On Wednesday evenings my husband and I attend the pastor’s class at our church, and for the past few weeks the topic has been marriage. (Yes, even after nearly 43 years together, we’re still learning!) The basis for the class is a series of recorded sermons by Timothy Keller. I’ve also been reading Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, which underscores and expands upon the sermon topics.
The thing about being a writer is that I’m not just reading or listening as a wife. Even as I’m thinking about how to apply the concepts to my real-life marriage, my writer’s brain is also filing everything away for use with my fictional characters and their relationships.
Which brings me to today’s topic: how our approach to character growth from identity to essence sets the Christian romance novel apart.
If the “identity to essence” concept is new to you, it’s borrowed from author and screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge. Simply put, the character’s identity is the persona he/she has adopted as a means of dealing with fear and hiding from a wounded past. As the story develops, the character begins to glimpse how much richer his/her life could be without this self-protective mask. The character arc is the gradual stripping away of the mask and overcoming fear so that the character finally accepts and lives in his/her essence or true self. (For a more detailed explanation, see this article on Hauge’s website.)
Wondering how “identity to essence” relates to a class on marriage? Let me tie them together with a quote from Tim Keller’s book:
“What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.”
Doesn’t that sound a lot like the journey from identity to essence?
One of the primary differences between Christian romance novels and many secular romances concerns the characters’ initial attraction to each other. In secular romances, those first encounters tend to focus heavily on the characters’ physical attributes—the heroine’s curvy figure, limpid eyes, and lustrous long hair; the hero’s trim waist, muscled biceps, and broad shoulders. The relationship may then jump quickly to the bedroom, short-circuiting the “getting to know you” phase during which a meaningful friendship should be developing. And according to Tim Keller, friendship—our spouse as our very best friend—is crucial to a solid marriage relationship.
In Christian romance, there’s still some interest in physical attributes—we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t take at least passing note of appearances the first time we meet someone—but even more important are those little glimpses into not only who these characters are at the outset, but who they have the potential of becoming once the masks are tossed aside. This is where friendship begins, when someone else sees not only our flaws and faults but our best selves and is not only willing but committed to sticking it out with us even when that “best self” retreats.
To give you an example of how these concepts play out in a story, I’m going back to one of my earliest published novels (and still one dearest to my heart), Autumn Rains. Here’s ex-con Healy Ferguson’s first meeting with Valerie Bishop, the widow of the friend who had encouraged and supported Healy during his prison years.
Healy’s first glimpse of the slender woman took his breath away. Her gray eyes sparkled with a brightness to rival the summer sunshine. She wore her pale blond hair pulled back from her face in a fancy clip. Long strands shimmered across the shoulders of her blue-flowered dress.
Obviously, the first thing Healy notices about Valerie is her beauty. However, he already knows a little about her inner beauty as described in his late friend’s letters. Then in this next excerpt, he quickly senses Valerie’s apprehension, an outer sign of the PTSD she struggles with as a result of her husband’s tragic death. This is her identity, her mask of self-protection. Healy’s thoughts also reveal his own identity, his self-doubt, insecurity, and hopelessness about his chances for a happy future.
Her kind, honey-soft voice belied the uncertainty Healy read in her posture and expression. Even with a fresh change of clothes, Healy knew he still must look like a down-and-out drifter. He swallowed and met her gaze. “I don’t need much, ma’am, and I know how to work hard. If you give me a chance, I promise I won’t let you down.”
And Valerie responds this way, revealing aspects of her true self that Healy will fall in love with all too soon:
She swept him with an appraising glance, and her gray eyes softened. “Pastor Henke seems to think you’re just the man for the job, Mr. Ferguson, and he’s never given me reason to question his judgment.”
So the interest, if not full-on attraction (on Valerie’s part, anyway), is evident, and it isn’t based so much on appearances as on what each sees in the other’s potential.
As their friendship deepens through the course of the story, Valerie’s belief in Healy will restore his confidence and enable him to find success and fulfillment as a free man. In turn, Healy draws Valerie out of her self-protective shell and helps her to live a full and vibrant life again. Their growing love and concern for each other takes them on a shared journey from identity to essence.
There’s so much more about writing the Christian romance that I could tie in to Tim Keller’s teachings on marriage. Instead, I’ll offer you a chance to win your choice of Tim Keller’s book OR an autographed copy of my novel Autumn Rains. Just mention in a comment if you’d like to be included in either or both of the drawings, and I’ll toss your name into the rose petal basket (in honor of Valentine’s Day next Sunday). Winners announced in the Weekend Edition!
Let’s talk! Writers, how do you see the identity-to-essence journey playing out in your work-in-progress? Can you see friendship as part of the equation? Readers, same questions for you, but talk about the characters in a novel you’ve read recently.
Autumn Rains. Healy knows all about prisons, both the physical one he’s been released from and the emotional one he keeps himself trapped in.
Valerie is caught up in post-traumatic stress disorder. Shadowy moments from a night she can’t fully remember bombard her without warning, keeping her trapped between the painful past and a future that seems hopeless.
But God promises to repay the years that have been lost; for those who trust in Him, He promises refreshing, life-giving rain. Will Val and Healy trust to see God’s perfect plan, or will they choose the chains that hold them back?
Award-winning author Myra Johnson writes emotionally gripping stories about love, life, and faith. Myra is a two-time finalist for the prestigious ACFW Carol Awards, and her Heartsong Presents romance Autumn Rains (November 2009) won RWA’s 2005 Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Romance Manuscript. Myra and her husband are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters who, along with their godly husbands, have huge hearts for ministry. Seven grandchildren take up another big chunk of Myra’s heart. Originally from Texas, the Johnsons moved to the Carolinas in 2011. They love the climate and scenery, but they may never get used to the pulled pork Carolinians call “barbecue”! The Johnsons share their home with two very pampered doggies who don’t always understand the meaning of “Mom’s trying to write.”
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