Telling the Nasty Stuff

Browning 9mm PistolA friend who has been serving as a reviewer of new books for a major Christian magazine recently told me that she was thinking of giving up reviewing because the books get worse every year: sappier and less realistic and just plain boring. Her comment got me thinking about my Christian students’ struggles as writers and what struggling alongside them has taught me.

The stuff of most creative writing is story—the account of something that happened. That’s because, without something happening, there’s little to tell. Nonfiction works of all sorts and even the most lyrical of poems proceed via story, if only implied. Fiction, of course, is all about story.

Even the simplest of sentences tells a story: the subject has to do something. Often a lot of somethings, as there’s rarely only one verb—one instance of something happening, that is—in a given sentence. And in the more interesting sentences, subjects don’t just do something but interact with others—direct and indirect objects, subjects of dependent clauses and infinitive phrases—doing their own things.

The most successful stories, by their nature, involve rich, round characters. To create such characters, I tell my students, they must “tell the good about the bad and the bad about the good.” In novel workshop, though, my students invariably start out with flat characters whose believability is further hampered by their being in some way outside of society: outcasts incapable of interacting.

“No,” I tell them. “You have to make your characters interact, talk to one another, be in conflict. If you don’t, then nothing’ll happen. And if nothing happens, you won’t have a story.”

Still they resist, hold back, thinking that by leaving out crucial details—characters’ names or some conversation in which a key event occurs—they’re creating suspense that will make their readers want to read on and find out.

“But we won’t want to read on,” I tell them. “Suspense is created through building, not omitting. Yes, there are things you should omit. Chekhov said leave out anything that doesn’t drive story, that if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece at the beginning of your story, it has to be fired. But that’s just it. In the story of that gun being fired, the gun needs to have been on the mantelpiece—or under the sofa, loaded, where the toddlers are playing—in the first place.” All the stuff of the drama needs to be there, on the page, for the story to succeed.

With these tenets of storytelling in mind, I would like to consider the central story of much contemporary writing about faith: I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s a story believers feel called to tell and need to tell—the very stuff of evangelism—but they often want to leave the first part out.

The story of the lostness, the sin-life that necessitated the salvation, is Every-Believer’s gun on the mantelpiece, but it poses some problems for the teller. Stories of sin often take us to material that might offend our believing audience, for one. Worse, to tell one’s sin-story convincingly—that is, concretely—is to become the sinner to one’s audience, particularly if the sin-story one tells is of sin engaged in after one became a Christian. Of course, none of us stops being a sinner after being saved, but we don’t want anyone to know about that.

This is perhaps why, though I’ve attended all sorts of churches in which the prayers of the faithful are publically identified and offered up, I have never once encountered among the litany of prayers for the sick and grieving, for job losses, for the birth of a child or the selling of a house any of the prayers I typically find myself praying. Prayers about my failures as a wife and a mother and as a friend and a colleague and a neighbor. Prayers of a desire to be led out of some specific temptation. Prayers expressing an explicit resistance to letting God’s will be done.

There are practical reasons for keeping one’s present and past sins secret, but there’s more to it than that, I think. As believers, we want to pretend that sin stops, that there’s a “before” to our Christian story that’s understood and doesn’t need to be explained—and shouldn’t be, if it involves any unsavory details or questionable language or doubt-riddled claims—and an “after” that is dazzlingly sin-free, more pure and clean than any on earth could bleach it.

The problem is, without telling the before—well and concretely—we can’t really convince anyone of the after. Or interest them in it.

Which leaves me with some questions for my fellow Christian writers out there to consider. What can and should Christian creative writers do about the nasty aspects of their faith stories? Avoid them? Tell them? Tell them vaguely? And what are the repercussions of each choice?

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Bringing Characters to Life

 A story without people is not a story. I’m not sure what it is but it’s not a story.

You can have a great plot and beautiful settings, but if your characters are not alive, you just have words on a page.

There are numerous tools available to help us create characters. Meyer-Briggs, Gary writer's block 2Chapman’s Five Love Languages, character interview forms, character description sheets, family history templates, etc. They all have some value in identifying your characters.

I believe your character doesn’t come alive until he or she is in the story, interacting with other characters, striving to achieve goals. This striving creates conflict. This conflict brings both your character and your story alive.

When your character comes to life in the story, be prepared for most of the preliminary work to go out the window. And be prepared, if you’re an outliner, for your carefully-crafted story to go in new directions. The story, the conflicts, the setbacks, will change your character and reveal more of what’s beneath her surface.

Believable characters have dark secrets, hidden ambitions, fears, dreams, hopes, and desires. In my current work, I didn’t know my heroine was claustrophobic until it came out in a scene. None of my prep work revealed this. Why? Because it wasn’t important in the prep work. It wasn’t until I had her in a scene, in action, that the fear of being closed in manifested itself. Her fear of heights wasn’t revealed until she had to climb a tree to escape a hungry tiger.

People have needs for relationship, significance, and security. These need to be revealed in the story.

Randy Ingermanson teaches that to create a believable character, try to give her at least two core values. And somewhere in the story, have them conflict. In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, Michael Archer is the protagonist. His core values are: One, nothing is more important than keeping his word; and, two, nothing is more important than protecting human life. At the climax, these values conflict. To keep his promise to a condemned man, Michael faces having to kill someone.

James Scott Bell, in Conflict & Suspense, suggests giving your character a yearning, something they want but don’t have, “something without which a person feels life will be incomplete.” It can be something the hero brings into the story so he already has trouble when the story opens. This yearning will give him a store of actions that are unpredictable, creating potential conflict in every scene, and creating interest in the reader from the outset.

Businessman with Cell Phone JumpingThe more we let our characters express and reveal themselves in the story, the more vibrant, complex, and fascinating they will be, and the more they will keep the reader hooked and turning pages.

Creating Characters that Count

Think back to the last good – really good – story you read. The one you couldn’t put down, the one that made you cry in the middle of the fifth chapter, the one you finished late at night because you couldn’t go to sleep until you found out how it ended. And then when you finished it, you closed the cover of the book and ran your hand over it with a sigh.

There’s a good possibility the biggest thing that drew you into that book and kept you there was a memorable character.

Oh yes, story is important, but unless your readers have someone to care about, even the best story will be flat.

Here are some ideas to make your readers care:

  1. Give them a likeable hero or heroine.  Make sure she’s someone you want to spend time with, and your reader will, too. Give her a sense of humor, deep feelings for her family and friends, and someone who likes her. Make her smile once in a while, even if she’s going through adversity. Make her strong enough to stand what you’re going to put her through in the next 250 pages.
  2. Give your hero/heroine a past. Everyone has a past that affects them. He’s trying to live down mistakes – or hope no one finds out about them. He’s lost loved ones, had a crush on the girl next door, still misses his favorite dog, or burned a bridge he wishes he hadn’t. People are affected by their past. Your hero’s past determines his actions today.
  3. Give your hero/heroine a future. Give her dreams. Dreams motivate us and make us do things – interesting things. Every decision your heroine makes today is weighed with the future in mind.
  4. Make your hero/heroine three dimensional. There’s nothing interesting about cardboard. You say he’s tall, dark and handsome? Don’t let him be caught in a stereotype. Make that tall, dark and handsome guy scared of heights, but he still rescues the heroine’s kitten from a tree. Make him brave in the face of gunfire, but a wuss when it comes to spiders. Know what makes him happy, what makes him angry, what delights him, what scares him. Make him real.
  5. Give your hero/heroine someone to love. When we identify with a character’s emotions, we’re drawn into her story. We want her to marry the guy, or reconcile with her sister, or forgive her mother. We want to feel her longings and heartaches on the way to her happy ending.

Characters are what make the story – make them count!

What are some of your favorite characters, and what makes them memorable?

How A Plot-First Writer Builds Character(s)

Don't be put off by the Jim Morrison/The Doors album cover look of this book. It's really great, I promise!

I am a plot-first writer. My story ideas emerge when considering events, real and imagined, and only after all the events are in place do I try to figure characters. While my mind races happily along forming the plot, my brain comes to a standstill when it’s time to zero in on a character to carry the story.

That is, until I found this handy-dandy little book: The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders.

There are dozens of books on character-creation out there and lots of helpful resources online to aid in creating the perfect characters. I know because I’ve tried many of them. Most of these methods involve making endless lists and exploring everything in the character’s past from shoe-size to perfume preference. For some authors this is vital to the writing process, but for me, it is tedious, boring, and keeps me from writing the story.

So I was happy to find a resource that was different. Here are a few of the things from Sixteen Master Archetypes that I found helpful:

  • With only 8 Hero types and 8 Heroine types, this book narrowed my initial character questions to only a few possible answers. Yet the types are broad enough to encompass lots of individual quirks while being distinct enough that your character will fall into a category quite easily.
  • There are multiple examples from books, tv, and movies to illustrate the different archetypes. I’m a visual person, and I love being able to pinpoint who my character is like from a pool of characters I already know. (Example, is your character a Free Spirit? Think Dharma from Dharma & Greg or Phoebe Buffay from Friends. Is your character a Professor-type? Think Sherlock Holmes or Columbo.)
  • This book gives examples of possible professions for each of the character types, as well as what in their history might’ve contributed to the people they’ve become.
  • And most valuable of all to a romance writer, this book gives examples of how the various heroes and heroines both clash and mesh, their points of conflict and their points of commonality, as well as how the characters change when forced to be together.

You might be worried that the choices are so narrow as to make all characters in that category seem the same, but consider this: Harry Potter and Mr. Spock are in the same category (Professor.) Thelma Dickenson from Thelma and Louise is in the same category as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (Waif.) Plenty of room to maneuver there.

If you’re like me, a plot-first novelist who has a rollicking story to tell but searches for just the right person to inflict all this conflict and disaster on, I encourage you to check out The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes.

You can find the book on Amazon.com by clicking the title above.

How do you feel about character worksheets? Love ’em or hate ’em?

Post Author: Erica Vetsch

Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and reading, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical fiction set in the American West. Whenever she’s not following flights of fancy in her fictional world, she’s the company bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two terrific teens, wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul-mate, and avid museum patron.

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