"Sir, Did You Not Sow Good Seed In Your Field?"

"....How then does it have tares?"
Matthew 13:27

This is to be a piece to be taken in conjunction with Bree's post "The Impossible Male Character."  Seeing as the thoughts of my mind are only confusing always, I hope rather than believe I can make myself make sense.  You have stood with me thus far: I think we can make shift of it.

the greater the virtue, the greater the vice

I had begun to notice this in my characters, doubly so when Bree sent her post live on the impossible male character.  I manage not to fall into that trap of having characters be too good, or of having characters be too bad.  The trick I have discovered is in taking a virtue (love is the most profound among these) and twisting it so that it becomes a vice.  The stronger the virtue, the greater the vice it becomes.  My characters tend to be big, bold, larger-than-life kinds of people: their virtues and their vices tend to be large also.  But the interesting part, for myself as the writer, lies in the subtle line that distinguishes virtue from vice.  One character of mine loves a lady - he genuinely loves her, and I think that became most clear to me when someone mentioned a dangerous activity and he caught himself making a very slight but very telltale gesture as if to protect her.  Beneath a weight of ambition, hatred, pride, and self-worth, he loves her.  But even "the ploughing of the wicked" is a sin, and his charity is not redeemed by being, in its way, sincere.  Therein lies the subtlety.

that line is very thin

You are probably acquainted with Rich Mullins' song "We're Not As Strong As We Think We Are."  It is a very profound song and paints man as he stands, at the cusp of dust and heaven, wrenched by his mingled nature and his fallen estate.

we are frail
we are fearfully and wonderfully made
forged in the fires of human passion
choking on the fumes of selfish rage
and with these our hells and our heavens
so few inches apart
we must be awfully small
and not as strong as we think we are 

Perhaps the bigger the character, the easier it is to see this.  I can think of a strength for each of my characters which, in a moment, can become their downfall.  Dignity becomes pride, justice lacks mercy, forbearance becomes sullen.  And on the flip-side of these degradations of virtues, you have the rough and the ready and the sons of thunder whom you might look at and think, "You lack such charity, such grace of presentment - how can you be redeemed?" when often they are the ones closest to the kingdom of heaven.  On the one hand you have a man like Uzzah, an historical figure, whose quickness to steady the ark of the covenant looked like care, but was actually irreverence; on the other you have a man like Samson, who was full of the boastful pride of life, but whom God heard and answered at the last when his blind eyes had come to see the nature of his God more clearly.

the kingdom of heaven is like...

Bree was right when she said you cannot make characters too perfect or too imperfect.  You cannot simply load down a character with faults and flaws to escape the danger of making him too good for this earth.  We are each a universe of lawful and lawless factions constantly at war, which are not always wearing the colours we expect them too.  Great grace can easily be misused, small faith can move great mountains.  When you go to write your characters, and you take care not to make them too perfect and to mix their flaws with sense, keep in mind this also: even the most temperate and steady-going virtues can turn in a moment into sin, and that the smallest, the basest, the lowliest spirits will one day inherit the kingdom of heaven.

5 ripostes:

  1. Shizzam. This is a good post and one I hadn't really thought about while writing. A famous man once said, "Great strength is double-weakness" and it is so true in my life and the lives of everyone I know. A man can be strong to protect his family but if drunken and enraged his strength could be used to murder another....it's a precarious thing, these gifts...and oftentimes we do mistake Samson for Uzzah...

  2. Wow--that is a really interesting post, Jenny. I suppose like Rachel I have not thought of it too much like this on characters before. But you are quite right. Definitely about 'steady-going virtues can turn in a moment into sin'. The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it? My father often would tell us that 'even our tears of repentance must be washed in the blood of Christ'. And perhaps that is the most difficult thing in portraying characters in their virtues and their flaws... especially in steady virtues, it is so easy to lean on one's own 'self-righteousness' (for my life, your life and the characters within tales too!). Rather the grace of perfection comes from Him -- all our righteousness are but filthy rags! And yet in weakness, His grace is made sufficient to us...

    There are so many examples in Scripture, in real life, and in novels of this conflict between law and grace, virtue and vice, Spirit and the law... faith and unbelief. Thank you for this post, Jenny! Whatever your doubts on that score, you have a way with words not only in fiction but in describing and bringing across such thoughts... It is a blessing, so keep it up, old bean!

  3. I'm kind of glad this is news to you, because halfway through writing it the thought crossed my mind, "You know what, they've probably already thought of this before and this is all Old Hat." I strive not to be redundant. :P

    You are very right, Joy. In every good thing we do, in the best of our best things, there is always that clinging sinful natural self. Thank God we will be rid of it one day, but for now we can never discount its perverting influence nor take it too lightly. "Nondum considerasti, quanti ponderis sit peccatum! - You have not yet considered how weighty sin is!" - Augustine

  4. I like when people do reply-posts because that is much more fun than a comment.
    I like especially that you mentioned 'the greater the virtue the greater the vice.' Application of that principle has formed many a real character in the past!

    And the morphing of virtues to vices is very appropriate at the moment, seeing the books I've been reading. Mr. Darcy's healthy pride turns to disdain and draws a breach between himself and Elizabeth; a certain Tobias in Allegiant struggles with revenge, for though his cause is just, to carry it out would make him just as guilty. Even as Christians we walk the line between morality and sinfulness very often because the path itself is so narrow.

    "Think not that morality is ambulatory: that vices in one age are not vices in another!" -Sir Thomas Browne

    And with that I'll leave you. ;)

  5. It is an excellent quote with which to leave. Doff hat. ^.^