By Elizabeth Ludwig
Scarlett O’Hara. Katniss Everdeen. Michael Hosea. Jane Eyre. Do you recognize any of these names? Obviously, they are all characters from books. And yes, they are all heroes. But before they were heroic, they were flawed and fallible. These frail, imperfect, unlikely paragons struggled with weaknesses in their character—failures that sprang from something deep inside, such as vanity, envy, fear, jealousy, and pride, just to name a few! But instead of turning the reader off, their failings made these characters relatable, made their struggles tangible and oh, so memorable.
The heroine in my latest novel, Cheryl Cooper, is likewise afflicted (Where Hope Dwells, Guideposts 2015). Instead of being smart, savvy, and self-confident, Cheryl struggles with a less than perfect self-image. She hates her hair, she wishes she could lose weight, and worst of all, she hides a bitter secret-unforgiveness toward the man who broke her heart and left her standing at the altar. So when circumstances thrust her out of her busy life in Columbus, Ohio, into an Amish community in Sugarcreek, and when finds herself in the middle of an investigation into a kidnapping, Cheryl is quite certain she is not the person for the job…or is she?
Just like those characters I mentioned above, Cheryl needs to discover what it means to find strength inside of herself to do something she never dreamed possible, because that is the part of the story that will make readers care about the choices she makes.
This is not an unusual technique for me. Very often, the books I write have a theme that coordinates with something I am facing in my personal life. No, I haven’t recently been left standing at the altar. Nor have I ever been the lead investigator into a kidnapping. But I have battled with unforgiveness, and like Cheryl, I could not see the bitterness in myself, yet I readily saw it in the people around me. These two things are what prompted me to tackle the tough issue of forgiveness—both in the church, and outside it in our circle of friends. I wanted my readers to be able to relate to the characters in way that would mean something besides providing entertainment.
Another example is from my last historical romantic suspense, Tide and Tempest. Like Cheryl, the main character, Tillie McGrath, has developed a deep sense of unworthiness that stems from personal choices she made as a girl. The consequences of these actions not only led to an unplanned pregnancy, they led to the loss of her child and murder of the man she loved. Thankfully, while these circumstances do not exactly mirror mine, I can say that I understand what it means to lose a child. The grief, guilt, and sorrow that I poured into Tillie sprang from my own experience after the death of my son-as do the healing, strength and victory that she claims by tale’s end.
Isn’t that what makes characters in books so endearing? Don’t we hope that these beloved friends for a time will somehow be better than we are ourselves? We want their circumstances to be different. We want their person to be somehow improved. And we want our own lives to reflect what we have read.
I believe the best books-and the most memorable characters-are the ones that reflect something about ourselves-not just in our ugliness, but in our striving toward godliness. Their story urges us toward victory, and encourages us to believe in the strength of our character and power of our Creator to overcome. Their message is healing and hopeful, even if at first, the words we read remind us of our lack. And they linger in our conscience-these beloved books-the pages dog-eared and wrinkled where something we read touched or challenged us.
My prayer is that the names of my characters will someday be added to the list of those that readers count as memorable. That they will linger…and that they will help someone else overcome the failure inside.
Elizabeth Ludwig is the bestselling author of Christmas Comes to Bethlehem, Maine and the highly successful EDGE OF FREEDOM series from Bethany House Publishers. She is an accomplished speaker and teacher, often attending conferences and seminars where she lectures on editing for fiction writers, crafting effective novel proposals, and conducting successful editor/agent interviews. Along with her husband and children, she makes her home in the great state of Texas. To learn more, visit ElizabethLudwig.com.