Monday, March 26

Jesus and the Dynamic Character

Students of the craft of writing often divide their characters into two camps--protagonists and antagonists. This isn't wrong. It can be limiting, however, when the lines between the camps aren't so black and white. Sometimes, the goals of the different characters are so diametrically opposed that it cannot be argued that the characters are even on different sides.

Take, for example, the story of Jesus' visit to Sychar. (A village in ancient Samaria where Jacob's Well was located.) Antagonists are hard to find in this historical account. But characters abound. And these characters can be divided into two very clear camps: static and dynamic characters.

A static character is one whose nature and traits do not change between her first introduction on the page and the last glimpse the reader has of her. A dynamic character does change. Within the writing community, there is an assumption that dynamic characters are good, and static characters are bad. This assumption is made on the belief that readers always want their main characters to change.

And you know what "they" say about assumptions...

As we have seen over the last weeks, characters with flaws are appealing to the human psyche. (Yes, really. See Rapunzel if you missed it the first time around.) But we have also seen that protagonists don't have to change to be universally loved. (See Cinderella for that argument.) Some of the characters in John 4 are static, and others are dynamic. This story, written by the best Author, expresses both the changes and the immovability of the characters through dialogue and interaction.

Jesus: A static character if ever you've met one. This man Does Not Change. Which isn't bad. If this story is your first encounter with him, you might want to read further, but from his first breath on the page, he is committed to one goal, one purpose, one way. How that commitment plays out in his interaction with other people depends on the person. With the woman, he invites her to speak. He then answers her question in a fashion that gives her the freedom to ask another question. Anything she likes. He discovers in her a deep desire for truth, and a hopelessness that it can never be hers, and answers her heart. Not her sins. Not her past. He has come looking for her soul. (Calvin Miller does a wonderful interpretation of this in his poem The Singer, chapter XI.)

His goals do not change when others enter the scene--be they his beloved disciples, or the townspeople who do not know what to believe. But being a static character does not make him less of a powerful force in this story. His goal will not change if his audience rejects it, but both the giver and the receiver in such a conversation would come away profoundly marked by the interaction.

The Woman: Our darling dynamic character. When she enters the story, she is alone. Friendless, even for having had a string of intimate relationships. Jesus does not offer to become part of this string--or even replace it. He offers her truth, where until now she has heard only lies. The freedom and joy with which she responds profoundly mark her for the rest of her life.

When she arrives at the well, it is the middle of the day. Any sensible woman would have gone to the well at dawn, before the day was hot and household chores needed attention. But this woman wasn't welcome with others, so she came alone. This one conversation with Jesus releases her from the shame of her past choices, so that she can run into town to find the people who do not speak to her and say, "Come and meet a man who knows my secrets." The townspeople already know her secrets--this is not a surprise. But they don't know her joy. This is new. Worth investigating.

The Disciples: These fellas are such an interesting bag of tricks. Dividing them into static and dynamic individually is easy (Thomas, Peter, John, Judas), but as a group? Best to side with static in this instance. When they find Jesus freely talking with a fallen woman, righteousness demands a certain code of conduct. Withdrawal. Concern. Perhaps even a little preaching. Jesus does not rebuke them outright, but neither do we observe a change in their understanding. Their questions indicate their own search for truth, echoed in the woman's enthusiastic evangelism.

The disciples, unlike the woman, have chosen their giver of truth. They are out to follow their rabbi, wherever that teaching may lead. That doesn't stop them from expecting him to follow their code of standards, but it does open their minds to the possibility of Jesus changing their standards to match his. As with almost every other account of the disciples' interaction with Jesus, these characters are on a long, slow journey to change. Sufficiently slow that their individual characters can be measured.*

The Townspeople: Like the woman, these are also dynamic characters, though on a lesser scale than she. Their response to Jesus' teaching is to him, not to the world around them. Where she rushed to invite people--friends, strangers, enemies--to see him, they rush to pursue him. Again, this isn't bad. A writer who shows that some people are changed profoundly by an encounter with Jesus, while others react to a lesser degree, tells a very real story. Not every character will respond to another character in the same way. Writers who fail to take this into account do their readers a great disservice.

This story, like many of the fairy tales we've covered so far, begs the question of a reader's response. Reading a story does not have to change the reader. But it could. A reader is not required to be a force of change in her world. But she could. In this story, both Jesus and the woman moved others around them to change. Not because they were both dynamic characters, but because both characters demanded a response from the other characters in the story.

Like the woman at the well, writers and readers are at a crossroads. We can choose to change--or not. We can choose to challenge others to change--or not. Having made the choice, where will the next road take you?

*In my small understanding, there are two exceptions to this: Nathaniel, called Bartholomew, and Jude the Lesser, called Thaddeus. My personal studies have shown that these disciples' decisions to change and responses to their choices were profoundly different. (In your own studies, you might find other disciples whose lives affect you differently.) Why? That is very much a story for another day...

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