Lessons Learned from Characters

Why do we watch movies? Why do we read books? Of course, everyone enjoys a short break from life. We read/watch movies so we can escape to another world, to another character’s mind.
And what usually draws us to the protagonist? Think of Frodo or Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen. Most of the time the protagonist is likable, heroic, brave.

We’re drawn to protagonists because we want to be like them.


When I read, the protagonist sticks with me in everything I do. I try to learn from her/him. The protagonist that most shaped my life is Hadassah from A Voice In The Wind by Francine Rivers. I first read that story when I was sixteen. Throughout my youth, when I was stuck in awkward situations, I remembered Hadassah and thought about what she would do in such situations. Silly, I know. But it helped.

Now days, my mind is consumed with the protagonist from my own book. (Though she is far less perfect than Hadassah.) But throughout her story she learns, and I feel like I’m learning with her.

One similar lesson I’ve been learning lately is to focus less on my problems and more on the problems of the world. I think we often forget to practice this. Yes, we know we should put others’ needs above our own, but how often do we actually do it?

So, in my efforts to put this ‘selflessness’ into practice, I’ve been volunteering at a local homeless shelter. In the application, I checked the box for almost every ‘job’ they had, except childcare. (I love children, but they have a tendency to walk all over me….)

Guess where they put me?

Childcare. I was bitter… the first three weeks. Why, when I’m willing to show service, would God make me do something I least want to do? But then I thought– childcare is the area where the homeless shelter most needs volunteers right now. If I’m serving for my own sake, my own peace of mind, then I’m doing nothing but being selfish. But if I’m serving where they actually need me, whether or not I like it, then that’s what makes it service.

My fourth week at the homeless shelter, I went in with the mindset that I was there to help them, not myself– not my conscience. And when I focused on the staff’s needs and children’s needs instead of my own, the day went much better. It didn’t matter what I was going through, but what those children were going through.

How does this tie in with my book? Let me tell you. The protagonist and her mentor are both slaves. There’s a part in my story where the protagonist has been watching her mentor for weeks. Her mentor seems to have a certain peace about her, and the protagonist wonders how her mentor possesses this peace when she’s bound to a life of slavery.

Her mentor responds, “When your concern for others grows, the problems in your own life dim.”

As I was working at the homeless shelter struggling with my own worries instead of focusing on others’ problems, this quote began floating around in my head.

I realized my protagonist learned her lesson, and through her character journey, she became selfless, focusing on the needs of others even though she was bound to a life of slavery.

It’s funny, sometimes (most of the time) we writers create characters with better, well, character, than us. It seems so hypocritical. I write about this like-able character, and yet, am nothing like her. I’ve been so consumed with myself– my problems, my worries– that I’ve forgotten to help or pray for others.

But at the beginning of my book, my character was the same way. She had to learn to be a better person– to be selfless. We all do. It doesn’t always come naturally.

I guess we’re all protagonists in our own little stories, going through character journeys, learning, making choices. And those choices always define who we are. They could either change us for the better– make us heroic, brave, passionate– or they could turn us into villains, depending on what kind of choices we make.

Here’s to being heroes.


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