My principal sends out a morning email each school day with information about events that will occur that day. My favorite part is the quote at the end. Today’s was:
Sports do not build character. They reveal it. – Heywood Hake Brown
It made sense but it also begged another question. What builds character?
I tried to brainstorm a list:
- Personal hardships – like having to choose between buying food for your family and gasoline to drive to work?
- Physical Pain – like from breaking a leg and then discovering which of your friends still want to hang out with you even though you can’t walk.
- A living example – like that favorite teacher who understood you in that one moment when it really mattered and gave you a hug.
I thought I spotted a pattern – that internal motivations built character while external reactions showed character – but that doesn’t quite work. All of the externals do reveal character but the internals are nebulous. It also seems these concepts are hard to separate. Where I see the building of character I almost always see a revealing too.
There’s something there but I can’t see it. What I can see is the answer to a long-standing mystery: Why is there evil in the world? For good. Because it reveals character. As we are tested, we reveal what’s inside so God tests us to reveal our character just as scripture states. Note that it is not because He doesn’t know what we are but because we don’t know ourselves.
So, how does this relate to writing? Revealing character is easy. Building character not so much.
(This suggests other questions like, “Does a writer need to build character in the first place?” but that is a topic for another post. We can assume it’s a useful skill a little longer.)
So what builds character? The only thing I can think of that might exclusively build character as opposed to reveal it or involve some combination of the two is to watch another human be a good example. Humans imitate what we see others doing. We want to be like people we like. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but when we do imitate one another it’s evidence that character building has taken place.
Maybe that’s why there are so many father figures and mother figures in fiction. Even more heroes and mentors. As writers, we need our readers to identify with the protagonist and all protagonists need something to live for, some goal to obtain. So if readers get to observe the moment when the protagonist bonds with a likable hero or mentor figure, then readers will more likely bond with the protagonist.
Even more if the hero or mentor dies later.