By Claire Belberg
Others have observed that the characters we invent in our stories are all, in some sense, ourselves. We write what we know – that is, out of the storeroom of our own experience and perception. We also write what we don’t know, and sometimes we learn it as we write it.
I find the writing journey a deeply personal and often emotionally challenging ride. Writing in truth – from my heart, with integrity – demands an honesty which becomes rather like a counselling session with myself (and God). One area of constant challenge to me is that many of the characters who emerge from my imagination are not people I really like.
This was more obvious in my earlier writing. The link between my feelings towards my characters and myself was obvious: there are many aspects of myself I do not like. Since, as a Christian, I have a belief that ‘God don’t make junk’ and that He actually likes me a lot, I can’t simply disparage these people of my making. Loving them is a commitment to loving the beloved child of God that I am.
Does that mean I cannot write about broken, ugly, or evil people? No. In fact, the more I can accept the love of God for myself, the freer I am to acknowledge the dark side of myself and the world. But in the spirit of godly love in truth, each character I create in my imagination must be treated with respect.
What is respect? It could be defined as an attitude that acknowledges something of potential worth in every living creature. This value is not in terms of exploitable characteristics but an inherent value which is a reflection of the one who made it. To honour the Maker, we honour what the Maker makes and values. If this is true of the material world made by God, it is also true of the imaginary worlds we create as sub-creators, to use Tolkien’s term.
How does an author respect her characters? By understanding what experiences in life lie behind the people they have become, what choices they made and why – just like real people, the ones Jesus died to give life to. If there is anything of redemption and hope in my stories, it is because I take this belief into my imaginative world and the people who inhabit it. I have to believe that my invented characters function with the same emotional logic as God’s human inventions, and that they are redeemable for the same reasons. Even when I develop non-existent creatures my duty of respect remains because if the story is worth telling it will be communicating person-ness to real human readers regardless of the lifelikeness or otherwise of the story medium.
How does this change the way I write? I think of my characters as if I were writing their biography, showing them the same respect I would any living person. No stereotyping, no name-calling, no trivial explanations for the choices they make. Compassion for suffering, grace instead of condemning judgement, willingness to believe that every person is redeemable, allowing them voice and free will.
Respecting my characters not only challenges me to respect myself but to respect my readers. Readers and writers are co-imaginers. The material I give a reader triggers responses, intentional and associative, in the reader. My goal as a Christian writer seeking mainstream publication is to impart something of the loving grace and truth of God to the reader so that they sense hope and purpose in their lives. The respect I show my characters seeks to model the relationship I want with my readers and the relationship I believe God wants with them. I trust that this integrity will enable my stories to speak to my readers’ hearts with the ring of truth and a touch of transcendence.
Who are your characters? What do you like and dislike about them? Can you respect them? What difference might that make to the way you write about them? What does that say about your humanity and that of your readers?
Claire Belberg writes short stories, poems and novels from her eucalypt-canopy-level home in the Adelaide Hills, where she lives with her husband and two of three adult children, a couple of tropical fish, and a lonely wild rosella she calls Bobby. Her blog of stories and poems can be found at mountainbeautiful.blogspot.com.au
 JRR Tolkien as quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, JRR Tolkien: A Biography, Allen & Unwin, 1977.