In my fiction writing class, we were given some assigned reading over the weekend from the book The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.  As I was reading about writing characters, I was struck by the truth, the real life truth, found on the pages.  I’d like to share a bit with you, so that you will be encouraged to see people in a way you might not have otherwise.

The first thing a writer needs in creating a story is tenderness for all of his characters.  Characters are like children.  Love them, be generous, indulgent, and forgiving.  On the other hand, don’t let them get away with lying, with exaggerating, with shirking responsibility, and so on.  Characters need constant attention, reassurance, and love.  You will have to know your characters well in order to love them, and to do so you need to live with them intimately.  They must be with you when you go to sleep at night, when you wake in the morning.  Eventually, they’ll find their way into your dreams.

You can never know too much about your characters.  You know their fears, their dreams.  You know their tics.  Every character, you realize, has an imagination and memories, has suffered childhood traumas, has or has had a mom and a dad.  Every character has regrets.  Every character has secrets.  Every character has a public self and a private self and a self that he doesn’t even know about.  Every character has a history, a formative past.  No character exists in a vacuum.  A character is fully realized only when he or she interacts in a social context.  At work.  At the market.  In traffic. […]

They need to aspire and to fail.  We understand failure.  Failure is endearing.  We don’t understand whining.  The characters need to be ambivalent most of the time.  Motivation also makes characters convincing – when we know why they do what they do.  What makes mathematics interesting is not the right answer, but where the answer came from and where it leads.  What makes fiction interesting is not what the characters do but why they do it.  […]

If you find yourself mocking a character, it’s a good idea to think harder about him and find something for which you can respect him.  Maybe the guy who seems so emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, so impatient and sarcastic and all, spends every Saturday afternoon at a nursing home singing for the patients.  They love him dearly.  He does it for free.  On the other hand, if you find yourself admiring everything about your character, it’s time to think harder about her to see what unflattering attribute will humanize her.  She is irrationally jealous of her sister, though she would never admit it, not even to herself.  She things no one notices how she never misses an opportunity to put sister down.  (Where does that jealousy come from?  When in her childhood did it begin?)  We have all learned […] we cannot stand in judgment of our characters.  We are here to witness their behavior.  And we should remember that it is a character’s faults that make him likable.  We care about people who are scared, who act foolishly, who are driven and derided by their vanity […]

I imagine that writing fiction, creating people with hopes and failures, who have healthy and emotionally damaging relationships, who amaze readers with their accomplishments or shock readers with their indiscretions, is a glimpse into the mind of God and how God might view us.  As the omnipotent unlimited author (to use literary terms), He sees to the very core of every character in the human story.

  • Stephen Helbig September 12, 2011 at 12:04 am

    ” As the omnipotent unlimited author (to use literary terms),”
    (who also writes non-fiction, if I may add)
    “He sees to the very core of every character in the human story. ” HALLELUJAH” and “AMEN”

    I’ so thankfull that God, the Auther and Finisher of our Faith is intimately acquainted with all our ways. (Psalm 139)
    PRAISE HIM ! PRAISE HIM, that He has declared He will perfect that which concearns us.

    The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.(Psalm 138:8)

    “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (C.S. Lewis)

    “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”. (Heb.11:10)

  • Mary Vanderplas September 12, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Real life truth, indeed. This invitation to view all others through the lens of grace could have come from the Gospels.

    Thanks for sharing it. It’s truth that I need. And I like the connection you make to the divine Author who knows his human characters intimately and completely – and who is tenderly disposed to every lost one of us.

  • admin September 13, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Stephen, I love the C.S. Lewis quote. He’s a great author.

    Mary, it is truth I need, too. To be continually reminded to see others as I would have them see me. We are all works in progress.

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