What was it like growing up in your family? Warm and loving, or more cold or abusive? What’s been your experience of the church? Did people show a flawed but honest pursuit of God, or were they moralistic hypocrites? How has your past shaped you toward the person that you are today — your values and attitudes, your pet peeves and lingering fears, your hopes and dreams for the future?
We all have a story to tell: each of us is the main character in a tale that tries to make coherent sense of the past we’ve already experienced, the present we now live, and the future we anticipate. The story shapes how we think about the people in our lives, what we notice, what we ignore. They are the dramatis personae in our own little morality play.
Trouble is, other people think of us as characters in their stories. People who play the villain in our scripts are the heroes in theirs. They are the protagonists; we, the antagonists.
So what happens if I insist on sticking to my story, and you to yours?
In 1927, novelist and essayist E. M. Forster (best known for A Passage to India) made a now famous distinction between what he called flat and round characters in a novel. Flat characters are one-dimensional; they play more as stereotypes than real people. Round characters have more complex motivations. You get to see their internal conflicts and identify with their heroic struggles.
The main character in a story is typically round; the characterization deepens as the plot progresses. But that character may be surrounded by any number of comparatively flat ones, the better to accentuate the hero’s depth: the sleazy lawyer; the vain aristocrat; the rapacious corporate raider; the mad genius with delusions of grandeur.
The question is, to what extent do we need others to be flat characters in order for us to be round? Someone has hurt me, and in my story, that person is a one-dimensional, negative character with a single motivation. Oh, sure, I know there might be more to that person’s story — at least, I can entertain the idea as an intellectual proposition. But if it makes it harder to hold onto the story I prefer to tell about myself, I will probably keep the other person flat.
There’s a tremendous irony in all this. Despite my intrinsic desire to be a richer and rounder character — the many-faceted hero of my own story — flattening others can flatten the world by reducing it to basic black and white distinctions. Gone is the heroic complexity of an Alyosha Karamazov or Anna Karenina. Instead, possibly without realizing it, we find ourselves striving to be James Bond to someone else’s Goldfinger.
There’s an element of idolatry in all of this. By their very nature, novels often have omniscient narrators, who invisibly and infallibly tell you everything you need to know about the characters. But we are not omniscient, and it is a dangerous thing to play God.
The good news, if we will receive it as such, is that we’re invited to open the horizons of our stories to a more transcendent one, in which all have sinned, all are in need of redemption, and all are invited to participate in the transforming grace made available by the story’s true Hero. The Christian life is indeed an adventure; but we should think less of making God part of our story than our becoming part of God’s story.
With our horizons thus broadened, we might be able to imagine new possibilities for ourselves and the other characters with whom we walk and talk.