Monday, June 13, 2016

Underappreciated Resource for Fiction Writers


How The Bible Can Help Build Character—Fictional Ones, That Is…


If you want to study how to write multidimensional, realistically imperfect characters, with complex backstories and universally recognized flaws and attributes, look no further than the Hebrew Bible. Show me a flawless hero in the Five Books of Moses—I challenge you. And show me a reader of the Bible who can’t identify with at least one person depicted there, in some compelling, and possibly life-changing way.

Why, one might wonder, is a book designed to teach and serve as Law, replete with flawed examples of humanity? Some Bible readers would say that such questions are moot, applicable only to fiction; they would assert that the people of the Bible are not “characters,” but ancestors—real people—and they must be portrayed truthfully because the Bible is nonfiction, a historical record. Others, who read the Bible as historical fiction, might argue that the omniscient narrator point-of-view of realistically flawed characters allows readers to decide, based on their own perspectives, which characters to connect with as they read, and also to find new connections with each rereading as their own perspectives about life evolve over time. In either case, some readers might complain that it’s difficult to feel connected to, or even sympathetic toward, characters we would only emulate by being the opposite of them. I would point out to such readers that all of us read stories, in a way, to find and define ourselves, and every person can find aspects of their own character within the ultimate compendium of human traits known as the Bible.

  • If I want to portray a story of a nonconformist who follows only the supernatural stirrings within his own heart and soul, defying social norms to do so, because he knows somehow that he is right about society’s need for a new way of thinking, I need only study the story of Abraham. 

  • To create a complex tale of deception and extortion among family or friends, I can find material within the biblical scenes about blind Isaac; his scheming son, Jacob; his impulsive son, Esau; and their manipulative mother, Rebecca. 
  • For a novel centered on dangerous sibling rivalry that almost destroys a family and alters society itself, I could find source material in the ancient stories of Jacob and his twelve sons. 
  • To portray a boy whose deep friendship with another boy is gossiped about as “gay,” a boy who stands up for his friendship even if it means challenging authority, I need to study the Bible story of David and Jonathan—the original “bromance.” 

  • If I want to share a story of an outcast, morally corrupt young woman who redeems herself by risking her life for the sake of a greater social good, I can study the tale of Rahab, the prostitute, who saved a city from complete destruction. 

  • If I want to create a political tale of a paradoxically noble, yet self-centered leader whose downfall seems to be an addiction to sex, I could borrow from the story of King David (not to mention some recent historical figures).

  • And if I decide to depict a story of a boy with psychic gifts, good looks, and charisma, a boy who evokes as much bitter envy as he does awe, a boy who becomes victimized by the ones meant to protect him, and then uses his gifts to reverse his fortune change the world, that’s the story of Joseph, son of Rachel and Jacob.  

Etcetera… You get the idea. The archetypes of most multidimensional characters have already appeared in the world’s best-selling, longest-existing collection of tales of humanity. The bible is not just for religious study; it’s not just about laws and wars and punishments; it’s not just about obedience to God and warnings about defiance of commandments; the bible is the fountainhead of all humanity-based writing. Amen!