It happened again last week—I read another Christian book that started out with SOOO much potential. Until it petered out in a light gloss of forgiveness and a pinch of repentance. Well, okay. We surely need to forgive and sometimes we ought to repent. But whatever happened to a life-changing crisis of character?
Without a whisper about God—or heaven forbid, Jesus—you could have sold the message on any talk show or news magazine. An adherent of any religion—or no religion—could have written it. It didn’t take God—or even a Christian—to stir up that story world.
It got me thinking, though: What makes people change? What brings on a crisis of character?
“Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.” –Arthur Burt
Besides a good plot and premise, a story with a solid foundation has what writers call a character arc. Except in certain genres—detective fiction, for example, where the arc remains flat—the character’s character changes. The hero or heroine starts at one point in their journey, travels through emotion, experience, and growth, and (usually) ends up in a somewhat different place.
Our lives, too, are all about growth and change. While it’s within the purview of an author and a book to tell a story—even a life story—quickly, our personal transformations don’t often occur as nice and neat. In fact, our character arc can feel static, even monotonous. But it’s far from that!
The Outer Identity
The creation of a character arc usually starts with a protagonist who wants or needs something, whether she knows it or not. Or maybe what she thinks she wants isn’t what she really needs.
“Don’t fear failure. Fear being in the exact same place next year as you are today.” –Michael Hyatt
Sometimes the writer will call this external goal her “dream” or “passion,” and of course it may even shift over the course of the story. Whatever term is used, it speaks of the face she shows the world. It’s how she views herself and how she wants to be known and seen.
Why? That’s another story. Or maybe it is the story. Because the internal goal of a story relates to a hidden need of some kind. Maybe the character doesn’t even recognize it at the start of the arc.
“Until something you believe is challenged, you will not change.” –C. S. Lakin
Like the characters in our favorite stories, we, too, cling to our most persuasive arguments against transformation. Why don’t I change? Why don’t I even want to, really?
Dr. Mark Shannan in The Original Design for Health explains why it’s such an effort for us to make even small alterations in our thoughts and habits: “What someone feels on the inside is extremely hard to change, and trying to change them with an argument is a waste of time. People change by an experience or situation that stirs their emotions at a deep level” (bold added).
But then…something happens. A crisis of character, so to speak. It can come from a major catastrophe or a minor crack in the façade. But something will jiggle the status quo and initiate a struggle to identify…
The Inner Core
How few of us understand who we really are. Even fewer recognize the need, even the longing, to become better. To find God’s healing and forgiveness. To experience genuine and permanent change and blossom into the person God intended us to be—a new creation.
In the technique of a story arc, positive or negative, a crisis of character hits. The protagonist learns something about herself or the world and changes in some way, for better or worse, by the story’s end. Her old identity is stripped away to reveal a different person.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” –Maya Angelou
Usually the “lesson” relates to her hidden need…which is grounded in her most private problem, agony, or hang-up. She has issues, she carries baggage. It sounds so cliché, but all of us are walking wounded, to some extent. We carry scars, believe lies, bury our secret fears. And we all have that fatal flaw in our heart, don’t we?
We often face countless obstacles to reach the point of true repentance, which lies beyond mere remorse. The Greek (and biblical) word, metanoia, means “a change of direction” and pictures “a journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life.”
“Jesus loves us just the way we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way.” –Adrian Rogers
What triggers transformation? What look into life’s mirror stops us cold and turns us around, really? And what choices do we need to commit to in order to make it from here to there?
Self-help books and gratitude attitudes can lend a hand. Memories fade, time heals…though not everything. Friends can encourage, and even the basic concept of forgiveness flushes the poison from our pain.
But my premise is that unless Jesus changes us, we hardly ever change…for the better, at least.
Closing the Arc
At the end of a book, we readers hope to find a completed arc and a changed character. After all, that’s the purpose of a story, in my mind. Every crisis of character, every precise plot point, works toward that goal.
“Mistakes make you wiser, heartbreak makes you stronger, and wrong turns often take you to the right place. It all serves a purpose.” –InspirationBoost.com
Many of us spend our whole lives straddling fake and true, fear and freedom. We juggle who we are with who we pretend to be and who we wish we were. I’ve found that, as psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, I can either “can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth.” Which will it be?
I summarize my life and my books with the phrase: God always has a purpose. We always have a choice. In Destiny at Dolphin Bay, we see a completed arc. Melissa, the main character, chooses to grow. Though life goes on and she always has more to learn, the story finishes with her decision to live out her new “real” self.
“Beautiful are those whose brokenness gives birth to transformation and wisdom.” –John Mark Green
In a series like Swan Island Secrets, each book presents only part of the character arc, more like a set of small wickets than a big bridge. Coni’s transformation from “ugly duckling” to beautiful “swan” takes place gradually. That reminds us, perhaps, more of real life.
Yet an author speeds up time or slows it down for the purpose of story pacing. And in a sense, I believe the Author of our stories also sees the end from the beginning and works His transforming masterpiece according to the plan.
Every day, you add another chapter to your life story. Don’t let it flatline, I beg. Calamities come, stuff happens, time passes. We don’t always have options. But if at each pivotal moment—in each crisis of character—we choose to change, we can, as Christian psychologist Henry Cloud writes, “win an Oscar for a life well lived.”