All right, let’s face, we ALL love it when characters are human. Nobody likes it when characters are so perfect that we can’t relate to them. We want characters who have realistic struggles, realistic emotions, realistic anger, feelings of hurt, love, lust, revenge, pride…etc.
(Hopefully) we want to see these characters rise above their weaknesses and flaws. But, we also can’t deny that we…enjoy the fact that they have these flaws. We enjoy watching the struggle.
Perhaps we enjoy the struggle of a character who can’t seem to find a decent girlfriend; we watch him go through relationship after relationship, and we enjoy the ups and downs of his story. It’s much better than a happy, perfect love story that has no drama at all, right?
Or perhaps we enjoy the feelings of determination, anger, and vengeance of a certain heroine that has lost EVERYTHING, and she focuses all her energy on getting back at the people who hurt her.
Perhaps we even love listening to the depressed ramblings of a divorced, lonely character, who watches the world through a window and just thinks. Perhaps we can relate to this person in some shape or form, and it eases our pain.
Human characters are great. But when do they not become great?
I’ve been reading this book about the life of Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul II). Don’t worry, I’m not going to start writing about tons of religious stuff. This great man just happened to say something really smart and wise (he was a pope, after all!), and I thought I would share it with you, since I believe it applies to writing and “human” characters:
“Without the Gospel, man remains a dramatic question with no adequate answer”-Pope Saint John Paul II
Why is this quote helpful and meaningful to understanding the problem of “too human” characters?
Let’s break the quote down first, starting from the end and going back to the beginning.
“…no adequate answer…”
The way I see it, this part of the quote refers to the part of “human” characters that we love. We love the complexity of characters that have flaws and problems; at times, it doesn’t seem like those flaws or problems have any answers.
There’s an element of mystery, wonder, and even awe in regards to the intricacy of the human person. We cannot seem to grasp the true depth of each character’s train of logic, his or her emotions, or his or her view of life.
Our mystery-craving, awe-inspired minds relish in the fact that a person can be considered a “question with no adequate answer”. It’s exciting.
Which brings us to the next part of the quote.
“…man remains a question…”
Once again, there is an element of mystery that surrounds every person’s thoughts, words, and actions. Also, every difficult, morally ambiguous situation we find characters in present the characters–and ourselves–with that question of who we are and what it means to be human.
Every character with flaws, with skeletons in the closet, with childhood scars, with seemingly impossible endeavors, is a question unto himself or herself. And this is another part of “human characters” that we enjoy, that we take delight in…because we often feel like a question ourselves.
We can all feel like a question without an answer.
Get Your Head Out of the Gutter…
In my mind, characters become “too” human when they start to wallow in their own flaws, problems, habits, etc. This is perfectly realistic, as real-live humans do it too…but it isn’t in any way a good thing.
Trust me. Anyone here listen to songs by Twenty-One Pilots? Adele? How about Linkin Park?
So many songs that these artists write are about inner struggles, inner demons, past regrets, etc….and I get it. Maybe these artists want to vent what they’re going through. But there comes a point where it’s not venting anymore; it’s living in your problems and making everything, even your hobby/calling, all about your struggles.
I’m guilty of this too. I’m tempted to make my own characters from my story so steeped in problems, so filled with flaws, just so that I can feel okay with my own. But guess what? That’s going to help nobody.
When we see characters wallowing in their sins or crises–whatever it may be–instead of rising above them, the act of wallowing in our flaws becomes NORMALIZED. It’s NORMAL to allow hatred to consume you. It’s NORMAL to let your previous, abusive relationship ruin your current one. It’s NORMAL to make out with someone so that you’ll feel whole inside. It’s NORMAL to become the bully because you were bullied as a child.
It’s NORMAL for every character, every real-live person, to be “a question without an answer”.
And you’re right. It IS normal.
But only “without the Gospel…”.
Following the quote-analogy that I’ve been using, we must discern the phrase, “Without the Gospel”.
“Without the Gospel…”
For the sake of the analogy, insofar as we apply it to characters, I take this to mean “Without a sense of right or wrong” or “without a sense of truth”. Or “without a sense of hope” or “without a sense of faith” or “without a sense of love” or “without a sense of mercy”.
Because all of those things–right and wrong, truth, hope, faith, love, and mercy–is what the Gospel is all about.
Rewrite the quote now:
“Without a sense of right or wrong, truth, hope, faith, love or mercy, man remains a question with no adequate answer”
Why does this fix things?
Because the flaws and struggles of characters will only ever drown them if they don’t have this sense of “the Gospel”. Without this sense of “the Gospel”, there IS no answer to man, who is a mighty question indeed!
Anger will have no purpose or end. It will only lead to more anger. It will lead to revenge. There will be no satisfaction.
Lustful, steamy attractions will just go on and on and end in heartbreak after heartbreak. There will be no love, no romance, no happy ending.
Depressing moods and streams of consciousness will have no meaning without hope. Without mercy. Without faith. There will only be despair as the mind slips into a state of constant resentfulness and quiet brooding.
This “sense of the Gospel” that I speak of is the only way that we, as writers, as bloggers, as authors, will be able to create characters that do not keep humanity down in the dumps. We must acknowledge how broken humanity is, how destructive we are unto ourselves…but we must also acknowledge that, by our art, we have a duty to strengthen the world around us by proclaiming the truth.
And what is the truth?
Humanity is a broken, fallen race, that will never be able to rise above its flaws and sinfulness…
…without the Gospel.
But with this sense of the “Gospel”, everything falls into place. Everything makes sense. Anger is satisfied by justice. Sadness is satisfied by love and comfort (not depression). Doubt is satisfied by faith. Despair is satisfied by hope. Longing and attraction are satisfied by love and sacrifice. Confusion is satisfied by the truth.
And humankind, a question unto itself, is satisfied with an adequate answer: the “Gospel”.
This took me a long time to think about and write…so please let me know what you think in the comments!!!
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