Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Belief

by C.J. Chase

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the “wound”—an injury the major character suffered in the past. I had been studying a Michael Hauge recording about character arcs, how characters grow and change over the course of a story, in preparation for final revisions to my contracted book. (Side note and shameless plug: my studying paid off. My editor loved the book, so be sure to get your copy in February.)

Wounds cause pain, and we humans don’t like pain. We develop ways to avoid pain: don’t touch hot stoves, stretch before you workout, be careful with knives. One way characters (and humans) avoid the recurrence of pain is to develop a “belief” about the cause. This “belief” is the way a character copes with the emotional and/or physical pain of the wound.

Let’s return to Simba, the young cub from Disney’s The Lion King. Simba suffered a wound when his father died and his evil uncle convinced the cub it was all Simba’s fault. How did he cope with this pain? He adopted the belief of “Hakuna Matata” (no worries). He believed that if he refused to take responsibility for anything again, nothing bad could ever be his fault. The new Simba becomes a very carefree—and careless—young lion. Got a problem? Too bad. Don’t ask Simba for help because he’s not your guy.

The problem is that a mistaken belief doesn’t actually heal the wound, but leaves it festering like an infection under the skin. It might look okay from the outside, but it’s poison inside. Simba’s refusal to accept responsibility didn’t alleviate the pain he felt from his father’s death.

Think of the wounded people you know. Did any of them develop a “belief” that let them bury the pain? Perhaps a family member rejected God after a particularly traumatic experience. After all, no loving God would have allowed such pain, so therefore, he has come to a belief there is no God. Or perhaps your friend has cynically rejected all men as selfish dolts after the heartache of a marriage gone sour.

Fortunately for fiction, story characters re-examine their beliefs during the course of their journeys, and we see a transformation in the character by the end of the story.

You see, beliefs—like attitudes—are a choice we make.

Let me illustrate this point with one of the Bible’s most famous believers. (You saw what I did there, right?) Remember Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob? Being Daddy’s favorite wasn’t all roses and unicorns for young Joe. His jealous brothers plotted first to kill him, then settled for selling him into slavery instead. Nice guys, those brothers.

Joseph sold into slavery

Now if Joe were the hero of a fictional novel, we’d probably open our story with him as a cynical loner type of character, a man incapable of believing good about his fellow man. But Joseph remained faithful to God despite hardships and temptations. God had provided him a glimpse of his future in childhood dreams, and Joseph chose to believe that prophesy would someday come true.

Though wounded, Joseph wasn’t cynical or bitter. When at last he met his brothers again, he offered them forgiveness, and he provided his entire family with land and food and protection in Egypt. After his father’s death, when his brother’s feared he would at last extract his vengeance on them, Joseph revealed his belief: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20 NIV)

Belief is the heart of a relationship with God, and changing one's beliefs is a spiritual experience. The joy of Christian fiction is that we add a spiritual dimension to the character’s arc -- just like so many of the wounded people around us require a spiritual dimension to their healing. 

What are some of the common beliefs you see that people develop to deal with the pain of wounds? Do you see common wound-belief tropes in your fiction reading? Do the two "match" -- that is, are authors examining real world pain and responses or do they fall back on easier-to-solve issues?

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her next book, The Reluctant Earl, will be available in February of 2013. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at


  1. Good morning, CJ. I'm kind of sleep-deprived at this stage so I hope my answer makes sense...

    I think it varies from author to author. Some authors work extra-hard to develop a story like this and show the healing. These books stay with me long after I've set them back on the shelf.

    Others that I call fluff novels, talk about the pain and healing but don't seem to reach down to that level. Like a criteria for a book they have to use, but don't want to figure out why they need to use it.

  2. I agree, Anita. We all have deep wounds and misguided beliefs and a really 'deep' character makes for a compelling read.

    C.J., I think it's quite common to see people who believe that they are being punished somehow and deserve it. Well, in true justice, yes, we do deserve punishment (and God has true justice) but He uses discipline with a light hand because we DON'T GET WHAT WE DESERVE due to God's grace and mercy.

    But we can't live in a perpetual position of thinking that bad things are happening because we aren't good enough for any better.

    What a thoughtful post today!
    I appreciate it.

  3. Anita, I refuse to feel sorry for someone who is sleep deprived because she's having so much fun.

    I asked the question because there are certain tropes I see over and over. For example, the man who can't commit because a woman in his past (mother, late wife, fiancee) done him wrong. But the truly difficult questions (like "how can a loving God allow so much pain and suffering?") are really, really hard to address in the confines of a novel without sounding trite and simplistic. And yet, the hard questions are the ones we see over and over in our society.

    Wish I had an easy answer!

  4. Deb, your comment is bringing up all kinds of questions in my mind this morning.

    What causes these misguided beliefs? Our sin nature? Separation from God? Anger at God? Do other people plant these notions in our minds? Is it an inability to see the big picture (to have a God-s-eye view)?

    In my first book, I had a character who thought he was too bad for God's forgiveness. And eventually, I realized he was being driven by pride. Sounds like such a contradiction, but I finally realized that he used his "I'm too bad for God" to avoid thinking about his relationship with God.

    Hmm. Sounds like a post for another day.

  5. CJ, I hope you keep doing these posts. I'm finding them extremely helpful!
    In answer to your question, I think people tend to take three approaches to pain: blame God, blame self, blame others. The one that most aggravates me in fiction (and in life) is the "blame others" philosophy.

  6. Niki, that's simple but very profound. I'd never thought of it until you wrote about blame, but it's such a common human reaction, it was the world's second sin. As soon as Adam and Eve realized God knew about sin #1 (disobeying), they launched right into sin #2 (blame the woman, blame the serpent...).

  7. Nice post. I can definitely see how this works in my new book too. In light of what Niki says, my character blames herself.

    You know, if this writing gig doesn't work out for us, we could always go into therapy with all our expertise in straightening out these wounded characters :)

  8. Ha, Dina. I have enough problems making my characters do what I tell them to. I can't imagine trying it with real people.


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