by Debby Giusti
As writers, we know the importance of creating flawed characters that change and grow over the course of our stories. Looking back at my first writing attempts, I often chuckle. My heroes and heroines had it all—good looks, great intellects, poise and charm. Free of baggage, they were extraordinary humans whose lives were blessed in everyway. Of course, I had a lot to learn and soon realized that compelling stories involved characters that were true to life.
Last weekend, I attended a Christian healing seminar to learn ways to help those suffering from inner wounds, but shortly into the first talk, I knew that much of the information provided could be used in my books as well. The therapist who presented the program started off by saying all of us are wounded. Our unhealed wounds can trigger a response that negatively impacts the way we relate to others. The pain we experience often comes from the memory of an event that happened in the past. We hold onto a false belief about the memory that adversely affects the way we think about ourselves. If we can identify the false belief by bringing Christ into the midst of that painful memory, we can see ourselves through His eyes, discard the false lie we have been living and recognize the truth about who we truly are—a beautiful creation totally loved by God.
As an example, a person—or character—with low self-esteem may strike out with anger at anyone who questions his authority. When he identifies a memory of his father belittling him in front of his siblings and telling him he’s stupid, the wounded person recognizes the lie or false belief he has lived with, which is that he is stupid and incapable of good judgment. If the person brings Christ into the hurtful memory, he receives unconditional love and acceptance from the Lord and is able to embrace the truth, namely that he is a capable person and able to make wise decisions. In addition, he may also see his father through Christ’s eyes and recognize the pain his father was dealing with that precipitated the hurtful comments.
The first time I heard about character development based on false beliefs of past pain was in a workshop given by Jo Leigh Kramer, who writes as Jo Leigh, which she presented to Georgia Romance Writers a number of years ago. Jo Leigh talked about a misperception she had carried into adulthood, after overhearing a conversation between her mother and father when she was a child. Only when she confronted her parents about the flawed belief were they able to set her straight and free her from a false view she had held as truth. In the GRW workshop, she explained the value of using revelations of the mistaken past as turning points in the characters’ lives to up the emotional impact of our stories.
Michael Hauge, author of Writing Screenplays that Sell, presented a workshop at the Romance Writers of America Conference I attended, in 2007, that touched on the same subject. Hauge talked about including character wounds and flawed self-perceptions in our stories. He explained how a hero may be inhibited by a wound or source of continuing pain that happened in the past, which he has suppressed but hasn’t healed. The hero draws inaccurate conclusions about the wound to protect himself, while living with the fear that he could be wounded again.
As a self-protective mechanism, the hero puts on a false front, or mask, which is the identity he presents to the world. Within the story, the flawed belief and protective identity must be stripped away to find the essence of the authentic person he truly is. The inner conflict, according to Hauge, is the tug of war between the identity and the essence, or the struggle between the false perception and the authentic self.
In romance, the love interest character sees beneath the identity mask and recognizes the true essence of the hero—his better self, so to speak— and loves that authentic person. Accepted and loved, the hero is then able to lower his mask and face the world in truth. Hauge uses the example of the movie, Jerry Maguire. Renee Zellweger’s character sees beneath the mask Jerry wears and loves the essence of who he really is, as stated in the following line, “I love him for the man he wants to be and the man he almost is.”
For Christian writers, an even more satisfying and complete transformation comes when Christ is the healer. Francine Rivers, in her highly acclaimed novel, Redeeming Love, shows how Angel’s husband saw the essence of who she truly was, but Angel had to accept the Lord into her life before she could be healed and freed from the false beliefs that had held her captive, concerning her own unworthiness.
I’m currently working on a new series for Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense called Military Investigations, featuring heroes and heroines in the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division, a special group of agents who investigate felony crimes within the military. The Officer’s Secret, the first book in the series, will be out in May 2011, and deals with three people and the painful secrets they carry. The CID hero, the murdered major and her sister, who is the heroine, have each been adversely affected by the past. The hero and heroine must face the false beliefs, or misperceptions, they have wrongly accepted as reality. Only when the truth is revealed through Christ are they able to be transformed into their authentic selves, the essence of who they truly are.
Whether in our books or in real life, the love of Christ heals. When we incorporate transforming moments into the lives of our characters, our stories can impact readers in a positive way. Hopefully, readers will examine their own painful memories and recognize the wounds and false beliefs that weigh them down. Embracing the universal truth that Christ wants us whole and healed whether in fiction or real life, readers, writers and characters alike see themselves in the light of Christ’s abundant love and mercy and are transformed.
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Watch for my new Military Investigations series and the launch book, THE OFFICER'S SECRET, May 2011.