This post is continuing with the theme of finding redeeming traits that might make characters based on Bible villains more three-dimensional.
Of all the villains in the Bible, Jezebel is one of the most fascinating. Even among those who aren’t avid Bible readers, mention of her name conjures images of wickedness and seduction.
Her name appears in the Bible twenty times, although one refers to the Jezebel of Revelation 2:20. This Jezebel, though also a seductress, does not have quite the wicked reputation as the Old Testament queen.
When Jehu conspires to kill Joram after being annointed king of Israel, Joram asks if he’s coming in peace. Jehu answers, “What peace, as long as the harlotries and witchcraft of your mother are so many?” (II Kings 9)
Unlike Cain, to whom the Lord gave leniency, Jezebel was sentenced to death by her own servants and eaten by dogs.
I love these Old Testament stories, with all their twists, turns, and gore. But to write a Jezebel–how can she possibly have any redeeming qualities?
At first, I considered the possibility that perhaps she didn’t WANT to marry Ahab, and she might have been at least somewhat obedient there. Yet I Kings 21:25 says:
But there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up.
It’s hard to picture her not enjoying being a powerful queen, manipulative and murderous. This verse has the same feel to it as Adam’s blame in Genesis–the woman made me do it!
So, admittedly, these might be a stretch, but here goes–
- She was zealous in her idolatry. In how many other instances would a woman marry a king and not be expected to adopt his faith? Especially in Bible times where women wouldn’t have had the freedoms we relish in today.
- She was effective in her evangelism. In I Kings 16:31-32, we see that Ahab not only fell into worshipping Baal, but he also built altars to worship in Samaria, which he surely knew was an atrocity to God. In this, I picture her as perhaps a smooth talker–the seductress side of her winning him over. And perhaps, that alone would be a redeeming enough quality for a Jezebel-type character, charismatic enough that readers are swept into the seduction.
- She accepted her death with dignity. Although there was no dignity in being eaten by the dogs, Jezebel did face her fate head on. Unlike the warden in The Shawshank Redemption, who ended his life in the final moment before the authorities came for him, Jezebel put on makeup and adorned her head, and waited for Jehu. She even asked him, as Ahab had, if he came in peace, knowing full well the answer.
There you have it. Redeeming qualities of Jezebel. On to the next villain!
You’d think in a Christian fiction story, writing a good villain would be simple. After all, the Bible spells out all the character traits in plain and simple terms in many places. Perhaps, none as clearly as Proverbs 6:12-19:
A worthless person, a wicked man, walks with a perverse mouth; He winks with his eyes, he shuffles his feet, he points with his fingers;
Perversity is in his heart, he devises evil continually, he sows discord.
Therefore his calamity shall come suddenly; suddenly he shall be broken without remedy.
These six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.
It’s a challenge to write a character with all of these traits who doesn’t come across as unidimensional, as I discovered a couple of years ago in a NaNoWriMo debacle. But just because it’s Christian fiction, that doesn’t mean we have to stick to black and white, pure evil versus sinless good.
There are articles all over the Internet advising writers to give their villains redeeming qualities. Which got me thinking–what are the redeeming qualities of Bible villains? Can Christian fiction writers not draw inspiration from them?
Genesis 4 opens with Eve giving birth to Cain and sayiing, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.”
If he came from God, he had to be good, right? The Bible tells us “in the process of time” it came to pass that Cain and Abel brought their offerings to God. I’ve wondered so many things about this story–how old were Cain and Abel when this animosity first arose between them? Teenagers? Young adults? Middle grade? Did they argue all the time like my kids do, and need continual redirection to make wise choices in how they relate to each other? What kind of parents were Adam and Eve? After all, they didn’t have access to billions of parenting self-help blogs. Did they neglect discipline to a point that Cain’s anger and jealousy thrived?
Even sin was new to them–no one before them had ever learned from such mistakes. Did Adam and Eve have explosive arguments and struggle with their own tempers? Sometimes I think we like to throw them in the garden all happy-go-lucky after the apple incident, but I suspect they were humans like the rest of us, struggling with daily sin.
Yes, Cain was a murderer. Yes, he was prideful. A heart full of malice, intent to rebel against the will of God–all the makings of a good villain.
But God also showed him mercy, lessening his punishment by placing the mark on him so that he couldn’t be killed. And though Cain separated himself from God, he went on to build a city and raise a family.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather comes to mind. How could those men could murder in cold blood and then embrace and hug their children in practically the next breath? Did Cain, like Michael Corleone, destroy others through evil acts, or did the guilt from his brother’s murder change him? Did he raise his children with a heavy hand? Execute wrath on his wife? The hints of vanity and lustfulness in Genesis 4:16-24 show us that sin ran rampant within his family, yet surely there were tender moments of humanity.
And I think that’s the key–a lot of novels only loosely develop the antagonist because it’s hard to reveal such details without having to work around POV. Good writers will find some way to pepper that backstory in without making it seem contrived.
Now, off to analyze my WIP to see where I might throw some of that backstory in.
I think somewhere deep within all of us is a quest for greatness. We want to be recognized, honored, and patted on the back for our accomplishments. Part of wanting to be published surely relates to that. After all, I’ve worked SO hard on this masterpiece. So many hours that could have been sleep, so many rewrites and revisions. Someone should really give me some appreciation, right? It’s so hard to keep that attitude in check.
And yet I read verses like Proverbs 3:34, and feel an immediate twinge of guilt for ever entertaining such thoughts.
Surely he scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.
Now I wouldn’t call myself scornful. And I definitely want His grace. But as I approach the moment where I start sending my work out for scrutiny, I’m sure the temptation for scornfulness will come with the rejection that’s sure to follow.
After all, haven’t all the “greats” suffered rejection?
This led me to ponder what I truly want from publishing. I can’t deny the surge of excitement that would come from seeing my name in print, from walking into Barnes and Noble and finding my name on the shelf.
But then, I consider the what if–suppose rejection doesn’t follow. How can I keep myself humble?
Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, said this:
We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.
And to be great in humility comes from purposing to be like Christ.
Maybe I just worry about silly things. The answer always comes back to living a Christ-centered life.
So, with that in mind, of course we can be both great and humble, in Him.
I started reading a book a few weeks ago, from the recommendation of an online friend. It’s called Rivet Your Readers with Deep POV by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. I highly recommend it.
Short, sweet, and to the point, Nelson highlighted several of my common mistakes and gave me insight on how to not only fix them, but to avoid them altogether.
In the first chapter, Nelson describes the different kinds of POV and gives clear examples about what they are and what they aren’t. But chapter two gets to the meat of the book–explaining how deepening POV eliminates narrative distance. It made perfect sense. I have to cut myself out of the book so my characters quit tripping over me. Really hard, since I’m writing a first person novel, but it’s basically stuff like instead of saying a character watched something, just say the something happened.
Deepening POV, according to Nelson, will solve two of my biggest issues–what to do about those pesky italic thoughts (no italics for deep POV. Simple answer), and how to get a reader to completely absorb themselves into my character instead of being detached.
Chapter three advises against the use of phrases like I wondered, he thought, she thought, etc. In chapter four, she recommends not giving the name to a feeling. For example, instead of saying I’m angry, I stomp my feet and slam my glass on the table. Let feelings be given through action. Great advice.
Chapter five hits home, recommending to “ditch prepositional tells.” I love prepositional tells. My writing is peppered with them, and I have to keep forcing myself to cut them. I love her idea to give dialogue in context, so the prepositions aren’t needed. This is one place I really need to grow–establishing characters in a setting/scenario/context before having them in an emotional scene.
Chapter six delves into another of my personal habits–filtering through he saw/she saw. I can always stand to write more direct.
In chapter seven, she gives advice on how to write linearly, step-by-step. This practice has really helped me muddle my way through that dreaded middle portion.
I spent the most time in the last chapter where the author makes some remarks about deepening POV specifically in first person. Her overview makes all the tiny errors that hold my writing back from where it needs to be glare out like a beacon.
What I love most about this book are the little exercises, and that it’s short and focused on this one particular practice of writing.
Great little writing help book! http://www.amazon.com/Rivet-Your-Readers-Deep-Point-ebook/dp/B007PUMQ1O/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1396837713&sr=1-3
I learned a new phrase this week, from a wonderful lady who has agreed to become my writing coach and editor. As a bonus, she’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, so it’s nice to have someone who can work with me in that capacity, rather than someone from the secular world who would question some of my plot decisions because they don’t know how people act in church.
In just a couple conversations, she has helped me identify what holds my writing back from a professional level. One particular thing stands out–to resist the urge to explain.
I never realized until this week how much of a problem this is in my writing. Here I thought I’d been avoiding the dreadful info dump, and since then I’ve seen cases of it in every chapter of my WIP. I’ve been working hard on trying to master showing, not telling, and now I feel silly for not noticing how easy it is to eliminate with this simple advice.
For many new writers, explaining appears in the form of was/were:
Sarah yawned. She was tired.
Readers will understand she was tired from the yawn, so no need to explain. But I was doing this much more subtly (at least it was subtle to me–probably stuck out like a sore thumb to everyone else). Oh, wait! I just did it again!
I’ve since been researching this idea and found several good blogs on the subject.
From The Blood Red Pencil: http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2011/05/resist-urge-to-explain.html
From The Book Doctor: http://thebookdoctorbd.blogspot.com/2010/11/rue-resist-urge-to-explain-how-much-is.html
And just Google it. There are many others.
Now I just wish I had time to sit down and edit every chapter. I can’t wait to eliminate my RUEs!
Just for Funzies…My first contest entry, on LegendFire.com. The prompt was “key” and it was the fantasy genre. I was so proud…
Micah gently untangled the necklace from his sister’s gaunt fingers. Forgive me, he pleaded silently, scanning her torpid body for signs of life.
Creeping into the shadows, he clutched the gold chain so tightly that the tiny charm dug into his malnourished hands. He stumbled through the cemetery, pausing before an onyx headstone. Half-kneeling, half-collapsing, he fell to the stone and kissed the bronze plaque.
“I…I…miss you…father,” he whispered, panting. He lifted the plaque and set it aside, revealing a tiny keyhole.
Even in dim moonlight, the necklace sparkled, momentarily distracting from the task at hand. Micah forced himself to concentrate; pressing the charm firmly into the hole, twisting until it clicked. The rusty door creaked open, exposing a small vial and a worn page. Shuddering at the sound, he quickly grabbed them and replaced the plaque.
Heart pounding, he drank the contents of the vial he had found within. The restorative power pulsed in his veins, making him feel alive again. The brittle page—the recipe—he folded carefully and tucked it away in his pocket. He slipped the gold chain around his neck, and kissed the headstone once more before disappearing into the night.
And then I read all this:
“The setting is skipped over, so it’s hard to tell what time period this is supposed to be.”
“I wonder about torpid. It seems another word would be better.”
“Sorry to say, but there is just too much mystery and nearly no character here.”
“I don’t feel very compelled to read on.”
“Had this been a book, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this far.”
“Some of the sentences are pretty clunky.”
“Your main character doesn’t seem very memorable.”
“I think it would be stronger after a few rounds of editing and rewriting.”
“Cryptic for the sake of being cryptic annoys the reader. Hurry up and let me in on the secret, or I’ll pass on this one.”
Ouch, right? Once the voting started, I was mortified. Comments like this hurt, for one, and two, everyone was going to know this was my piece. They’d all know I was a terrible writer! What to do? What to do?
Every time I enter a contest with public voting like this, some of the entrants withdraw. Others get mad and start lashing out in their votes for others. But after I got over my pride, I learned a few valuable lessons from this contest, once I answered a few questions.
1. Was I posting/entering for the wrong reasons? After a while, I realized I wasn’t in this to learn, as I’d claimed–I was in it to be read and appreciated. Look at me! Look at me! I’ve written this fabulous entry and you should all bow down and give me a high score. Seriously? I mean, the contest was even CALLED the shredder contest. So, I changed my attitude and started sifting through the feedback to find something to add to my writer’s toolbox.
2. Could I use this (embarrassing) critique to find my bad habits? There were a few comments that highlighted the same mistakes. No setting or character development. Poor word choice. Sentences that have too many things going on. Some voters marked things inline and gave me a bit of explanation as to why a particular phrase didn’t work. After the contest, I researched each of them and my writing vastly improved.
3. Did all this mean I was a bad writer? Should I stop trying? It was hard to see them at the time, but buried under all this criticism were quite a few lovely comments. So no. I wasn’t a bad writer. Just a good writer making a lot of mistakes. I kept going, and eventually started placing in contests. Haven’t won yet, but I’m hoping that’s just around the corner.
So, here’s the deal. No sugar coating…
If you are in this to get a pat on the back or become famous, GET ANOTHER HOBBY!
Don’t go out there and write dribble, then self-publish it and wait for the readers to pour in. As I’ve said before, your first writing samples will be terrible. You’ll revise them, and they’ll still be terrible. You’ll revise them again, and guess what?…still terrible. The only way to learn is to accept the shreds.
These days, I’m hungry for the shred. I want critiquers to rip my work to pieces, point out every minute error, and be brutally honest. Cut me no slack. Help me learn. The traditional publishing world is brutal and only the best survive. I want to get there. One day, I will 🙂
Final post the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”
I could sing the praises of forums all day long. In fact, I’ve had a free education from them and owe them many dues. Still, I hold this one offense against them. They are full of people who refuse to listen to helpful advice and keep on writing bad stories.
An argument that’s often made is that the author has the liberty to create whatever they wish. If they want to self-publish their dribble, they’re the ones out the money and it doesn’t hurt anyone except for them and the ten people that purchase their books. Maybe so.
It’s always hard to listen to criticism, even when it’s given in the kindest spirit. Still, it’s 100% essential.
At the same time, sometimes it’s just as important to not listen. Not everyone who gives you writing advice will give GOOD advice. Also, it’s important to find your own voice and style.
Bausch’s final piece of advice is “Be wary of all general advice.” He says:
Destroy everything that precedes this commandment if, for you, it gets in the way of writing good stories. Because for every last assertion in this letter, there are several notable exceptions. Finally, try to remember that what you are aiming to do is a beautiful, even a noble, thing _ trying to write or make the trust as straightly and honestly and artfully as you can.
Once, I had an art professor lean a broom up against a crate and challenge the class, asking us if it was art. After much spirited debate, we decided that it depends on who you ask. I think a story is the same way, even a poorly written one.
After all, at the end of the day, why do we do it? We all have a story burning inside us that we want to get out. And audience or no audience, fame or no fame, there’s a lot of merit in just getting the words down on paper. True writers, I believe, write for themselves with the tiny sliver of hope that someone else might someday read and enjoy it.
Bausch says this much more eloquently than I can, so we’ll finish this post up with his words.
It is also always an inherently optimistic act because it stems from the belief that there will be civilized others whose sensibilities you may affect if you are lucky and good enough and faithful to the task at hand. No matter how tragic the vision is, it is always a hopeful occupation. And, therefore, you have to cultivate your ability to balance things, to entertain high hopes without letting those hopes to become expectations. To do your work without worrying too much about what the world will have to say about it or do to it. Mostly, of course, the world will ignore it. And so, you will have that in common with many very great writers, good men and women who came before you.
Post nine in the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”
I’ve spent so many posts on this one essay–I hope it’s clear what an inspiration it has been to me throughout my journey. I’ve probably read it a thousand times, and still gain something new from it every time.
For this thought, before turning to the essay, I’d like to attack this point from the Christian angle. After all, I’m supposed to be a writer of Christian fiction, and all Christian authors are perfect, right? Ha. I wish. (Look at all the grammatical errors in my last post if you’re doubting. I’ve got to quit posting at 5 am).
No, on the contrary, I sometimes wonder if I’m not drawn to be a writer because of my imperfections–I can maybe write those things away in a way that I can’t attempt in a real-life setting.
And while we’re on the topic of those imperfections, the sin of comparisonitis is probably the one I’m most guilty of.
I try really hard to follow Romans 12:3
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Yeah, that’s doable. But it’s the self-doubt that becomes a problem. Straight from the Devil, those nagging thoughts that tell us we can’t do the work God has put us on this Earth to do. My writing can be a ministry, and I sometimes back away from it because I’m scared.
Scared of what? Scared that people won’t like it. Scared that I’ll inadvertently say something that one of my brothers or sisters in Christ might find offensive. Scared that people will point their fingers at me and say I’m not a good enough Christian role model to be a public voice. Scared that I might actually sell a few books and the fame would go to my head or destroy my family (Okay, that’s a stretch, but these are the thoughts that sometimes keep me up at night).
Don’t compare yourself to anyone and learn to keep from building expectations.
He cautions against envy and suggests that a writer’s only worry should be whether or not they’ve worked that particular day.
It’s easy to be discouraged and think, “I’ll never be as good as ___________.”
It’s also easy to get a good review and think, “I rock. I’m going to be the next _____. I should call my agent tomorrow…oh, wait. I don’t have one.”
Bausch ends this point with the following:
…the artist who expects great rewards and complete understanding is a fool.
At the end of the day, you should be writing because you enjoy it. Period. And maybe someday, if you approach it with the dedication that one devotes to something they love, you might just find your writing exactly where God wants it to be.
Post eight in the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”
My favorite quote in Bausch’s entire essay:
You are trying to tap a part of yourself that is closest to the dreaming side, the side that is most active when you sleep.
A few years ago when I read the first Twilight book, I remember being insanely jealous that Stephenie Meyer could just have a dream and jot down a story that sold like wildfire. After all, I’ve had dreams that would make a great story. I can do that. I realize now that she must have put in a lot more effort than just penning a dream, but she made it seem so easy.
For several years, writing was on my mind, but I credit this moment for being the turning point that made me decide to be a serious writer. First, I got a notebook and started writing down every dream I had. I churned out some crazy, bizarre stories that would make me blush if anyone ever seen them. And then I shared them with a few people who most likely had inward groans going on behind those polite smiles.
I used to get frustrated when I’d go to sleep and wake up dreamless. I’d even take naps just on the off chance that I’d dream something. To me, dreamless meant idea-less, and I’d turn to writing these stiff responses to challenge prompts.
Then, one day I realized that writing IS dreaming–dreaming while you are awake.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve strayed from my outline because I’ve gotten “lost” in the story. The characters have taken me places I didn’t mean to go. The setting has turned into something completely different from what I’ve envisioned. And it’s been a great thing.
Dream the story up. Make it up. Be fanciful. Follow what comes to you to say and try not to worry about whether or not it’s smart or shows your sensitive nature in the best light or delivers the matters of living that you think you have learned. Just dream it up and let the thing play itself out as it seems to want to. And write it again, and still again, dreaming it though.
I’ve had similar advice from people on the forums–get the story down and then you can rewrite it to get it where you want it to be.
And then, as you educate yourself each time through more as to what it is, try to be terribly smart about that. Read it with the cold detachment of a doctor looking at an x-ray for a lump. Which is to say, you must learn to re-read your own sentences as a stranger might. And say everything out loud. Listen to how it sounds.
Great advice, but I think sometimes it means you have to put the work aside and let it simmer a while before that detachment can be achieved.