Admirable Qualities


Recently Sally Apokedak, now an agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency, wrote a blog post about the qualities of compelling fiction characters. It’s a good list. About half of them I’ve seen in Donald Maass’s excellent book Writing the Breakout Novel, but I think all Sally’s additions are good ones.

What struck me was how different the list is from what I like and look for in the real life people that I hang with. But even more striking is how different these qualities are from the ones God says He values.

Yes, God does name some specifics when it comes to the qualities He esteems.

While our culture has taught us to admire the aggressive, take-charge protagonist who has a New York attitude or a bit of swag or an assertive insistence, God says the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit is “precious” in His sight (1 Peter 3:4).

Gentle and quiet?

He even says later that when we give an account of the hope that is in us we are to do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15).

Through Paul He tells us that our speech should always be with grace (Colossians 4:6).

Through the prophet Micah, God tells us what He requires of us:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

In Deuteronomy we learn that God wants us to love Him and obey Him, to fear Him and serve Him. Elsewhere we see that God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

People that have these qualities would make the best bosses, I think, and the best spouses, friends, co-workers, neighbors, pastors, teachers, you name it. Just not the best protagonist in a work of fiction.

Why is that?

The main reason, I believe, is that we want the people in our life to be more like God and the characters we read about to be more like us.

We know ourselves to be flawed, in need of change and redemption, so we can relate to a character that struggles as we struggle. Not in the same way, necessarily, or because of the same things, but identifiably so that I see myself in what the character goes through.

At the same time, I believe we humans, following Satan’s lead, want to set ourselves up as god in our lives, so the power of the aggressive, in charge, snarky, assertive character who determines to make things right is appealing. We like to win with him as he blows away the bad guy or at least knocks him across the room.

Even sacrifice, which we admire in real life and in fiction, is better when it is bold and memorable and successful. Something seems wrong and sad about someone who gives his life for another who also ends up dying. We want the sacrifice to “work,” to pay off, to be effective.

It seems to me, then, that our fictitious characters are a mixed bag of what we are and what we wish we were. We want them to learn and grow because we want to learn and grow. We want them to win because we want to win. We want them to fight for justice because we wish we’d fight for justice.

Fiction characters aren’t us and they aren’t entirely a reflection of the values of society, but they show us a lot of both.

Published in: on October 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm  Comments Off on Admirable Qualities  
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