ZU Magazine is a publication of ZU Media. Below is an article from Issue 4, “Character.”
Guest Writer | Meredith Harbman
When Anne Shirley, storybook character from “Anne of Green Gables,” turns 20, she remarks, “[I thought that] by the time I was twenty my character would be formed, for good or evil. I don’t feel that it’s what it should be. It’s full of flaws.”
Aren’t we all? Full of flaws, that is. But does that mean we are not people of character? My experience with humanity is that we are all trying to navigate tricky moral questions with authenticity. In other words, we do have character.
It’s just that our definition of what this looks like and what character means seems to be shifting. What I have found is that our millennial generation does not speak in the language of character anymore. At least not in our grandparents’ terms of “integrity,” “patience” and “courage.”
We gravitate toward the language of story these days— of conflict, resolution and impossible decisions. This is not to say we do not care about the attributes our grandparents’ cared about, only that we are enmeshed in a narrative society that cares less about the qualities you have and more about what you do with them.
Dr. Joseph Bentz, an Azusa Pacific English professor and author, said, “A better story will emphasize action more than simply stating the traits of a character in a story.” When he writes a story, Bentz puts his characters in the midst of peril, danger and conflict. Only then does their true self emerge.
“This is what Shakespeare is,” he observed. “Shakespeare doesn’t say, ‘Here are Hamlet’s top five strengths.” (One can’t help but wonder, though. Deliberative? Strategic? Probably not positivity).
Bentz is interested in the question of identity as he writes and teaches, and in the kinds of complex characters, “who aren’t just a villain or a hero but struggle to be one or the other.” If you think about it, these are the kinds of characters we like to see: Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” Neal Caffrey of “White Collar,” as well as every. single. person. in “Black Mirror.”
Purely good and purely bad characters are boring. We want the struggle. In other words, we want the story.
This is because we have a sense that this is where moral identity is formed. If pushed to explain what kind of character you have, you would have a difficult time answering without including examples of times when you demonstrated that you were honest, determined or bold.
Dr. Christine Kern, an English professor and author at APU, also wonders if it comes back to our choices.
“It’s fascinating what people choose in the impossible task of living out our beliefs. We’re not choosing between good and bad; we’re choosing from a thousand goods, and a thousand little bads,” Kern said.
Most of these choices are made daily, not in grand moments of triumph or failure. After Anne Shirley says her character is full of flaws, her 60-something companion responds cheerfully, ”So’s everybody’s. Mine’s cracked in a hundred places.”
Maybe we are always choosing, always cracking and recovering just in time to make the next decision. As Kern said, “Story becomes character in the intersection of what we think we want and what we do with it.” Maybe the cracks and the holes are where the light gets to shine through, which is perhaps more important than any line-up of moral attributes.
I think of Donna Tartt’s book, “The Goldfinch,” in which the main character, a guilt-riddled drug addict trying desperately to make the right choices yet utterly failing, finally comes to this conclusion: “And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them … so the space where I exist, and I want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance.”
That middle distance, the space between where we are and where we want to be, is where our stories are forged and where we prove our characters. If you doubt it, consider that the times when you felt the most broken were probably also the times when you discovered the most strength. If you failed last time, there will always be another opportunity. The story goes on.
And if you feel like your character is full of flaws, you are not alone.