Creating Characters Who Have Hearts and Souls

Each year 5th graders in the school where I teach become buddies with a kindergartner. They sit with them in chapel, listen to them read, and also write and illustrate a picture book for their kindergarten buddy. The 5th graders created characters and wrote their stories. Their teacher then asked me to help them with the illustrations, so we looked at picture books to discover how pictures help tell the story.

The students noticed that illustrators often gave something distinctive to each character, such as a kerchief around a dog’s neck, a colorful cap, or even sunglasses. When we brainstormed how to make their characters special, ideas popped up like colorful balls in a toddler’s corn popper push toy.

We writers spend lots of time creating distinctive characters for our stories, too—choosing names, giving them a backstory, gathering pictures of foods they like, clothes they wear, and things they like to do. In our role as sub-creators, we want to bring our characters to life, so we don’t stop there. We give our character a wound and an unmet desire. J.R.R. Tolkien worked all his life on the backstory of characters in Lord of the Rings. He made detailed family trees going back generations and wrote songs, poems, and languages for the different character groups. (for more read this post on sub-creators)

Our lists of outward appearances and inner wounds are important. No need to stop doing them. But I’d like to suggest a subtle shift in our perspective to better reflect our biblical world view of who we and our characters really are and better show their hearts and souls.

1.We are created by God

Everyone is made in God’s image to worship Him and do good in the world

2.We are broken by the fall

Everyone is a sinner, which affects every part of a person’s life and relationships

3.We are in need of salvation

Everyone who believes in Christ receives God’s gift of love and forgiveness          

Rembrandt’s Portraits Show the Heart and Soul of His Characters

The famous artist, Rembrandt, who was also a Christian, painted hundreds of portraits of himself and others. He adopted the dramatic lights and darks of the Baroque period, for much of his artwork, especially the portraits. In these Rembrandt allowed people to emerge from the shadows into light, and in the process, reveal something of their hearts and souls. He wasn’t afraid, even in his self-portraits, to show himself at different periods of his life, wrinkles and all, and including the sadness and loneliness.

Rembrandt Self-portrait, Vienna, c.1655, public domain

Rembrandt’s Portraits Can Help Us Reveal the Hearts and Souls of Our Characters

Look at these portraits of two young girls. One is leaning on a picture frame, as if she’s looking out of a painting, the other is leaning on a window sill. Perhaps Rembrandt used the window and painting as further metaphors for really “seeing” these girls. When we do that, we see that:

Each is created by God

If we were making lists about these girls, we’d probably describe one as wealthy and the other as a maid, which we can tell by their clothing and hairstyles. We might describe the maid’s hands as careworn or reddened, while the wealthy girl’s are manicured. But then let’s go on to think how each has been created by God to worship Him and do good in the world.

What are some ways they or your own characters could use their talents or personalities for small acts of kindness, friendship, or create beauty in their corner of the world?

Each is broken by the fall

As we continue looking at these two girls and think about the wound and unmet desires of each, we may decide the little maid would like time to go out and play with other children, while the wealthy little girl might like that, too but for a different reason. They have wounds and unmet desires because they and those around them are all broken by the fall. One lives in poverty and may have suffered the loss of her family to disease or war. The other seems to have a good life, but may suffer from loneliness and lack of love from distant, busy parents.

List a few ways the brokenness of this world has affected one or more of the characters in your stories.

Each is in need of salvation

Each girl has much the same expression. They’re staring out the window or painting at us, with interest and curiosity, as if waiting for us to give them hope for what’s ahead. Will you, the writer, use their brokenness to show the glory of God’s grace in their lives? You don’t have to be preachy or have a salvation moment to show hope for the future.

What are some ways, even in books for the secular market, that we can bring light and hope to our characters and push back against the darkness of this world?

So How Did the 5th Graders and Their Popcorn Brainstorming Go?

For some reason everyone began adding sunglasses to their lists. It soon became a joke, and we’d all wait for the pause before a student would add, “and sunglasses!”

We all had a good laugh, but I urged them and I urge us to think about how God sees us and look beyond the shades or shadows to see and reveal the heart and soul of our characters.

And . . . I’m pleased to report that only a few characters actually ended up with big dark glasses, and the kindergartners were thrilled with their books!

Stay tuned each 4th Monday for more posts to help you discover new paths to creativity.

Kathy O’Neill is an art teacher who loves to show everyone they can draw. Visit her website to discover more about her writing and workshops, and her blog for a Christian view of great art and related projects and devotions for children. Kathy’s goal is to engage children’s and adult’s hearts, hands and minds to discover God and their own creativity through art, history, and nature. Kathy has written for many publications, including Light from the Word, The Quiet Hour, Appleseeds, and DevoKids.

5 thoughts on “Creating Characters Who Have Hearts and Souls

  1. Kathy, this post really inspired me! I’ve been praying and thinking about my writing in the year ahead. (and yes! I’ve been making lists of New Year’s Goals) And this is such an awesome perspective to keep in mind as I work on creating my characters…even the nonfiction characters I’m working on. Thank you and happy new year!!!!

    1. Thank you, Nancy! It is such a subtle shift, isn’t it, but when we, as Christians, use it as the foundation for our lists I think it could reveal a lot! Happy New Year to you as you plan your goals!

  2. I loved this post, Kathy! Who can argue with 5th graders and Kindergartners working together as well as thinking deeply about portraits? All done.

    1. Thank you, Carol! It’s very endearing to watch the older ones sit with and watch over their little buddies, and, Rembrandt’s portraits are just so amazing! Happy New Year to you and your family!

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