The Faith of the Character

By Elizabeth Engstrom

One of the first things I do when I’m designing a character for a book is to distinguish that character from me. If I don’t pay particular attention to this detail, the characters all tend to sound like me. Middle age, middle class, average everything. But that, for the most part, does not make a memorable character.

A perfect example of this is in our current political climate. Look at Donald Trump and look at Jeb Bush. Which is more memorable? Which is bigger than life? Which would make a better fictional character?

So I exaggerate certain aspects of my characters’ personalities. I tend to use the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) and the Seven Principal Virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, faith, hope, charity, and love), knowing, of course, that no bad guy is all bad and no good guy is all good. We’re all a mix of those things. Pick a few from column A and a few from column B and you have the start of a character.

faith

Today I’m thinking about one character’s faith. He’s not a church going guy. If he were, that would be easy. He’s Catholic. Or Mormon. Or Muslim. Or something else that’s easy to identify. And if you have a character who goes to mass every morning or to the Synagogue once a week or goes to meditation class once a month, you need say little more about the faith that grounds their moral character.

But some of us are more difficult to define than that.  Even if you never speak of your characters’ faith, you—as Creator of that character—need to know their heart. Their faith, no matter how flimsy, still underpins the foundation of their actions.

A violent character can feel violent recriminations for his/her actions, based on his or her faith. Or a violent character can feel great justifications for those same actions, depending. And that can be the same character.

Again, we can look to the current group of presidential candidates and see how their faith informs their actions. Or fails to inform their actions.  Is a candidate’s actions consistent with how he or she proclaims their faith?

And your characters? Do they toe the line, or do they find justifications for veering off?

Either way, when you know the depth of their faith, you know the depth of their character.

Designing a character is time well spent. Don’t overlook this very basic ingredient.

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