In Art and In Life, What is Character?

This is part nine of The Story Book.


One time my Midnight Oil partner Jason Moore and I went on a speaking gig in a zoo. Actually, the conference was at a church. It was a pretty regular looking one too, as contemporary churches go, and when we first arrived we had no idea about its secret zoo.

Our first clue that something was different was the full sized stuffed lion sitting on a high shelf in the fellowship hall. We asked about the lion and found out that he had been the pastor’s pet and his name was Bubba. Bubba was a real, seven-foot long stuffed and mounted animal. In the church fellowship hall.

Then we met the pastor, a man who confiscates the majority of available space in any room: he walked loud, spoke loud and laughed loud. He was a ringmaster. He told us that he was the only ordained minister in the United States who was also a USDA certified animal trainer. He had grown up in the circus. Prior to following a call to ministry, he had done some colorful things such as emcee for Tina Turner on tour and circus ringmaster. He and his wife had a collection of exotic animals in their backyard such as lions and tigers and camels and elephants.

He often used these animals as preaching aids. He told us that once he brought his lion up to the chancel in worship. The lion promptly turned around a sprayed the first three rows, from one side of the sanctuary to the other. Talked about being marked by God.

Ringmaster pastor was a character. You couldn’t help but remember him.

The word character is rich. Three seemingly unique definitions of the word “character” have interesting overlap. Character can refer to a symbol, like a letter or number which are known as graphemes; it can refer to a set of moral qualities that predict how a person might act in a given situation; it can refer to a person or agent in a creative work such a novel or a film. And there are other definitions. But these three all have interest to me, because they reflect a co-mingling of art, communication, and religion – my three favorite disciplines. The term “character” is data, art, and ethic. It hints at the symbols and meanings that form us – both abstract and personified images and ideas through which we relate, form value and make meaning.

That all sounds kind of lofty. Think of it this way. Characters are colorful. They embody a story, sometimes in ways that stretch standards and criteria. That’s why they call people characters. They personify themes and present us with examples for values that we yearn for and values we reject. People identify deeply with certain characters, real and imagined, at various points in their life. These characters give us the inspiration to flesh out our own character – our own values.

When I was a young teenager, I wanted to work out like Rocky. I remember going to see Rocky IV in the theater with some buddies. I thought doing pushups in the snow was about the coolest thing ever. In my twenties, William Wallace (Braveheart to the uninitieated) gave me inspiration to embrace the difficult consequences of acting on courage and accepting responsibility. In my early thirties, Nicholas Cage’s protagonist in The Family Man helped me to enter into a world of fatherhood. These points of identification continue through life, which is why we see Hollywood recycle the same stories over and over again. Every generation needs their own Rocky.

 

Character is the incarnation of story. Every story tells of a character change.

This is called the arc. Don Miller defines a story as somebody who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. A character faces challenges and risk and must embrace courage and struggle through adversity. The human condition seeks happiness, which is a euphemism for relaxation, or the completion of a task. But nothing fun happens while sitting on the couch on an off day. Life is in the living of the story.

Jason and I left our first try at a parachurch ministry, Lumicon, after eighteen months. We had left a comfortable gig as media staff at a megachurch, Ginghamsburg Church, because we felt a calling to help small and medium sized churches become more adept at telling stories and making images with meaning. We were wooed by a non-profit company that had close ties to Ginghamsburg’s denominational connection, the United Methodist Church. This company, UMR Communications, was known for printing the newspapers that went to United Methodist laypeople around the country. Since papers were dying, they wanted to start a “digital division”.

We discovered shortly after arriving that our definition of a digital division and their definition did not align well. Compounded by the presence of many voices, and our own youthful exuberance and ineptitude, the situation quickly became untenable. After eighteen months of increasing tension, we abruptly resigned one day. I went home that night pretty freaked out. I remember talking to my wife about the prospect of starting our own company with Jason and his wife. We literally wrote a new story that night in our minds. The next day the story began, as UMR Communications approached us to continue the relationship contractually, pending our establishment of a separate company. We hung a shingle as Midnight Oil, and the contract production relationship with UMR became our seed money to grow our own venture.

The choice to resign precipitated the shingle-hanging. The end came before the beginning. This is God’s way. Faith precedes signs, not the other way around. Life is a series of difficult choices. Those choices have a lot more meaning when understood as part of a larger story. And each choice is both a summary and a new element to your character.

Character is variously used to denote somebody with commendable intergity (“that person has character”), someone who is colorful and memorable (“that person is a character”), or someone who has little integrity (“that person is a shady character”). Character is the likeness of a person, or the description of someone’s essence, which is difficult because people that are more than heroes or villains but who show us ourselves – a mix of saint and sinner, a real human with both admirable traits and flaws.

My father has a quote that hangs in his office. It says,

Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits become character. Character becomes destiny.

The good part is that our character is not complete. We continue to form our character with every plot turn in life’s story. Character is the sum of our daily decisions, or the decisions of the one we’re creating. I find it helpful when forming character, both in fiction and in real life, to think about where I am going.

Somebody asked me once, “What is your final scene?” In Me: The Movie, what is happening in the closing crane shot with credits? Mine happens over a large backyard family table full of laughter. Maybe yours is different. Mine is where I am old, but still sprightly. I am surrounded by my family. Not literally, although maybe that’s one part of the scene where everyone stops talking for a moment and the screen goes white and you hear a Polaroid sound effect (even though nobody uses Polaroids anymore) and then you see a still frame in black and white of everyone smiling and turning toward one another. But the rest of the scene is where we all make a big meal and laugh – lots of laughing – and play games and there’s my kids there, and their kids, although like in Ron Howard’s movie version maybe one of them is a bit of a free spirit.

If you are struggling in life, maybe with a child, a marriage that has not matched its storybook beginning, or the effects of some poor decisions, take heart. Your character is still forming. Maybe what you need is a new plot turn in your life story.

Who is your favorite character in literature, movies and television, and why?

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

2 Comments on “In Art and In Life, What is Character?”

  1. Len, I’ve really enjoyed reading this series on story. One of my favorite movie characters is Glenn Holland, the music teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus. He is a favorite because of how he lives his life, and it at times seems inconsequential to him, only to discover at the end how much of an impact he has had. At times, I feel my life is “less than consequential” but hope at the end the quiet faithfulness will mean many have been encouraged to walk with and pursue the Lord.

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