250

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

With the Holidays behind us, we return to our more or less chronological history of what trying to be a poet has taught us.  Why do we write?  This is as good an explanation as I have been able to come up with.  Jaime Fredericks was a student of mine some years ago, and is a very good writer of fantasy in her own right.

C. S. Lewis’s Writing Desk

THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY

For Jaime Fredericks, Fellow Explorer

The mind is poised; the fingers grip the pen.

Ahead, the unexplored expanse of white

Lies peaceful, undisturbed—invites you in.

No one can tell what wondrous things you might

Encounter once the journey has begun.

The hidden chambers of the human heart,

That labyrinth that is fully known by none,

Lie perilously open once you start.

Solar systems far beyond our ken;

Dragons, wizards, elves, and warriors bold;

The desperate lives of ordinary men;

All the untold tales that must be told,

And any one might pick you for its Mage!

The grand adventure of the empty page.

Dr. Williams working on his next book

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest books: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016) and “An Encouraging Thought”: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of L. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018)!  Order from the publisher or Amazon.

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WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE, Part 2

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE,
And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Us Learn Better

Part 2

Donald T. Williams, PhD

A version of this essay appeared as “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 20:7 (Sept., 2007): 15-18. A fuller version appears in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

What can Evangelical writers learn from Christian writers from liturgical churches, who have done a much better job of pursuing excellence?  What can we learn from them without compromising our own Evangelical convictions?  Those were the questions I raised last week and will try to answer today by looking at Flannery O’Connor.

Miss Flannery
Miss Flannery

THE HILLBILLY THOMIST

Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia writer who died of disseminated lupus in 1964, was a self-styled “hillbilly Thomist” whose two novelettes and small collection of short stories have transcended the local-color cubbyhole into which they were first placed to shock, puzzle, intrigue, and delight a growing body of readers ever since. A devout and loyal Catholic who often had more sympathy with Protestant Fundamentalists than with others in her own tradition, she said that “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that” (32). In most of her stories the central character, whether secular or religious, starts off smugly self-sufficient but is given an opportunity to become open to the grace of God which is usually not responded to very well. A master of irony, O’Connor often puts the most profound spiritual insight into the mouth of the character who is by conventional standards the farthest from the kingdom. There are no cheap conversions, but the cumulative effect of her stories for those who understand them is to break down the modern sense of enlightened self-sufficiency and prepare readers to accept their need for grace.

 
Although she often expressed a bemused impatience with the expectations of the average Catholic reader, O’Connor also found in the larger tradition of that church a community that nurtured and supported her artistic vision. She mentions at least three forms of such nurture she found there, only one of which is liable to be present in the typical Evangelical congregation.

Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.
Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.

A TRUE WORLDVIEW

First, she found a true world view, encapsulated in dogma, that constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity. “Dogma,” she said, “is an instrument for penetrating reality” (178). “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight” (179-80). But it is not enough simply to have been taught the truth. O’Connor understood that good writers do not simply parrot these insights; they must take this doctrinal understanding and apply it to the concrete realities of human life. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing” (91). When we do not understand this distinction, Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda. “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality” (163). Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not simply a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.

 
Some Evangelical congregations still do a good job of transmitting the biblical world view and the specifics of Christian doctrine, though too many of them have allowed the edges of that body of material to become inexcusably fuzzy. Perhaps we have not done so well at giving our adherents the confidence to take this body of doctrine and use it creatively as a tool to understand life and experience. But on this point at least we may with some credibility claim not to have been completely “left behind.”

Miss Flannery
Miss Flannery

A THEOLOGY OF ART

The second form of nurture O’Connor felt she had received from the Church was a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose for the artist distinct from that of the propagandist. She quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying that art “is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.” And she adds, “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (171). This is a telling comment. That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect. But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected–which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism. Also, an emphasis on “the good of that which is made” puts theology on record as affirming the value—indeed, the necessity—of the hard work and craftsmanship required for good writing.

 
I have searched the current popular Evangelical systematic theologies–Grudem, Erickson, etc–in vain for a definition of art. For us, it does not seem to be a theological topos. O’Connor complained that too many Catholic writers were too utilitarian in their approach, but at least their theologians thought art a topic worthy of attention. Indeed, Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has made it the organizing principle of his systematics, with series entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Theo-Drama. So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture is even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through that oxymoronic commercial institution the “Christian Bookstore” will quickly show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a scripture verse tacked under them. Perhaps when our theologians become concerned with the good of the thing made, some of our people will too. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's writing desk.
Miss Flannery’s writing desk.

THE SENSE OF MYSTERY

The third form of nourishment O’Connor acknowledged as a gift from the Church was a sense of mystery. Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the good? “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners” (124), O’Connor wrote. Therefore, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79). In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”: “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that” (163).

 
Does our Evangelical theology of the sacraments preclude us from nurturing our writers in this way? I think it would be shortsighted to answer that question in the affirmative. Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way that we evoke and assimilate mystery. One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor would a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists. But we have too quickly and too often reacted to the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in our worship. This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community are too much like the generation O’Connor described “that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery” (125). Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to let us express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call. Some of these goals are worth pursuing; but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity felt as such were one of them, we would be better Christians as well as better writers. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's gravestone.
Miss Flannery’s gravestone.

CONCLUSION

O’Connor can help us make the case that it is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts. Our failure to encourage people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate; and our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture. They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that as a movement we have been right about. Until that happens, we will continue to be “left behind.”

WORKS CITED

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977.
______________________________________________________________________________

Donald T. Willliams (BA, Taylor Universtiy, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia. His books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).

InklingsofReality5c

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE, Part 1

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE,
And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Us Learn Better

Donald T. Williams, PhD

A version of this essay appeared as “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 20:7 (Sept., 2007): 15-18. A fuller version appears in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

C. S. Lewis’s writing desk. (He could write!)

There is a certain irony in the fact that I, an Evangelical, am now offering to you words I wrote down about why Evangelicals can’t write. Whether I am the exception that proves the rule, Posterity will have to judge (if the publishing industry ever offers it the opportunity). At the very least, the ironic presence of this essay on your screen is an opportunity for exegesis. It suggests that my title is not to be taken literally. Evangelicals obviously do write, and publish, reams upon reams of prose. What they have not tended to write is anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world.

 
What makes this failure remarkable is that our Protestant forebears include a numer of people who did: Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and John Bunyan, to mention just a few. Equally remarkable is that near-contemporary conservative Christians–sometimes quite evangelical and even evangelistic, though not “Evangelicals”–have often done so. G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Madeline L’Engle, and Annie Dillard are all recognized as important literary figures even by people who do not share their Christian commitment. Where is the American Evangelical who can make such a claim?

G. K. Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton

The people I have mentioned who are both great writers and great Christians are all from liturgical churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Orthodox. (Dillard, who started out as a Presbyterian, has recently converted to Catholicism.) The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a “mainstream” Evangelical but a Lutheran–again, from a liturgical tradition. Try to think of a Baptist (of any stripe), a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian (OPC or PCA), a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company. While there may be one reading these words right now who is destined to join them, and to whom this rhetorical gambit is being grossly unfair, our experience up to now has been such that the mind is simply unable to suspend its disbelief and imagine any such thing. Instead, we get “Left Behind.” In more ways than one.

J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien

Why? Is there anything we can do about it? Is there anything we can do about it without compromising our commitment to our Evangelical distinctives? What are those Evangelical distinctives anyway?

 
These are the questions I will try to wrestle with–I won’t promise to answer–in this two-part essay. I do not want to overstate the case. No doubt someone could point out minor figures who are, or who have the potential to be, exceptions to the generalization which is my premise. I should be glad to hear of them, but as we are talking about general trends, they hardly overturn that premise. The liturgical churches foster a lot of schlock and kitsch of their own; but they are also communities that are capable of fostering and nurturing great writers and great writing. So far, we Evangelicals have not. In fact, one could make a case that we positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value. I am just crazy enough to want to change that state of affairs.

CSLPhoto2
Too often people like Thomas Howard or Sheldon Vanauken have migrated Romeward (or, like Franky Schaeffer, at one point, to Byzantium), partly because their commitment to serious art could find no home in Evangelicalism. Some of them would deny that this was the major reason, but we would be naïve to think that it was not a factor. I want to say forthrightly that I do not see such migrations as a viable solution. For myself, I would define an Evangelical as a person committed to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, to a high view of the authority of Scripture, to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and to the necessity of personal faith in Christ (and therefore the importance for most people of a personal conversion experience, as long as we do not stereotype it) for salvation. If we must really give up any of that in order to learn to nurture serious artists and writers, then Evangelicals are prepared to let art and literature perish from the earth! But I cannot believe that the God who begot the incarnate Logos and whose Spirit inspired the Gospels desires, much less requires, any such thing. So let us find another way, and ask, “What can we learn from these great Christian writers that we, as Evangelicals, can apply in our own discipling communities?”

Let me attempt a beginning to an answer by examining one useful example: Flannery O’Connor.  What she can teach us will be our topic next week.

______________________________________________________________________________

Donald T. Willliams (BA, Taylor University, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia. His books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).

InklingsofReality5c

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

StoryBuilder 1.0: Construct Your Magical Land!

Last week, I gifted you all with the perfect character building machine, and now you all have strange and wonderful characters, but nowhere to put them.  That is easily solved.  We will do the same thing this week with world-building.  After all, you can’t have characters without a world.  At least, I don’t think you can.  Maybe you can.  But probably not.

So here is a world-builder.

magic fantasy castle landscapeThe same rules apply.  Choose options from the categories below and make note of your choice so that you can find out what your wonderful world is like at the end of the post.  Once again, if you go for the exciting and unexpected route, you will get exactly what you deserve for such cheekiness.

BUILD YOUR WORLD HERE!

1. World Theme:

A. Roman
B. European
C. Asian
D. Totally Not Like Any Culture of This World

2. Add Some Landscape (Add any or all of the below):

A. Ancient Forests
B. Vast Fields
C. Grand Mountains
D. Bodies of Water
E. Something Unexpected

3. Local Color (Add any or all of the below):

A. Merchant Guilds
B. Gladiatorial Combat
C. Spy Network
D. Town Idiot
E. Something Unexpected

4. Government Structure

A. Democracy
B. Dictatorship
C. Anarchy
D. Monarchy
E. Something Unexpected

5. Local Wonder of Choice

A. Mysterious
B. Big
C. Ancient
D. Pretty
E. Something Unexpected

 

Alright, now that you’ve chosen your fantastical and wonderful and totally unique world attributes, you get to find out more details about your world of choice.

1. World Theme:

A. Roman: Welcome to the land of columns and togas and prodigiously prominent noses.  In your world, a very clean and shiny upper class spends its days bathing and talking about politics while the masses engage in bloodthirsty activities just for fun.  Everything is very well organized, but rebellion is simmering… just beneath the surface.  Business as usual.
B. European: Welcome to a totally unique world in which knights ride around castles and citizens herd sheep, farm, and look upon the occupants of castles for protection against roving bands of mercenaries.  Also, there are probably big, fire-breathing dragons.  Possibly trolls under bridges.  Maybe even unicorns, if you’re lucky.  But don’t pet the unicorns.  They bite.
C. Asian: In a land of zen, your world is filled with pagodas and orchids and very tiny gardens filled with sand and small rocks.  Your culture is clean and civil and all conflict takes place discreetly out of sight.  There are probably also dragons lurking around, but they are much more likely to want to sit down and debate philosophy and politics than they are to burn your house to the ground, which is quite useful.  The other supernatural creatures are not so trustworthy.
D. Totally Not Like Any Culture of This World:  In a land of fluffy castles made of flowers, your world floats on a cloud… in space.  The people are friendly… except when their flowers are stolen.  Herein lies most of the conflicts of the citizens, most of whom are fairies, some of whom are bunnies, and a few of whom are small, curmudgeony polar bears.

 

2. Add Some Landscape (Add any or all of the below):

A. Ancient Forest: This forest has been around since before anyone in your story can remember, or since their great grandparents can remember.  The trees are taller than most palaces and tend to make deep groaning noises as if they are sentient, which they probably are.  Entire societies of mysterious creatures lurk in these woods, some of which friendly, although most are probably not.  No one who gets lost in these woods ever finds their way out… except your characters because they’re special…
B. Vast Fields: Yes, these might just be here to take up space, but they are also useful for riding across at a quick pace, being inconveniently spotted by the enemy because there is no cover, or standing at one end to gaze at a looming destination on the other side.  These vast fields may or may not have names, but they will definitely be important to the plot.
C. Grand Mountains: Inevitably, these will need to be crossed.  Inevitably, there will be snow at the top.  Also inevitably, there will be trolls or carnivorous mountain goats lurking on the precipices.  And a final inevitability: part of the dangerous paths along the edges of these mountains which have been around for thousands of years will give way at exactly the same moment your characters are trying to cross.  Drama abounds in the grand mountains. Don’t forget to name them.
D. Bodies of Water: Whether it is a lake, a river, a sea, or an entire ocean, having a body of water is quite useful.  Like mountains, bodies of water pretty much always have to be crossed.  That is, except when they need to be dived beneath to discover some sort of underwater city.  Magical beings like to rise out of bodies of water, as well.
E. Something Unexpected: Your world is blessed by the incredible presence of an upside down sky-volcano.  Every so often, it likes to spit fire on the unfortunate masses who dare to live beneath it (luckily, this only happens every few hundred years or so, normally at some significant moment in some significant character’s journey to greatness).  No one knows what’s holding the volcano up or how the lava stays inside an upside down volcano.  It is a source of great academic interest – that is, when it’s not exploding and the academics are making a run for it.

3. Local Color (Add any or all of the below):

A. Merchant Guilds: Merchants are useful folk to have around.  They sell things, buy things, and also seem to know what’s going on in the world.  Their leader is usually corrupt, though, so your character should probably not trust him/her, although most characters will end up in the guildmaster’s debt for some reason or another.
B. Gladiatorial Combat: Inevitably, your character will end up in the ring if your world has gladiatorial combat, so be advised and consider some training to lead up to this.  This cultural atrocity will also figure largely into any sort of revolution against the current government.  Gladiators tend to be more than willing to get behind a rebellion and most corrupt leaders never see it coming.
C. Spy Network: These always know what’s going on, always influence what’s going, and always play both or all sides of any conflict.  The leader of the spy network may or may not be trustworthy.  Spies are shady by nature, so even the “good” ones will probably do some pretty nefarious things in the name of “right” which will cause your character all manner of empathetic guilt.
D. Town Idiot: Adding a touch of humor and the occasional, unlooked for insight, a silly character can be humorous, but also very annoying.  Your character (and your readers) might want this character dead, which will make any sort of sacrifice of the character later a little pointless.  These characters work best in small doses.
E. Something Unexpected:  Your character’s nation engages in the epic sport of bear racing.  Bear jockeys are a courageous lot who ride bears and attempt to get them to lumber forward rather than attack each other, their riders, or the audience.  Most races end a bit violently, but the sentimental attachment to bear racing overcomes all massacres.

4. Government Structure

A. Democracy: All for one and one for all!  Everyone has a say, but strangely, no one seems to care.  A handful of people have somehow still managed to take control of the nation.  This is probably important to your plot.
B. Dictatorship: One evil overlord/lady has taken control of the kingdom.  Obviously, one person should not have all this power and it will take a plucky band of freedom fighters to give the kingdom back to the people/rightful ruler(s)/other.  Don’t forget to give the dictator a very tall and dark and impressive tower to rule from, if s/he is into that sort of thing.  As a fun alternative, your dictator could be a friendly, relaxed person who is doing a very nice job keeping the country in line.  This will probably confuse your character a bit, but I’m sure there is someone else evil enough worth overthrowing.
C. Anarchy: No government exists and chaos reigns in this kingdom.  Your character is probably seeking some sort of order in the face of this chaos, fighting against the many petty thugs who have taken over various parts of the country.  There is a slight likelihood that it will be your character who will rise up to lead everyone (although your character is totally not a dictator or anything).
D. Monarchy: All hail the king and/or queen!  It is generally a toss-up whether the monarch is good or evil and this will usually affect the plot.  A strong evil monarch is often a very exciting villain to stand against.  A strong weak monarch is normally under the thumb of an even more evil power-behind-the-throne villain.  A strong good monarch will be a good ally once you convince him/her that the villain is truly Out There.  A weak good monarch should probably just be put in a corner until everything’s taken care of.
E. Something Unexpected: When your kingdom has social or political issues to be dealt with, a small group of chosen officials ascends a low mountain to present its queries to a sort of magical, giant orb which answers questions with “Yes”, “No”, “Quite Likely”,  “Probably Not”, or “Maybe, Ask Again Later”.  Sometimes the orb takes a good shake or two to get an answer out of it and often the answer is extremely unhelpful, but somehow, your country has gotten along alright anyway.  Your character, on the other hand, might object to this process for some odd reason.

 

5. Local Wonder of Choice

A. Mysterious: A green stone tower that emits a different song each month stands at the center of a field.  Anyone who tries to climb the tower gets about halfway up before being knocked off by a mysterious force, after which the climber begins to sing that same song as the tower incessantly thereafter.  Normally they also end up mysteriously disappearing later, but this may be because people simply can’t stand the singing.
B. Big: A giant, glowing ball hovers over a lake.  It doesn’t do anything.  It’s just really big and glowy.  Someone suggested touching it and everything called them an idiot.  No one seems to have tried.
C. Ancient: A book sits beneath glass in a small room at the back of a library.  It is covered in script from a language lost in the shadows of the past.  Someday… someone will read it. And then Everything Will Change.
D. Pretty:  It’s glorious, colorful, shimmering, and probably magical.  If you wear it, it might kill you.  Most people just gaze at it in awe.  What is it?  Well, no one actually knows, but it’s really pretty.
E. Something Unexpected: People travel from distant lands to stand within the Forest of Bad Riddles.  The trees tell horrible jokes that have no sensible answer, the kind that you can’t get out of your head, that make no sense, and that make you wish that no one had ever told you about the Forest of Bad Riddles or dared you to spend the night there.  Seriously, if your character has any shreds of nobility, burning this forest to ashes will be the first order of business.

Random, yes, but unique, right?  Now you have a world set up with plenty of space to fill in, magical names to provide to geographical features, and a character to drop in the middle of it all.  But you still need a plot, don’t you?  Don’t worry.  That comes next week.

StoryBuilder 1.0 – Create the Perfect Character!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for some of you, if you hear one more author complain about some form of existential crisis that results in the catch-all epidemic known as Writer’s Block, you are going to find a block (or a writer) and throw it at said author.  Because, really, there has to be something better to do than complain about being uninspired.

Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe authors just like to complain about writer’s block because it gives us a chance to explain how great our writing normally is when we’re not blocked – which is most of the time, for some of us.

At any rate, this post is not going to be about writer’s block.  Not at all.  I promise.  It is going to be about Inspiration and Creation and How To Build a Beautiful Story Out of the Strands of Creativity.  Or something awesome like that.

writers blockI promise that this is in no way the result of a horrible case of writer’s block that is causing me to question my calling as a writer or my ability to tell stories.  Not at all.

So, to start this month’s fun exercise in StoryBuilding, we are going to create characters together!  Doesn’t that sound fun?  At the end of this post, you will have the perfect character to introduce into your new world.  I promise.  (Note: No refunds for time, effort, or mental suffering will be offered if the character does not meet expectations or spontaneously dies during the course of the story)

The way this is going to work is that you are going to categorize your character.  Simply pick a letter in each category and make note of what you picked.  At the end, you will read the explanation for each categorization and have the building blocks for a brand new character.  Aren’t you excited?  I know I am.

 

BUILD YOUR CHARACTER HERE!

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.   Mysterious
B.   Tragic
C.   Royal
D.   Ignominious
E.   Unexpected

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.   Dashing
B.   Uninspiring
C.   Ridiculous
D.  Magnificent
E.   Unexpected

3. Character’s Character:

A.   Optimistic
B.   Brooding
C.   Humble
D.  Courageous
E.   Unexpected

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self
B.  Country
C.  Beloved
D.  Favorite Pet
E.  Unexpected

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self
B.  Nemesis
C.  Beloved
D.  Allergies
E.  Unexpected

 

Now, I hope you made note of all of your choices because I’m about to tell you what you have chosen.  I will provide the descriptors for each of these category choices, and you will have assembled a complex and fascinating character to lead the charge in your new story.  Feel free to do this multiple times to add new characters to your entourage if you are in a questing mood.   (Note: I know some of you picked E: Unexpected for every single category.  You are about to receive your just reward for such a bold move)

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.  Mysterious: This character was found in a large soup tureen floating in the moat of some random duke’s castle and subsequently adopted by the local blacksmith.  No one knows how long the babe has been floating in the tureen or where the tureen or baby have come from.  Of one thing everyone is certain, however: This baby is Destined For Great Things. No pressure or anything.

B.  Tragic: This character was living a happy life selling apples in a market with his/her mother until, one day, an Evil Man on a black horse came and not only destroyed the apple cart, but stole every single apple.  Also, the Evil Man killed this character’s mother.  Thus began this character’s journey.

C.  Royal: This character is the second child of the king and queen of the country.  The royal parents shower all their attention on the first child and heir, causing extreme bitterness in this, the second child.

D.  Ignominious: This character was a farmer who raised sheep.  That’s about it.

E.   Unexpected:  This character insulted a fairy who was already having a bad day and was immediately put under a curse which causes the character to turn into a rabbit on the full moon.  No cure for this curse has thus far been discovered.

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.  Dashing: Congratulations.  Your character cuts such a dashing and noble figure that others are constantly begging to join this character and pledging their loyalty and gazing rapturously upon such incredible dashingness.  This is quite a burden for your character to bear.

B.   Uninspiring:  Read the above description.  Imagine the opposite.  No one respects this character or thinks they will amount to anything.

C.   Ridiculous:  This character has purple hair in a world where purple hair is both unlooked for and frowned upon. This character is also a bit on the short side, a bit on the wimpy side, and a bit on the no-one-knows-what-to-make-of-you side.

D.  Magnificent: This character has purple hair in a world where having purple hair is exotic, unique, and worthy of admiration.  Also, this character is often assumed to be royal, whether this is true or not, which makes things difficult when looking royal is dangerous.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a dragon, complete with big, scaly body, the ability to breathe fire, and an unfortunate tendency to frighten the populace of surrounding countries.

3. Character’s Character:

A.  Optimistic:  This is the character the annoys everyone with a sunny outlook on whatever predicament they might be in.  Nothing is ever too bad to be overcome.  A proclivity toward making long, inspiring speeches may or may not endear this character to others.

B.   Brooding:  This character hates the optimistic people of the world, is not prone to speaking much, and prefers to look darkly at things and assume the worst.  For some reason, others still find this attractive in your character, much to your character’s annoyance.

C.   Humble:  This character is not worthy of anyone’s high regard no matter how awesome they may be.  This character wishes everyone would stop assuming such good things about him or her and wants nothing more than to serve, despite being the leader and main character.  This character is simply not good enough to be so good at everything.

D.  Courageous: Leading every charge, risking life and limb whenever a small child or kitten is being assaulted by a minion of darkness, caring not at all if he/she lives or dies, this character may or may not be truly skilled in battle, but will bravely sally forth regardless.  Often seen sporting war-wounds which are simply ignored, this character will stand up for Truth and Right and battle Injustice and Evil unswervingly.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a combination of all of the above, a complex individual who hopes for the best, plans for the worst, hates attention, and loves taking unnecessary, but impressive risks.  This leads to an assortment of conflicted emotions that often paralyze this character in a state of indecision just when important decisions need to be made.  This character’s friends and foes alike are often confused and nervous whenever a confrontation is imminent because one never knows what to expect.

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self:  This character may have many good qualities and is well aware of them, which is why this character deems it so important to preserve such a valuable life as his/her own, perhaps at the expense of someone slightly less valuable.  This may seem callous and unheroic, but your character realizes that it is utterly impossible to be a hero if one is dead or imprisoned or otherwise inconvenienced.  Keeping oneself alive is a first priority from which every other heroic trait might naturally follow.

B.  Country:  For better or for worse, this character loves king/queen/president/dictator and country more than life itself.  This may become something of an issue of the country somehow fails to uphold other standards of the character, but ultimately, preserving the country from foes foreign or domestic is this character’s goal.

C.  Beloved:  True love conquers all, and any villain worth his/her salt knows that to get to your character, all they have to do is find your character’s beloved and place that individual in some creative form of danger.  Your character will risk life, friends, country, and any unfortunate person who gets in the way in order to save this most prized and treasured of beings.  Most likely, your character’s beloved is somehow a key point in the villain’s plot anyway, so saving him or her conveniently serves two purposes.

D.  FavoritePet:  Who needs people?  Your character’s favorite steed, favorite dog, or favorite bird is somehow constantly in danger and constantly in need of saving.  Thankfully, this favored pet of your character will end up saving your character’s life at a significant juncture, thereby justifying your character’s strange priorities.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character wants nothing more than to be a traveling bard.  Every experience, both good and bad, can be turned into a song.  At the end of it all, your character hopes to write the ultimate ballad by which to be remembered forever.  Your character is frequently caught composing a new tune during critical moments of the plot.

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self:  Your character has issues.  While somehow remaining lovable, your character often questions his or her ability to solve problems, be a leader, be a follower, save others, save him/herself, or otherwise succeed at the given task.  If anyone insults your character’s appearance or ability, your character is immediately consumed by self-doubt.  It is both irritating and endearing.

B.  Nemesis:  The villain of your story is either the character’s sibling or schoolmate who knows all of your character’s weaknesses and goals, being a former confidant.  After a falling out, which was in absolutely no way your character’s fault, of course, the villain is determined to destroy the main character by any means necessary, and is frightfully creative in doing so.

C.  Beloved: See above description of Character Priorities: C.  Pretty much everything threatens the life of your character’s beloved, rendering your character incapable of making logical decisions, inspiring headlong rushes into traps, and ultimately causing your character to question any moral principles once held if they stand between the character and his/her beloved.

D.  Allergies:  Whether it is peanuts, glowing green rocks, or some mysterious antagonizing agent in the possession of the villain, your character cannot seem to get through an entire chapter without stumbling headlong into something that causes excruciating pain, delirium, and poor decision making specifically to this one individual.  Since no one else is affected, having friends around can be helpful, but this allergic reaction will occur in conjunction with any important plot point.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character is deathly afraid of rabbits.  This may or may not be known to the villain at the outset of the story, but probably will be by the climax.  Woodland areas are traumatic to your hero, as are most grasslands, farmland, and pretty much everywhere else.  No one is quite sure how your character is still (mostly) sane.

 

Share Your Results!

Having reached the conclusion of this character description workshop, you should now have a complex and interesting person to work with for your story.  No two characters should be alike, even if you’ve picked the same letters as someone else, so if you would indulge me in sharing your character’s description, adding your own details and filling in the basic outline a bit, I would be much obliged.

Next week, we’ll do some world building in a similar fashion.  By the end of the month, I expect to have several bestsellers in the making.

You’re welcome.