Have you ever filled out a character questionnaire and wondered how the protagonist’s birthday, favorite color, and hobbies are supposed to enhance your story?
Many of the questionnaires you can find online focus on superficial details. But even the ones that probe deeper may fail to flesh out a character’s worldview. Every person has one, whether they acknowledge it or not, and it defines who they are, how they think, and why they live the way they do. Without it, you’ll struggle to shape characters readers can empathize with.
In a webinar, Brett Kunkle, coauthor of A Practical Guide to Culture, compares worldview to a puzzle. The middle pieces are all the ideas and beliefs that motivate our decisions every day. The edge pieces are our worldviews, helping us frame reality into an image that makes sense to us. Since the power of fictional characters is in mirroring the human experience, the absence of a worldview causes them to fall short.
Fortunately, if you follow three guidelines, you can save your characters from that fate.
1. Avoid Caricatures of Beliefs You Disagree with
Writers tend to present worldviews that differ from their own as silly and one-dimensional. Think of the street-smart pickpocket who only “looks after number one,” or the meathead soldier who seeks “glory in battle.” After “seeing the light,” these characters change their perspectives. But no matter how much a character might need enlightenment, writers must be fair.
In Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins walks readers through an exercise that takes them inside the mind of a serial killer. The results are chilling. If Collins can momentarily turn moral, rational adults into would-be murderers, writers can portray troubling worldviews accurately too.
Fyodor Dostoevsky masterfully displays this technique in The Brothers Karamazov, which examines three divergent religions. Dmitri is a hedonist who pursues bodily pleasures as his ultimate goal; Ivan is a gentle atheist who can’t reconcile the existence of God with the problem of evil; and Alyosha is an uncertain monk who plants his flag in Orthodox Christianity. During one scene, Ivan recounts a famous parable to his God-fearing brother, Alyosha. In it, Christ returns to earth during the terrible Inquisition in Spain. Because of mankind’s suffering, the old Inquisitor claims that the path to happiness is not Christ but total rejection of God. Dostoevsky himself was a devout Christian, yet this chapter is disturbing because he fully embodies and defends atheism.
Just because you feel that a worldview is wrong doesn’t mean the people who hold it are unintelligent. All worldviews, including those we, as Christians, oppose, are complex. The difficulty is in portraying these worldviews with honesty. If we don’t know what we believe, we can’t contrast it with what someone else believes. Scripture instructs us to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). This gives us a secure foundation to analyze another set of beliefs. The process won’t be comfortable, because we might come to accept falsehoods. Yet rigorous understanding of ideologies contrary to ours doesn’t weaken truth—it exposes it.
2. Learn about Worldviews that Differ from Your Own
By default, your characters will operate under your own perceptions of reality because you are the source of their reasoning. If you do this intentionally for specific characters, it’s not a problem. But if it’s a subconscious habit, you’ll limit your cast to one worldview—your own. A wide range of worldviews gives you the opportunity to craft gripping themes. Wherever belief systems collide, conflict emerges.
For example, a Christian worldview evaluates actions through a filter of sin and righteousness. A protagonist with these convictions will clash with a character who evaluates actions through a filter of honor and shame, such as the ancient Greeks. As a Christian, adultery is wrong because it breaks a covenant. For the ancient Greeks, adultery was “wrong” because of the shame it brought on the fornicator and his family. But generally understanding the principle of honor or shame isn’t enough to build authenticity. You must be able to imagine the lifestyle a character with that worldview would have, and you can only achieve that through study.
Worldview conflicts go beyond disparities in culture or opinion. But they engage readers with questions about human origin, identity, purpose, morality, and destiny. Delve into the answers to form a picture of how a worldview colors reality. As you explore and incorporate a variety of worldviews, you’ll infuse meaning into your character’s every thought and action.
(Not sure which questions to ask? Stay with me until the end of the article, and I’ll provide you with a list of questions you can use to develop your characters’ worldviews.)
3. Immerse Yourself in the Stories Other Cultures Tell
Individuals are members of a community within a larger culture, and that culture’s history and worldview is vested not only in factual events but also literature. Fairy tales, myths, and religious texts from Greece, Rome, and Israel have largely influenced Western civilization. In fiction, cultural arts should have a similar impact on your characters and their society.
J. K. Rowling offers us a taste of cultural literature in her Harry Potter series. The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a common collection of fairy tales that all wizards and witches read to their children. Yet, because Harry and Hermione were raised outside the wizarding world, they’re ignorant of the stories and what they might signify.
L. M. Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables depicts the orphaned protagonist as drenched in fairy tales, poems, and novels. This literary heritage fuels her imagination and dramatic personality.
If you’re writing realistic fiction, familiarize yourself with fairy tales, myths, and legends. Being aware of your protagonist’s cultural education will make her more believable. If you’re writing fantasy, consider what the cultural literature for your fictional world might be and how those stories contribute to your character’s worldview. Who are the heroes and the villains? What do they fear? What do they hope for? Which virtues are praised and which vices are disdained?
Make Your Story Matter
Remember those worldview questions I promised you? With input from Josiah and Daeus, I put together a list of twenty questions that can help you develop your character’s worldview more thoroughly. Click below to get the printable worksheet you can use to avoid the traps I’ve discussed in this article.
Character questionnaires might reveal your protagonist’s favorite ice cream flavor, but such triviality ignores the bigger issues that we all wrestle with. Characters with well-formed belief systems will encourage your audience to invest in your story. So dig deep and write honestly.
The soul-searching it prompts in readers is worth the effort.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.