I’ve been reading a book lately about how to write. Hey, it could be worse; I could be writing a book on how to read. Anyway, there was this chapter about character development that talked about how the direction a story takes is markedly affected by the development of the characters in the story. The author said that the more time the writer spends with his or her characters, the more he’ll get to know them, laugh at them, understand them, love them. When you ‘write people,’ when you develop the characters in your story, you’re actually forming a relationship, you’re bonding— with an imaginary person. And the degree to which you understand your characters often determines the quality of your story.
The author said lots of interesting things about these little people you’re creating. Like how protecting them from hard stuff, or how not pushing them out of their comfort zones, how not exploring their backgrounds, how all of this stuff will not only make for an incredibly boring story, but will also keep you and the rest of your readers from a potentially satisfying and life-changing relationship. Fascinating.
Then the thought came to me in the shower this morning (as odd thoughts often do)—the same principles apply to real people. The difference is, I’m not making them up; they’re flesh and blood, walking around me every day. The eerie similarity is that each of us, often unknowingly, act as goddish demi-authors all the time, because we’re the ones who get to choose how much we’re going to poke and prod and push and understand the other characters in our life story. At home, we interact with characters. At work, other characters, church—more characters. They’re human beings, but in a very real sense they’re also characters in a Story, moving on and off the landscape of what most of us ego-centric people consider the stage of our lives. The sun is revolving around us, it rises and sets around us. In this universe of ours, other people move out of the shadows as we approach and recede into darkness as we pass. How well do we know them? It’s startling to realize that’s mostly up to you.
I was not born knowing this fact. My mother and probably your mother too, often said that if I wanted friends, I needed to what?—to be a friend. This helped. What also helped was watching a missions trip team leader engage other people. She had a magic touch. I often watched in amazement as she would approach the meanest or most serious or most prestigious person in the room, male or female, and have them laughing and joking within minutes. She was fearless. But I came to see that her secret was a mindset to take the initiative, to make the first move, to be vulnerable first. This is fantastic advice for writing. Unless the writer gets off his/her behind and takes the initiative to put his fingers to the keyboard, the story will not write itself, because there are no characters, and the characters will not write themselves because, A. that would prove evolution and B. you are only a demi-god and cannot will beings or stories into existence ex-nihilo. Sorry.
But this is also fantastic advice for getting to know more about the characters God has written into and around your own life. Now chances are, unless they’re reading this too, other people won’t be the ones to pray for the sun to stand still in their universe so you don’t recede into darkness as they pass— so stop waiting for your relationships to write themselves. Make the first move. Investigate. Ask people questions about themselves, ask about what they love, about what inspires them, what are their dreams? Pick a character from your life story and risk, take the initiative to get to know them—because the more time you spend with these characters, talking with them, listening to them, laughing and crying with them— the more you’ll understand them, and the greater the odds you’ll be able love them as well. Oh, and your life story will probably get more interesting, too.