world filled with real people with real problems, even if it’s a thousand light-years away and runs on magic. Show me truth illustrated so vividly I can feel it to my very core. Don’t tell me what to believe and then figuratively stand off to one side waiting for me to come around to the merit of your argument. Instead, invite me to share a world that will leave me no choice but to believe, once I’ve experienced it.
This has been fun. We ought to do it again sometime, maybe with a topic a little less formidable.