When Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit to experience the taste of both good and evil, they consciously rebelled against God. Broken, they plunged into an existence fraught with sorrow. In the shadow of their future, the rest of humanity plunged as well. We now live submerged, choking on water we weren’t meant to breathe.
The people around us thrash and cough and drown every day. But how often do we think about the fall when we’re developing characters?
As Christian storytellers, we have a responsibility to be truthful, even when it’s unpleasant. To create characters who embody the reality that sin has tainted, we must look back to our disastrous beginning. Tools like psychology, philosophy, and empathy can be helpful, but our writing needs to be informed by a scriptural framework that’s bigger than a list of tips and tricks. The doctrine of the fall should affect character development in three main ways.
1. Broken Humans Suffer from Loss and Disconnection
Human beings are shattered jewels. The pieces can’t fit back together, and when we zoom in on individual shards, we discover the scratches, cracks, and jagged edges that make each one unique. Compelling characters showcase the pain they’ve endured, which could have been inflicted by any combination of four hardships that are universal to humanity.
When we speak, we want others to see what we see and feel what we feel. But this isn’t always possible. Most of the time we lack the words to convey the depth of our experiences, and these limitations disconnect us from one another.
Until Eustace Scrubb visited Narnia himself, nothing the Pevensies shared could conjure up the wonder of standing before Aslan or sailing toward unknown adventures. They couldn’t endear him to a world they had fought for and ruled over but he had never set foot in.
People also frequently misinterpret conversations and actions, which can kickstart entire sagas. The plot of Pride and Prejudice revolves around two people who repeatedly misjudge each other. Countless arguments, and even wars, have started because of false information.
Just like humanity itself, communication has been warped by the fall. It can be a potent source of friction in stories, but use it carefully. If the problem is no more complicated than two characters needing to talk to each other, readers will be annoyed. Instead, pit worldviews, cultural backgrounds, and verbal styles against one another to generate organic conflict.
We can all sympathize with the disappointment of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Some examples are childish, like not receiving a bike at Christmastime or a playdate getting rained out. But as we age, our futures don’t turn out how we imagined, and we undergo changes, whether for better or for worse, that we never would have predicted.
While purely psychological, this is a poignant form of loss through which you can explore the theme of identity in a story.
Throughout life, we become physically and emotionally separated from our loved ones. Breakups and betrayal damage our trust in others. Mental disorders and diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia build barriers that we eventually can’t penetrate. And time and distance sometimes cause even the strongest friendships to fade.
Relational strife will leave a unique pattern of scars on your characters as they mature from childhood to adulthood. A few of their coping mechanisms will be healthy, but many won’t. Let them wrestle with and learn from these hurts before (hopefully) healing. Because heartache resonates with every human being, it can help you form bonds between your characters and readers.
All of us will face eternity at the end of our journeys, but we also witness the deaths of others before we reach the gates ourselves. No one is exempt. Even if a story world has the ability to reverse death, or the characters are immortal, they will still grapple with bereavement in some way or at some point.
Everyone expresses grief differently. Some mourn openly for weeks, while others refrain from any outward display. Get to know your character’s habits so her response is true to her personality. You can link all four of these categories through her reactions, giving her internal consistency. For further research, check out Rachel Evans’ article on writing grief realistically.
Each of us struggles to recover from loss and disconnection, proving that we were not designed to wade through it. Although we become accustomed and numbed to pain over the course of our lives, we sense that the world is not intact—and neither are we. As writers, we have the opportunity to weave this awareness into our stories. Death of all kinds is an unwelcome intruder, but grief is the anguish of a soul that was not made to be wounded.
2. Broken Humans Are Marked by Imperfection
Humanity’s gemstone has two other facets that became marred after the fall: 1) Disabilities and physical defects that we did not choose. 2) A sin nature that tempts us to harm ourselves, others, and our environment. Both of these by-products (especially the latter) tend to compound the troubles I described in the previous section, but that’s where the relation between them ends, so I’ll tackle each one separately.
Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses
I’ve put handicaps and health conditions under this heading because they represent ways that the fall continues to negatively impact humans. None of these disqualify a person from bearing God’s image (which is a role we’ve been given, not a set of characteristics). Nor can any blame for the affliction be attributed to the individual (if in doubt, read about the blind man in John 9). Although we’re all born with the mark of the fall upon us, it can take an infinite number of forms. Some are so serious that they play a pivotal role in our psychological development and how others treat us.
As writers, we need to keep these facts in mind because characters with disabilities or diseases can highlight the resilience of the human spirit to overcome adversity and thrive despite it. I’m particularly reminded of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In addition, these characters increase empathy for people who appear different from us, revealing how similar every person is on the inside.
The unfairness of disabilities, which have no clear cause, also strengthens readers’ awareness that nothing is as it should be. We should make a concerted effort to integrate such characters into our stories because they illustrate the sad state of our world in a way that other characters simply cannot. Diversity is good, but understanding and accurately portraying humanity is an even more powerful reason to include characters with disabilities.
As we’re battered with loss after loss, we adopt flawed strategies to protect ourselves. These vary from person to person, but the enneagram (a common personality typing system) can serve as a starting point for analysis, because it focuses on the fundamental lies behind people’s conscious and subconscious decisions.
Many weaknesses and sins sprout from misery. For example, if a child was abandoned by his father early in life, he may grow up with trust issues (barricading himself via anger), a need to prove himself worthy (misconstruing the meaning of love), and hunger for the approval of authority figures (allowing himself to be easily controlled).
Whatever a character’s conglomeration of flaws are, they will be rooted in his deepest pains.
Authentic characters come alive in the hearts and minds of readers, leading them along by the hand. As each character walks through his experiment in living, shape his losses into a set of flaws and erroneous beliefs. Adding disabilities or disease requires tact and wisdom, but the more you anchor a character’s uniqueness in human frailty, the more relatable he will be.
If possible, have your characters recognize and actively fight their shortcomings. Usually the purpose of their mistakes is to push them through the process of redemption and growth. The clash between their virtues and faults will only expand their complexity.
3. Broken Humans Long for Wholeness
The discussion of brokenness can become weighty and disheartening. But, thank God, that’s not where the story ends.
I’ve been encouraging you to paint the world as it is—askew. Everything is messy and dysfunctional. However, you should never write as if this is how the world is supposed to be. Even the sincerest atheist wants rape, murder, and starvation to cease.
As much as we’re marked by the fall, we understand that we were made whole.
We have an innate yearning for the happiness and peace that originally enveloped the earth. We don’t like the reality we live in, and we don’t like ourselves either. We may become jaded, but the piercing and unexpected joy of eucatastrophe would still leave us breathless. So we search for restoration in two directions, often simultaneously.
- Inward. We compare ourselves to wholeness and cringe at all our deficiencies. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they immediately covered themselves with fig leaves and hid in the garden. Many destructive coping mechanisms rise out of shame, isolating people farther and farther from each other (just as clothing physically separated Adam and Eve). Unless we take the guilt dynamic into account, our characters will lack dimension.
- Outward. We cling to various mindsets, practices, and pursuits in hopes of achieving wholeness. But if we rely upon something temporal (sex, drugs, possessions, power), it will destroy us. As writers, we can show this deterioration through villains and misguided protagonists.
In contrast, when we strive for loving relationships with the divine and our fellow human beings, the results are beautiful and transformative. This is how we orchestrate eucatastrophe, the redemption of all the loss, disconnection, and imperfections that our characters find in the world and in themselves.
Infuse your characters with the motivation to change or escape their current situation, overcome their own flaws and limitations, or make the world a better place. Let the losses they suffer and the flaws they possess point toward the desire that seizes their souls. In the Authentic Characters course, Daeus Lamb defines this as an obsession—the central goal that drives a character’s entire trajectory. It informs her actions scene by scene, chapter by chapter, and even book by book, lending cohesiveness to everything she does.
Loss is a universal touchstone. Flaws add complexity and relatability. Guilt fractures self-identity. But, most importantly, longing for wholeness is the beating heart of broken humanity.
Tell the Whole Story
Humanity didn’t start out broken, and we write from a perspective that is far broader than the here and now. We moan over tragedy because it’s a sharp reminder of the wholeness we lost and that’s yet to be restored. If our current state were permanent, the pathos of humanity would be a nihilistic snarl or a materialistic whimper.
But our world can and will be repaired. A bright glimmer shines behind the veil, and it is our duty and privilege to tear holes in it, exposing readers to hope.
In the beginning, we were made whole. In the end, we can become whole again. And when we’re trying to imbue our stories with authenticity, this knowledge is the difference between an empty caricature and a character readers will live and emote through page after page.
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.