The Two Sides of Characters

Normal people never really make an impression. If you’re walking down the street and see a dozen perfectly average folks, dressed well and walking in a straight line, you’re not likely to remember any of them.

But when you see a scruffy looking fellow digging around in the trash can on the street corner, you probably go home and tell someone. Or when you see a lady hunched over and rocking back and forth outside the drug store, perhaps you even stop to make sure she’s alright.

We’re trained to believe that the only activity worth mentioning in a story is exterior (hair color, arm gesture, “Then he crossed the street.”)—something we’re able to see, identify, and describe.

But that’s a misconception—and the thrill—about telling stories. There isn’t just one type of activity. There are TWO.

Outside. Yes, there are all the weird quirks and habits that people have that we can see. Like how your aunt always puts mustard on her scrambled eggs, or how your next door neighbor puts a leash on his cat and takes it walking. These are the tangible parts of a story that help us see what’s going on. They pique our interest, fascinate us, and make us stare a little bit. After all, when someone’s doing something weirdddd, it’s a little bit hard to look away.

Inside. This is the unacknowledged part of every narrative, but it’s actually the more important of the two. Maybe only two in ten people are doing something odd on the outside—but ten out of ten people are experiencing a specific emotion in their hearts or minds. Outside, the lady at the grocery store is completely normal. But inside, she’s worried about raising her children alone, wondering why her ex-husband really left her, and hoping that the repairs on her car won’t cost too much. And it’s the inside story that makes readers be able to relate to the characters. And it’s the inside story that keeps people coming back to a character again and again. Because even if he’s simply unremarkable on the outside, I just feel like he’s so . . . real.

Should you create weird characters? People who save seats for their invisible friends at the opera and collect worms from the dirt in Central Park? Absolutely. But more importantly, remember to make them interesting from the inside out. Fill them with human ideas, concerns, and struggles. Make them someone you’d want to be friends with, and your readers will want to be friends with them too.

5 Disjointed Thoughts on Life Transition

Stepping into transition is like standing on the edge of the pool deck thinking about jumping into the pool, when suddenly your well-meaning but somewhat misguided friend shoves you into the water. It always seems to come before you’ve quite prepared yourself.

Living through change is like going on a run and never quite being able to catch your breath.

Preparing for the future is like planning a birthday party with a guest list of 200, but not asking for any RSVPs.

Leaving one place for the next is unsettling—but not bad. We’re just creatures of habit who take comfort in familiarity, and new places are habit-breaking and very unfamiliar.

Concentrating on personal growth, health, and development in the middle of a hectic season is like trying to change the oil in a hail storm. Not impossible, just distracting and somewhat difficult.

Goodbye, Jenkins 8T

Almost three years ago, Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I moved into Jenkins 8T. It’s a small apartment on the eighth floor of a building in downtown Chicago. It was empty and bare, the windows were permanently fogged, and the faded carpet was probably a charming brown twenty years ago.

A lot happened in that apartment. A few days after our first Thanksgiving, the sprinklers exploded and ruined many (most) of our belongings (and the carpet and walls). We got our first . . .

Read More

I Should Try

Childhood is full of learning new things. Babies learn to crawl, then walk, then run. Toddlers become potty-trained, feed themselves, and discover how to put on pants. Before long in elementary school, kids learn adding, subtracting, and how to get along with other kids on the playground.

Every experience of growing up is punctuated by awe. It’s thrilling to learn how to tie your shoes, because “they” tie their shoes (who they? the big people). Each skill acquired is a step toward independence, even though kids don’t think of it that way. Their natural bent is simply curiosity and the willingness to discover (spend thirty minutes with a five-year-old and count how many times they ask, Why ?).

But somewhere along the way, it’s easy to lose the hunger to learn. We become confident in our abilities. Admitting we don’t know something is a chink in our armor rather than an opportunity. But what if, instead of a threat, every new thing you didn’t know became an opportunity?

There are two distinct mindsets involved in learning. Either, you come to a new experience, and think:

I probably can’t do that. Oh well.

Or, you venture into something new, thinking:

I wonder if I can do that. I should try.

It takes humility, confidence, and the willingness to accept that you may fail the first time—or the first five times. But if you never try anything, then you never learn anything. And that’s way worse.

3 Ways to Build Your Character(s)

If you’re a writer, creating lovable characters is a key element to helping your audience enter into your story. If you’re not a writer, but you’re a reader, you know the pleasure and delight of characters who come alive to you and become friends. If you’re neither a writer nor a reader, I’m so sorry.

So how do you create real-seeming people out of thin air?

One option is to write an exact, precise character description of someone you know and change the name: Rob to Bob, Larry to Harry, Holly to Molly. Writing about a person you have a relationship with is an excellent way to capture personality—but if you’re writing about people who read your stuff, either be careful what you say, or be very clever with your renaming (grumpy old next door neighbor becomes 17-year-old bagger at the local supermarket).

Another frequently used method is to sketch a few attributes into a character, and let them finish the development themselves. As the story develops and you throw your heroine into disastrous situations, see . . .

Read More

Expressway-Turned-Parking-Lot

There are few places where people display their true nature, whether good or bad, as readily as in Chicago traffic. Construction, especially, is the great equalizer of society. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving a Tesla or a Yugo—everybody gets treated the same.

After Chicago’s astonishingly chilly winter, the roads look like an m&m cookie that some kid picked all the m&m’s out of. If you steer to dodge one pothole, you’ll hit another. To make up for this, the city of Chicago pulled up several miles of the main tollroad in and out of the city, leaving only one lane in both directions. In a city that hosts hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, this has major consequences.

Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I left the city last Friday in the middle of rush hour. In the course of the evening, our two hour drive turned into a three-and-a-half hour drive. We sat in stop and go traffic for what felt like a year . . .

Read More

Less Words—Greater Impact

I occasionally have the privilege to sit in classes taught by people who have decades more experience at writing and marketing than I do—and it’s always a privilege to learn from them. Today’s course was given by a man who works for a radio station in New Jersey. Here are a few of his key lessons:

  1. Good writing begins in the heart, and reaches the heart.

  2. Noble themes lead to noble words.

  3. To be a better writer, be a better reader.

  4. Be less boring—leave out filler words, predictable phrases, and unsubstantiated claims.

  5. Write to help your reader grow.

  6. People’s brains are fast. Let them fill in their own details.

  7. Cut your adjectives, double your verbs.

  8. Less words equal greater impact.

  9. Don’t mistake style for substance.

  10. Write to your audience like you’re sitting at a table in Starbucks over a latte.

  11. Build word pictures—don’t just spew a bunch of details.

Love is Patient, Love is Kind . . .

Before I married Curtis (he’s very wonderful), I had no idea that two of the most dramatic points of tension in our relationship would be window blinds and lamps.

You see, I hate to be tired. Most people do, really. But I also love to wake up early—well, after the initial misery of waking up early. And one of my favorite things to do as soon as I wake up is draw up the blinds in our bedroom and look out at the pale blue pre-sunrise sky. Or, after doing the other bits of my morning routine, I love to go back into the bedroom and yank up the blinds quickly, pairing the crisp zippp with the chaos of light instantly flooding the dark room.

And that’s where the problem begins.

Curtis (yes, the wonderful one) also hates to be tired. But in life’s game of drawing straws, he drew the “night person” straw. His brain is kicking into gear at 10 p.m., two hours after mine has ceased to function reasonably. So, every morning when I tear the blinds up from the ground and the sunlight comes spilling in, I’m wreaking havoc . . .

Read More

Character and Open Doors

In All the Places to Go John Ortberg writes on discerning the will of God. He says,

God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become. God’s primary will for your life is not what job you ought to take; it’s not primarily situational or circumstantial. It’s not mainly the city where you live or whether you get married or what house you ought to be in. God’s primary will for your life is that you become a magnificent person in his image, somebody with the character of Jesus. That is God’s main will for your life. No circumstance can prevent that.

We all understand that, especially parents. If you’re a parent, would you want the kind of kids you have to tell their whole lives, “Wear these clothes. Take these classes. Go to that school. Apply for this job. Marry that person. Purchase this house,” and you always have them do exactly what you tell them as long as they live? (“No” is the correct answer here. No, you wouldn’t want that.)

Why? Because your main goal is not for them to be little robots that carry out instructions; your goal is that they become people of great character and judgment. The only way for them to do that is to make lots and lots of decisions. Of course, that means they’ll make a lot of the wrong decisions. That becomes a primary way they learn.

Very often God’s will for you will be “I want you to decide,” because decision making is an indispensable part of character formation. God is primarily in the character-forming business, not the circumstance-shaping business.

And God is in the open-door business. This means a new way of looking at God. He prefers yes to no. He loves adventure and opportunity. This means a new way of looking at life. I do not have to be afraid of failure. I do not have to live in fear over circumstance. Each moment is an opportunity to look for a door that opens up into God and his presence.

This means a new way of looking at myself. I am no longer limited by my smallness and weakness. The God who opens the door to me is also the God who knows how small and weak I am.