Building Character

I was privileged to lead a reflection on Saturday, for a group of Christian writers who would have spent the weekend at Scargill House in Yorkshire. Although our weekend had been cancelled, a number of us wanted to use the opportunity to meet virtually, so we did some writing challenges together and encouraged each other with reflections. Philip Davies gave a great reflection on calling as a writer. I decided to do something on character, and this is a summary of the reflection I gave.

What is your character?

Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses?

Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted aspects of your personality?

Has it revealed areas for growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?

If you were a character in a story, how would the author write about you?

I’ve certainly become aware of parts of my own personality through the past three months or so. Areas where I need more patience, or action, or humility, or wisdom, or grace. Areas where I’ve been improving, and areas which still need a lot of work doing. I want to grow and learn and be the best character I can be. Lock-down is certainly showing up my true character.

Strange verses

I got to thinking about Bible verses and some of the stories that are told within the Bible which use vivid metaphors for characters. Take one of my favourite verses, Daniel 8:21, for example. A verse many people should know by heart, I believe:

“The shaggy goat is the King of Greece”

A super verse to take out of context, and a bizarre one in any event. It forms part of an explanation for a vision, where the character of a person is described in terms of a violent animal. The animal metaphor is a punchy and descriptive.

It is not the only time metaphors are used in the Old Testament to describe people’s characters. There is a lovely fable in Judges 9:8-15 where the people of Shechem want to appoint a particular king, but are strongly advised not to. Jotham tells them a story to get his point across, and compares their situation to a group of trees trying to choose a king. The obvious candidates (olive, fig, vine) decline, and a wholly unsuitable thorn-bush is offered the position instead. Jotham uses the idea of a thorn-bush: unfruitful, undesirable for protection and unsafe, to make his point about his political opponent.

Fables concerning trees representing people may well have been a thing in the ancient Near East. There is a tiny story tucked into 2 Kings 14:9 along similar lines. The kings of Israel and Judah are squaring up to each other and the good king – Jehoash of Israel – sends a story to Amaziah that his intentions compare to a thistle wanting to marry the daughter of a cedar of Lebanon; a thistle which immediately gets trodden underfoot by a wild beast. Ouch.

Plants, Planets and Patroni

Being compared to a plant is one thing. Apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testaments compare people to animals (real and imaginary) to make their points. Jesus uses the idea of wheat and weeds growing together in the same field in his parable in Matthew 13 and explains that the weeds are metaphors for those who belong to the evil one. To be compared to weeds is a grim indictment: these people are nuisances, sucking nourishment from the growing ‘wheat’ and holding no value in making bread (future blessing). However, though they try to prevent the good purposes from becoming established and succeeding, they will not win in the end. It is a great metaphor and the parable inspires hope.

Others have also used natural phenomena to enrich their stories and characters. I was thrilled when I learned about C.S. Lewis’ planet-based inspiration for each of the seven Narnia stories and how he extended and wove the characteristics through clever metaphors through each book. It is so subtle that the themes were not discovered until 2003 (see Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia).

Similarly, J.K. Rowling applies the characteristics of each patronus to the characters in her Harry Potter series:

Harry Potter | Patronuses

There are subtle cross-references and hints about the motives, qualities and strengths of each character in what Rowling writes.

I humorously queried the correct form of the plural of patronus with ACW friends and am very grateful to Susan Sanderson, who pointed out that ‘patroni’ should be the Latin plural. She looked it up in the Oxford Latin mini dictionary, where she found this definition: ‘protector, patron; pleader, advocate’. Amazingly, there seems to be a link with The Holy Spirit as our Patronus.

Metaphors for people in terms of an animal, plant, planet or other phenomenon have come and gone throughout human history and literature. What about writers though? Can we identify characteristics from a plant, for example, to apply to one of our own characters?

Satsuma

You could describe a satsuma as:

Colourful

Juicy

Soft and sweet

Just a little tangy

Fun

Small

Popular with children

Imagine a person who inhabited all these characteristics. Doing this gives me the image of a lovely nursery nurse, covered in paint and giggling with the children.

What characteristics would you associate with a potato? An olive? A banana?

It can be a useful exercise to start with a natural object to build up a character. To find commonalities and to extend the metaphor where that helps. Almost anything can be a muse, if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

God as Author

As a Christian, I believe God is the Creator of everything (Isaiah 40:28) and Author of salvation (Hebrews 2:10). Along with everything else in creation, I am merely a player in it; a created being with a role to play and a set of characteristics I didn’t get to choose. I have giftings and I have limits.

God writes the setting of creation, chooses my character identity and places me in the story. Along the way, my character is worked on and refined. Sometimes the Author is involved, sometimes not. I become who I become, either through my own giftings and limits, or my responses to them in the circumstances which arise. God does not write the fine detail – that is for me to create and edit myself, but he does assist with my character building when I ask. And sometimes, as in lock-down, external events mean that a lot of work is done on my character in a short space of time, a bit like living in a pressure cooker.

Give Me Faith — “Not only so, but we also glory in our ...

So, how has God written your character?

Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of God’s giftings and limits on your life?

Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted who God has created you to be?

Has this time revealed areas for spiritual growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?

Has it revealed and evidenced God’s purposes being worked out in your life? Confirmed a calling? Challenged you?

How is God writing about you?

What metaphor(s) might God choose to identify who you are?

A prayer

Lord God, I recognise that I have unique strengths and weaknesses, passions, abilities and limits, each of which you have given me.

I thank you for all of them. I thank you for making me who I am.

There are parts of my personality I am especially grateful for. There are other parts which sadden me. Sometimes I see myself as a minor, insignificant character and I forget you are my author. You create me, form me, inspire and celebrate me.

Reveal today where you want to develop my character next, and how you want to use me in my situation. Enable me to bless others in their own callings.

May my life and character reflect you, Lord Jesus, to all I interact with.

In your precious name,

Amen

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