Monday, March 24, 2014

Realism vs. Rebellion—How Should We Handle Flawed Characters? Part 1

You might have seen him—the well-muscled hero with a gun in his hand and bitter vengeance in his heart, ready to get even with those who have wronged him no matter what the cost.

Or maybe you've seen a stubbly outlaw pilfering goods from a steam train, swaggering out with a shrug and a toothy grin just before he can be caught again.

Or perhaps you've seen a more subtle version in a different era—perhaps the version with a bonnet and sweet curls—disdaining rules of politeness to the point that she will break them and find an excuse afterward. No great cause is required—no lives at risk or morals at stake—she will cross the line for shock value and for the sake of being “free” and “inspirational.”

As you can probably tell, I've been thinking a lot about heroes lately. We are always being told by page and screen what makes someone admirable . . . but have you noticed how often these characters are just like ordinary folks that have been planted in a different time and place? Have you noticed that they wear the right clothes and speak the right way, but their attitudes are rather, well, not exemplary?

Now, I realize there is a balance here. Sin is as old as the Fall, and autonomy has dogged mankind since before the word was coined. Sinful rebellion is in all of us, and temptations will always arise to make us stop crucifying it.

We want to infuse our characters with a bit of this realism, and this presents a two-fold challenge for us authors: 1) how we treat it, and 2) how we apply it.

How We Treat It

To illustrate my first point, I would call to mind just about any popular protagonist from books, movies, and TV shows. This character, presumably the “good guy,” somehow manages to get away with quite a few wrong things and, chances are, everyone will still be routing for him at the end. Perhaps he only does them to further his all-important
mission, but I've noticed the trend
towards getting him to do these things simply for a little flair, humour, and so-called character development. And, because he's the “hero,” there are hardly any consequences for his wrongdoing.

As readers, we are constantly being urged to think,

     “So what if he stole the money? It was only a little bit, and he needed it.”
     “She didn't have a good attitude towards her father, but he was really restrictive.”
     “He pulled the trigger because he was indignant—and the other guy deserved it.”
     “Yes, she did open the neighbour's confidential mail, but it was okay—she was really curious. Besides, nothing bad happened.”

We want to excuse likeable people. We quite like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories who may do similar things one day. And we love the old idea that we can “sin and not die,” i.e. get away with things scot-free.

The thing is, authors mete out consequences in fiction; God metes out consequences in reality. Therefore, for a story to be realistic, it needs to have rules of right and wrong and a system of justice that transcends our human ideas.

Does this mean the hero is not allowed to put a foot wrong? Am I suggesting we send a lightning bolt of punishment to strike him when he does? No. We all agree that a character needs flaws in order to be realistic, and in order for us to empathize with him. The key is how we treat these flaws.

 
Do we excuse everything the hero does because, well, he's the hero?
Do we treat the hero's sins as positive because we can relate to him better that way?
Do we let the hero get away with things because we secretly wish we could do them too?
 (Hint: No)


"Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Gal. 6:7

As Christian writers, we have a responsibility in the way we choose to depict the world.
As Christian writers, we have to consciously decide how we are going to fill our stories with Truth—not only with Scripture quotes but also mixing Biblical reality “in the batter,” so to speak.
As Christian writers, we have the challenge to provide salt- and light-filled literature to a reality-starved world.

So if sin is wrong and flawed characters are good for stories . . . then how do we balance the two? What do you think? I'd love to hear from you!

In the meantime, stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series—Realism vs. Rebellion: How Should We Apply it?—where I'll explore some ideas on exactly that.

Caitlin R. Hedgcock is a Christian author who aspires to use storytelling for God’s glory. She lives with her family in England's picturesque county of Hertfordshire, and spends spare time reading, walking forest trails, and practicing violin for the next orchestra concert. Visit her blog to find out more.

4 comments:

  1. Thought-provoking article, Caitlin.

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  2. I don't think we should ever paint rebellion in a good light. And I dislike the books/movies that portray all the wickedness of a character throughout the entire thing, then throw in some redemption at the very end. That isn't very realistic or edifying.

    I think of balance of rebellion and redemption should be painted. Perhaps a character whose wickedness is being painted as wrong and gradual steps are made to improve his character? Such as Philip in my Roman book, perhaps?

    Good post!

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    Replies
    1. Your character Philip is an excellent example of this, Alicia. Not only are his struggles as a feisty Briton in captivity completely understandable, but his wrongs are also not excused and they really don't make his life nicer. You achieved a great balance.

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