Thoughts on Characterization and Sin

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.” CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

One of the reasons I write my characters the way I do is my belief in the depravity of man, which Lewis explains well in the quote above. It’s fun to think we make choices to do bad or good, but the truth is, I think our sinful nature is far more powerful than that. I know there are times I did/do things I never thought I’d do and, in fact, had planned not to up until the very minute they occurred. If my free will is dominant, how can this be? The Scriptures tell us that even when we try to do good, we fail. The Apostle Paul writes:

“For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Romans 7:19-24

This war inside us is a common factor in the character development arcs of fiction, whether the writer shares my belief or not. People are complicated creatures and I have seen far too many books by authors who either don’t believe this, don’t know how to write it or somehow can’t bear to represent it and thus present cardboard, watered down, unrealistic characters instead. This is not a problem restricted to Christian fiction, but I have to say it is far too prevalent there. Books like that just don’t ring true for me. In fact, they turn me off, so I won’t write characters that way. I just can’t.

In my fiction, bad guys are bad and good guys are conflicted. Beyond that, even the bad guys have some good qualities (most of them anyway) and the good guys have their bad sides. Because I want my fiction to be fit for the 12-year-old kids who are just discovering speculative fiction at the same age I did, and because of my faith beliefs, I don’t write sex scenes or foul language and I keep the violence focused on only what’s required by the story. But that also doesn’t mean my characters can’t be realistic. When a character curses, I just write “Bob cursed” and let the reader fill in the blank. We all have our favorite curse words anyway, don’t we (be honest)? And so, those would pop into our mind when we read that. Reading fiction is supposed to be interactive. That’s why over describing and telling are discouraged. The more the readers contribute from their own imaginations, the better their reading experience will be.

Besides, who can related to perfect characters? Do heroes need to express ideals we aspire to? Of course. Otherwise, they won’t be heroes because heroes are people we admire and want to emulate. But even heroes have imperfections and if we don’t write those into our stories, they won’t seem like real people.

Anyway, this is how I approach character. I am sure other writers have different thoughts on it and even different motivations but I hope most of us end up in the same place, because realistic, conflicted, imperfect characters are a lot more interesting to read about. For what it’s worth…