What The Promise of Jesse Woods Teaches Writers about Character Development

May 25, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our series exploring the merits of The Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry. You can read the first installment here. Beware that this article and its companions will contain spoilers.


Human beings are hard to figure out. We rarely express our full thoughts or feelings, and when we do, misunderstandings still arise. How we process and react to situations is unique and impacted by everything from mood to history to personality.


As we’re crafting characters who are intended to embody specific worldviews or lessons, we need to keep human complexity in mind. The strongest, most memorable characters expose their layers during pivotal moments rather than all at once. Without subtext to breathe life into the narrative, characters are papier-mâché puppets in the grasp of a heavy-handed author.


To make our characters dance without readers tracing the strings back to us, we must demonstrate their values organically. In The Promise of Jesse Woods, Chris Fabry leverages three tactics to reveal who his characters are and why readers should relate to them. If we shape our characters with the same rawness, they’ll seem real to readers.


Tactic #1: An Effective Characteristic Moment

The difference between overt and subtle stories dwells in the characters. The former blatantly states why the protagonist needs to change; the latter allows his actions to indicate whether his beliefs are right or wrong. When he steps on stage for the first time and displays his flaw, that moment invites readers in and establishes the emotional conflict. They see the core trait he’s going to spend the entire story overcoming, which unifies all the events within his arc.


In The Promise of Jesse Woods, the protagonist, Matt, has a savior complex. Though he longs to solve people’s problems, he doesn’t seek guidance from God. The disconnect between his faith and his noble efforts shows up immediately, but since the plot alternates between his adult self and his child self, Fabry introduces Matt’s flaw twice.


In Matt’s adult characteristic moment, he learns that his childhood sweetheart, Jesse, is engaged to a man who used to bully her. Without consulting a mentor or whispering a prayer, he charges off to stop the marriage, oblivious to the various factors that might make the “rescue” unwise.  


His second characteristic moment resembles the first. On the drive back to his hometown, he slips into memories of his first summer there. As a preteen, he finds a mare with barbed wire wrapped around its leg. Instead of alerting the owner, he grabs a few kids and frees the horse.


Matt’s desperation to be a hero overrides spiritual and conventional wisdom. He’s so sure of his purpose that he fails to ask for help, which leads to negative outcomes. He manages to release the horse, but it bleeds to death because no one tends its wounds. Years later, when he urges Jesse not to marry Earl, he discovers that she truly loves her fiancé.  


Notice that readers are required to interpret these scenes on their own, and many don’t pick up on Matt’s flaw at first. He doesn’t bemoan how he struggles to trust in God. Nor do the surrounding characters point out his flaw. Instead, Matt assesses his circumstances, and his actions spring out of his convictions. The resulting disasters are viciously powerful because they spotlight his central flaw without directly addressing it.


To apply Fabry’s technique to your story, you must blind your protagonist to his faults. Like Matt, he’ll realize life isn’t perfect—but not that he’s sabotaging his ability to achieve happiness. He’ll swing his lie like a hammer that can demolish the obstacles in his path, unaware that he’s destroying himself instead. This prevents him from identifying or thinking about the true source of his problems.


He’ll still make obvious mistakes. He’s unaware of his own foolishness; readers aren’t. Not all quests will appear as righteous as Matt’s, but no matter what your protagonist’s goals are, he won’t question his choices at the outset.


Once you blind your protagonist, resist the temptation to shout out his flaws. If you lock yourself inside his perspective, you’ll avoid preachiness. Until the time comes to expose his faults, let the consequences of his misguided decisions do the talking. Carry readers along like nothing is amiss, and when they look back at the opening scenes, they’ll recognize your sleight of hand.


Tactic #2: Cleverly Placed Symbolism

Symbolism gives scenes dual meanings. Beneath the surface, a message floats, waiting for readers to fish it out. And when they do, it adds significance to happenings and conversations that would just be fillers otherwise.


The Promise of Jesse Woods contains many scenes that aren’t linked to the main conflict. Matt’s first piano lesson is one of them. In it, he explains that he plays by ear, can’t read notes, and dabbles in music only because it eases his mother’s depression. At first glance, this scene seems to be simple exposition. But that’s a guise.


Though Matt’s piano teacher isn’t a spiritual force in the story, her words allude to Matt’s arc: “One day you’ll connect what your hands are doing and what’s on the page… We’ll go from your heart to your head rather than the other way around.” Matt thinks she’s referring to his piano skills, but in a sense, she’s not. This is an analogy for the dichotomy between his faith and how he practices it. He can’t connect Scripture with the work of his hands and needs to listen with his heart instead of his head.


If two levels of meaning aren’t enough, the scene holds a third. Matt’s motive for playing the piano (comforting his mom) coincides with his outlook on the Christian walk. He bases it on his desire to help people, not a deep relationship with God.


The exchange between Matt and his piano teacher is so inconspicuous that many readers pass over it. But those who pick up on the symbolism unexpectedly plunge straight to Matt’s core, and the new insight enhances the story.


Unassuming scenes like this provide fertile soil for symbolism. Scope your characters, story world, and plot for parallels between everyday occurrences and the protagonist’s arc or the themes he’s exploring. Fabry draws on musical concepts, and life is full of such similarities if we pay attention. Psalms, Paul’s letters, and Jesus’s parables are packed with analogies that tie the ordinary to the profound. That’s because creation constantly reflects God’s redemptive work—in the seasons, marriage, and sacrifice.


For an analogy to be potent, however, it must be imperceptible to your protagonist. He might have an epiphany later on, but you’ll ruin the excitement of self-discovery if you don’t give readers the chance to draw connections on their own.


Tactic #3: Layered Dialogue

Dialogue tends to attract info dumps, but it’s also an ideal channel for subtext. A character’s speech should have an undercurrent whenever he opens his mouth. And if the immediate situation prompts him to hint at his beliefs, his remarks won’t seem superfluous.


Matt has a handful of discussions about God with his rough-and-tumble love interest, Jesse. Because these sorts of conversations can easily become insincere, turning off readers is a risk. But Fabry is discreet, allowing his characters’ worldviews to bleed into each line. On pages 180–181, Jesse describes why she’s reluctant to acknowledge the divine:


     “It would be easier if there wasn’t a God.”

     “How do you figure that?”

     “All the pain and suffering in the world would make a lot more sense. Some people are rich. Others have nothing. Kids in Africa starve to death because they were born on the wrong continent. If there ain’t no God and we’re here by chance, trouble just comes to you. But if there is a God, it means you got to explain things that can’t be explained.”

     I hadn’t considered the suffering masses as much as I had considered the Pirates’ losing streak. Leave it to Jesse to help me see life globally.

     “I’ve heard that we compare God with our fathers,” I said. “We make Him out to be what we’ve experienced.”

     Jesse shook her head. “If that’s the case, I sure don’t want nothing to do with Him.”


Superficially, this conversation focuses on Jesse, but it decrypts Matt too. When he says, “I’ve heard that we compare God with our fathers,” he’s sharing advice that extends to him. He doubts his father and never approaches him for help, which has warped his perception of God. His earthly relationship—and the dialogue that’s influenced by it—betrays his inner struggles.


Even Matt’s phrasing is revealing. Instead of admitting, “We compare God with our fathers,” he parrots a secondhand opinion: “I’ve heard that we compare God with our fathers.” This echoes the piano scene. His faith doesn’t flow from within but is copied from without.  


Like actions, a character’s words, whether directed at himself or others, stems from his convictions. Even brief conversations that revolve around a secondary character’s problems can blow the protagonist’s soul wide open. The events that formed his false ideology, the people involved, and the excuses he leans on can all seep into his dialogue.


That means you need to be intimately familiar with your protagonist’s lie. Who or what encouraged him to believe it, and why does he cling to it? For Matt, the answer is his father, whose passivity unintentionally made him believe that God is distant.


You also need to know how your protagonist justifies his faults. How would he defend his behavior? What would he tell someone who’s teetering between the lie and the truth? In The Promise of Jesse Woods, the people around Matt criticize his rescue mission, forcing him to disclose the reasons he’s convinced that Jesse needs him.


Once you’ve assembled all the pieces that comprise your protagonist, you can drop them one by one as he pursues his goals and naturally runs into opposition.


Why Subtlety Succeeds

Stories aren’t sermons, not because they don’t teach, but because they’re not aimed at readers. We’re pulled into Matt’s struggle because Fabry deceives us into thinking the story isn’t about us. When Matt stops trying to be a savior and surrenders Jesse, we’re moved. The journey became ours as well as Matt’s, and we were able to experience it because the author didn’t forewarn us that the lesson he learns is supposed to reach us too.


A story’s themes are only as subtle as the characters, and blatancy won’t persuade readers to lower their walls. But if we implant our themes in the souls of our characters like Fabry did, readers won’t shy away after the final page declares, “The End.”


Return on Thursday to read Martin Detwiler’s insights on what The Promise of Jesse Woods teaches about balancing multiple plot lines. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What did you learn about character development from studying Fabry’s novel?


  1. Lily

    Thanks so much for this article, Gabrielle. I feel like my MC needs help in their development. These tips have given me news ideas on how to fix their character arc and make their change believable (and non-preachy).

    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Awesome! I’m glad the article has given you some ideas. Making characters believable (and non-preachy) is a challenge, so I wish you the best of luck!

  2. Olivia

    That was a really good article! I’m an amateur at writing, and what you said here about not just proclaiming your character’s mistakes outright is wonderful advice!
    Now I just have to put it into practice. *Shudders at the thought of all the work ahead* But I guess it must be done. *Sighs heavily*

    • Gabrielle Pollack

      You’ve got this, Olivia! It’s a lot of work, but it’s totally worth it. 🙂

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