Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment in our five-part series on renewing storytellers’ souls. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching the topics, read our introductory post.
For months, you’ve been facepalming over a character who isn’t coming across how you envisioned. All of your beta readers send you similar feedback: “his emotions seem artificial,” “I couldn’t connect with him,” or “his choices don’t make sense to me.” You’ve brainstormed and researched all of the details that shape him, such as the cultural tics in his speech, his personality type, and the lie that’s influencing him. You’ve ingested so much material about character arcs that you feel like you could be a professor of the topic by now. So why is he still a stick figure?
Maybe it’s not the character who needs further development. Maybe it’s the author.
Many of us, by default, partition off our writing growth and our personal growth. One is vocational and the other is spiritual. Although we realize that the two can and do intersect on occasion, we assume that the phenomenon is limited to traits that help us with the process (such as patience or courage), not experiences that inform our craft. But what if both kinds of growth coexist in the same sphere, each complementing the other?
The most unique element we bring to our writing is ourselves—all of the quirks, values, and gifts that make us distinct as God’s image-bearers. When we’re creatively drained, the problem could be that we’re challenging our fictional characters more than we’ve challenged ourselves. Either we can’t empathize with the character’s situation, or we haven’t discovered the answer to the moral dilemma he’s facing.
Before we can give our characters depth and relatability, we need to welcome the sometimes uncomfortable pressure of God’s refining hand on us.
To Craft Character Arcs, We Must Live Ours First
All of us are familiar with Jesus’s parable about the healthy tree that bears lush fruit and the decaying tree that bears rotten fruit. The gist of its message is that our actions expose the condition of our hearts. But since most stories feature characters who, over time, learn to prune away lies and bask in the truth, this parable has applications for fiction as well.
We can’t produce compelling stories until we’ve nurtured our imaginations with the purifying water of the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Only when a painful encounter with our own waywardness has convicted us to change can we intuit how such a turning point should play out for our characters. And the more akin their struggles are to our own, the more accurate the portrayal will be. We can’t be strangers to the stories we’re trying to tell.
We need to draw connections between ourselves and our characters, as NYT best-selling author Tosca Lee did while drafting her novel Iscariot. In her keynote for our Authentic Characters Summit, she recounted how much trouble she had placing herself inside Judas’s perspective, even after extensively investigating the setting and the factors that led to his traitorous decisions. But then she noticed how he projected his expectations for the Messiah onto Jesus, who of course did not match the Jews’ ideal of a conquering, rescuing king. Tosca recognized a similar attitude in herself: she wanted God to conform to her own preconceived notions about how He’d reveal Himself to her. Moreover, she realized that humanity as a whole has a tendency to carve God into their own image, and discarding those misconceptions is the only path to true faith.
Until Tosca stared into the mirror and saw herself in Judas, she was attempting to depict someone fundamentally different from her, which is difficult, if not impossible, to pull off effectively. But once she bonded with him through a shared flaw, she could vicariously wrestle that flaw through him and help readers to sympathize with an intensely despised biblical figure.
As we write stories that stretch us, we need to be watchful for moments of insight that link us to our characters. When we can enter each scene and explore it ourselves, we’ll take readers on a journey so visceral that their own arcs might shift in a more positive direction during it.
To Live Out Our Character Arcs, We Need to Act, Not Just Believe
Before we can find parallels between our lives and our characters’ lives, we need to be engaged in a pattern of growth. That may go without saying. But how, specifically, do we cultivate habits that support a continual upward climb?
Our first instinct is probably to delve deeper into Scripture—and that’s definitely where our roots should be. The resolution of the Christian Storytellers Manifesto that we’re currently focusing on exhorts us “to bury ourselves in Scripture, for we can only exemplify truth when we are immersed in it ourselves.” This paints a vivid image of Bible study, cross references, memorization, and meditation. We can also enrich our takeaways by listening to expository teachers, analyzing the ideas of influential philosophers throughout history (both Christian and secular), and opening ourselves up to vulnerable conversations about sin and grace with friends.
We risk stagnation, however, if that’s where our efforts stop. In Christian circles, sometimes personal growth is misinterpreted as theological acumen instead of exhibited Christlikeness.
Our vision for truth-immersion ought to be much broader, bridging the gap between agreeing that we should forgive those who hurt us and actually letting go of grudges. Between understanding that Christ can redeem us and having existential confidence about where we’ll spend eternity. And between being aware of our faults and striving to correct our behavior.
Knowledge won’t change us—not to the core—until we begin a grueling, lifelong trek of pushing ourselves beyond our flesh-driven nature. At moments, we may shrink back from the edge of growth because the unknown is genuinely frightening. When we deconstruct lies, the ground beneath us crumbles, and we tumble into a valley that we must walk through before we’re made anew. This is sanctification, the removal of dross and the death of what is dead in us.
Thankfully, we don’t have to flounder in the dark. Truth is our illuminator, bringing order and transformation to the chaos of falsehoods and depravity. When we center ourselves around its light, we become marked by integrity—wholeness inside and outside—and morph into agents of change in our world, just like our fictional characters do in theirs.
Do We Need to Be Spiritual Experts First?
After all the emphasis on growth, we may be tempted to judge ourselves as unqualified to write anyone else’s character arc when we haven’t yet completed our own. But since we’ll never achieve perfection this side of heaven, that would restrict us from using our God-given talents. Additionally, such a conclusion overlooks the effect storytelling has on us.
When we venture into uncharted territory with our characters, settings, or themes, we’re forced to seek out truths that will cut through the fog. And as we grapple with up-close and personal issues through the heart and mind of another human being, we’ll see nuances that hadn’t occurred to us before and expand the range of our experiences, generating connections with more and more people.
Writing exploratively contradicts the popular motto “write what you know.” That’s because the one-liner is flawed. A story isn’t merely a reflection of who we were when we typed page one, because the act of writing itself teaches us more about God’s reality. So instead of boxing our imaginations in, we should set out to write what we don’t know and then tell the story we learn.
Dedicated to Growth
As we create various casts of vibrant characters and endeavor to synthesize our own arcs with theirs, we need to be constantly and consciously reaching for higher ground. Growth is not automatic—it must happen on purpose. We represent this in our stories by throwing our characters into turmoil that shakes them into better versions of themselves. Since we don’t always have the benefit of topsy-turvy circumstances to awaken us, we must patiently coax the truth into every corner of our lives. Transformation isn’t an overnight miracle but a sequence of small improvements that accumulate day by day.
Whether we grow through hardship or intentional strain, every character arc we outline will, by necessity, contain a thread of us. Our task is to ensure that the thread is strong enough to pull us, our characters, and our readers toward meaningful change.
Rejoin us on Thursday as Lori encourages writers to turn the trials they’ve experienced into a source of connection and comfort for readers. In the meantime, we’d love for you to share your perspective. How do you hope to live your own story so that you can write more powerful novels?
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.
This articles encourages me. I haven’t written much fiction since leaving home for college, but I’ve grown a ton spiritually and emotionally. I look forward to pouring my experiences and newfound wisdom into my future stories.
I’m so glad this is encouraging to you, Zachary! The recent past has been a time of growing for me as well; it’s so encouraging to know that the wider our experiences range and the more issues we face and grow through, the more we’re equipped to tell stories that are nuanced and powerful. God bless you into the future as you seek to tell those stories!
Fantastic article, Martin. Sometimes not writing and instead living our lives results in us creating more powerful stories than we could through hours of practice. That doesn’t cancel out the necessity of honing our craft, but living stories gives us an intuitive understanding of stories that studying them often can’t.
Yes! Life imitates art, but for us as artists, art imitates life. Glad you liked this!
My hat is off to you, sir!
An excellent article, my friend!
One of my favorite sections is this:
“Writing exploratively contradicts the popular motto “write what you know.” That’s because the one-liner is flawed. A story isn’t merely a reflection of who we were when we typed page one, because the act of writing itself teaches us more about God’s reality. So instead of boxing our imaginations in, we should set out to write what we don’t know and then tell the story we learn.”
I have felt so hindered by that old erroneous adage. Your statement is liberating and rings true! Every project I start, whether it be in fiction or non-fiction begins with a learning curve that requires exploration as well as self-examination. I learn through the writing and associated research and edits, reviews, etc. Part of that sincere seeking to know helps make the finding through the process more authentic.
I know you have tapped into something I have long suspected when you wrote:
“Whether we grow through hardship or intentional strain, every character arc we outline will, by necessity, contain a thread of us.”
I know it is humbling and a tough horse pill of vulnerability to admit and swallow, but there are aspects of us in each of our characters, even, and especially, in the villains that we don’t like to admit to in “polite” company. But each of us has that proclivity of darkness, rage, and general villainy that stalks our secret desire to be heroes. Good writing has cathartic elements, as well as aspirational, and when we tap into the authentic struggles we personally face, that authenticity has a greater chance of coming through in our work.
Thank you for writing this article!
Thank you for your kind words, Brian! Very encouraging.
I’m glad this struck a nerve with you and was liberating!
This was so interesting and something I might not have come to on my own. Definitely challenging.
Thank you, Rachel! I hope you’re able to put it to some use in your writing life. God bless!