Character(s) First

Blog | | Wednesday, July 6, 2011
I’m usually late in getting to the movies (if I go at all), and so despite the fact that it’s been out for a month, and despite the fact that I’ve been an X-Men fan since being hooked on the […]

I’m usually late in getting to the movies (if I go at all), and so despite the fact that it’s been out for a month, and despite the fact that I’ve been an X-Men fan since being hooked on the Fox animated series back in the ’90s, I just saw X-Men: First Class last night.

What this movie did really, really well: character.

X-Men has always stood out for its characters. They’re conflicted, sympathetic, fallible, and constantly changing. Even in the kids’ cartoons, the X-Men metanarrative doesn’t do shallow or trite. And First Class did a fantastic job of showing that: of exploring the events that make men and women who they are, for good or for ill.

As an editor, I sometimes have to challenge writers on this: “So okay, all this nifty/scary/funny/exciting stuff happens–but how does it affect the characters? How does it shape them, challenge them, change them?”

Until you’re writing about characters, you’re not really writing a story. You’re writing a news report. Readers might get caught up in the excitement, but until the story really connects with its people (or mutants, ghosts, dinosaurs, anthropomorphic animals, and other speculative stand-ins for people), we don’t really care.

Why is that? Well, because despite what scientists would like us to believe (blind chance and all that), our universe is personal. It was created by a living Being, a personal God who breathed his Spirit into Adam and made him a living soul. At the heart of our world is Trinity, individuality, family–character, and characters.

When I think back to my favourite books (Christian spec fic and otherwise) the ones I love most are those where I most deeply connected with the characters. They got under my skin, spoke to me, challenged me, personality to personality. Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t just speak in abstractions, but clothed his teaching in human skin: the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the rich man who stored up all his possessions in barns and then died, discovering himself to be completely impoverished.

Tell me what you think: what is it about character that makes stories matter?

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Rachel Starr Thomson is an author, editor, indie publisher, and writing coach whose writing runs the gamut from walking with God to fantasy fiction to articles on nature and writing. In her other life she’s a poet/storyteller/narrator/singer for Soli Deo Gloria Ballet, a Christian ballet group she co-directs. Browse her books and articles at RachelStarrThomson.com, or check out her Free Stuff page for downloads and lots of online reading.

7 responses

  1. Characters are the bridge into the new world. They give us the hero to cheer and the villian to jeer.

    They serve as our emotional link to the events. If you don’t care about the characters, then it doesn’t really matter what happens to them.

    That’s the bottom line of why great characters make great stories.

    Setting, plot and all that are important, but if your characters are cardboard, that translates out to the rest of the world, giving everything the feel of a fleeting shadow play that will have no impact in the long run.

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    • Thanks, Stuart! I think the million-dollar question for writers is, how do we write characters whom readers do, in fact, care about?
      In First Class, for example, they took two characters who are ultimately villains (Magneto and Mystique) and made them so heart-wrenchingly human that I cared deeply about them even though I know they are the “bad guys.”
       

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  2. I’ve never thought of the theology behind connecting to characters before, Rachel. How intriguing. I think you’ve made a great case for our attachment to personality coming from our creation by Personality. Love that idea.

     

    As I think of it, I believe the principle might also explain why we have become such a culture of celebrity. We long for that connection with the person of fame and fortune, power and notoriety because we actually long for connection with He who is most notorious, most powerful.

     

    Good thoughts. Thank you.

     

    Becky

    Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: More Is Not BetterMy Profile

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    • Glad I provoked some thought :). I hadn’t thought about this in connection to celebrity before, but I’ve often seen it in our fascination with/connection to royalty (perhaps we in Canada feel this more strongly than Americans?), as in the recent wedding and the current visit by the young Royals.
      I am all for democracy, but ultimately, this world is an absolute monarchy, and we are drawn to a king who will embody everything we wish human royals would.

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  3. Interesting

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  4. So true, Rachel. I find that lovable characters are always the most important element in a good movie. And I completely agree with your assessment of X Men: First Class. While I find the premise a little hokey (Seriously? Random biological mutations can result in a human who can shoot electricity out of his body?), I still enjoyed the movie because I loved the characters so much. Your explanation for why this is so is compelling. Good thoughts!

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    • I recently expressed to my sister (also a big X-Men fan) that I kinda think one has to get into comics as a kid in order to swallow the hokey premises. You get over all the ridiculousness really young, and then you can just enjoy it when you’re older :).
      X-Men in particular has always been a strongly character-focused franchise. I was really happy to see this movie get that right!

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