The Question of Character

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by Christine Sunderland

In this week in which we celebrate our American Presidents, the question of character seems particularly relevant.

How do we develop characters in fiction? How do we develop character in our children? What is, exactly character?

Of course I’m playing a bit with two definitions – moral attributes, and a person in a novel. But are they different? Perhaps not.

As a Christian writer I am given a Christian vision of mankind and his place in the created order. So my characters act out that vision in my novels; they make choices that will reflect on this Christian vision or perhaps challenge it.

From birth each of us absorbs layers of choice that form our experience. These choices lead us down certain roads; they create our character, for good or ill. If we have God in our lives, and Christ is a part of those choices, we become sanctified in time. We travel to Heaven.

So I ask myself as I take on this role of creator of my own universe of characters, those who people my stories, what path do I want them to take? What vision to I want to share with my readers? For the more the characters embody the vision, the struggle, the problem, the less I will preach through my prose, ever a temptation.

My most recent novel, The Magdalene Mystery, has not yet been released, but I hope to see it published this coming year. In this novel I explored the problem of truth, how we know it, how it becomes twisted, how it relates to belief and the truth of Christianity. The other side of the coin of truth is untruth, lies, falsehoods, and we are reminded of the eighth Commandment – thou shalt not bear false witness. Without belief in the Author of those Ten Commandments, what prevents a person from lying to suit his own needs? What holds him back, corrects him? What prevents her from engaging in small lies, then slipping down the slope to slander, bullying, theft, murder.

These questions I considered in my novel. I also sought the truth of Mary Magdalene, who was she (and can we truly know), and why has she been so slandered by certain bestselling authors? In the process of these personal passions, I examined the truth of Scripture – how we “do” New Testament scholarship, how we know (or don’t know) what happened two thousand years ago on that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene came upon the empty tomb. How can we know? Is it all a leap of faith?

My characters needed to share my vision too, in the sense that each took on an aspect of truth and lies, with backstories that included these crises of honesty and deceit, which formed their character and created my subplots, past and present.

And so this week, as we consider the inestimable George Washington and the stalwart Abraham Lincoln, we wonder if our culture today can produce such leaders. As Christian novelists, we say, yes, we can raise our children to do this. With a vision of right and wrong, of truth and lies, of Judeo-Christian standards of morality, it is possible. And as Christian writers, it is our challenge, charge, and delight to remind our nation that this is so. Through our characters.

Christine Sunderland
Christine Sunderland is author of four award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, and Hana-lani, set in Hawaii (all OakTara). Her fifth novel, The Magdalene Mystery,a quest for the true Mary Magdalene, is set in Rome and Provence and should be released within the next year. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union. Visit Christine at (website and blog) or

Comments 0

  1. As you say, it is both a challenge and a delight to place a character in a situation, and then watch them act – and in so doing, to show ourselves and our readers who they are in relation to God. And, we hope, this wll also teach us, and our readers, something of who we are in relation to God.

    I agree with you that “character” is built up upon layers of choices; but I would add that we also each begin with incipient “character” that our choices develop. To this extent, our character is in our DNA, and it is what we do with it that proves our mettle. Finding and knowing that foundational “me” can make all the difference between failure and joy.

  2. Dear Christine: Ienjoy your writings very much. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights into naming characters. I’ve often wondered where and how writers develope their characters names and characteristics so the reader has a good view.God bless you.Donald True+

  3. Thanks, Father True,
    Naming is always a challenge! I enjoy using names of friends and families (mixing up the character traits to avoid lawsuits), but I also need to check for suitability (ethnic background etc.), and associations, i.e famous folks who might come to mind and those associations. Needless to say naming is one of the more complicated tasks. The name has to sound like the person too, but not be obvious. If a character who was a priest was named Father True I don’t think anyone would believe me – it’s like my friend Father Angel… and others we both have known over the years! What a colorful life and such an adventure for us Christians!

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