The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, November 04, 2005

Seventh Level Characterization

The seventh level of characterization ties it all together: Spirit.  This is the level that all world religions play in.  For those without a belief in an afterlife or deity, this level deals with the cosmological questions: the ethical structure of the universe, the nature of our purpose, the meaning of life and death.  Every culture and people on this planet have answers to these questions, and consider the context of our existence to be as important as the actions within that context.  It isn’t vital that a writer have a religious or spiritual belief, but it IS valuable  understand and have empathy for the nearly universal human need to do so.  So let’s look at a few simple questions which, when answered, will help you explore the spiritual dimension of your characters.

1) Do you believe there is a God (or Goddess?) What form does this deity (or deities) take? 
Are there divine beings or forces that interact with human beings? 
If there are, why do you believe their intentions and wishes have been interpreted so many different ways by different cultures?  If not, why do you think so many people of apparent intelligence and integrity think that there are?
Do you think there is “a Way” exclusive of other paths, to approach the divine? Why, or why not?
If you think there is no divine pattern or being, do you think the belief that there is is valuable?  How about the reverse question?
What is the meaning of life?

     Understand that any character you write about will, at some point in her life, address some of these questions. It is hard to conceive of a character that would not—although that statement should be considered a challenge for a good writer!  Can you craft a character of clear mind who has never asked herself any of those questions?  What does that say about her or her culture?
     There are countless reasons to look into the “seventh level” of characterization, both for the sake of your writing, and your own life (after all—they are inseparable!)
     We will revisit these questions, and many others, in days to come.
     Note, however, that the more spiritual the story, the more important it is to GROUND that story in the first three levels—otherwise it is a tree with no roots.  “The Passion of the Christ” wouldn’t have sold 1/10th the tickets if it hadn’t anchored the spiritual questions deeply in the mutilation of the flesh.  That visceral reality created a link for the audience beyond anything that had been seen onscreen for a very long time.  The higher the intent, the more important the roots are.  Never neglect them


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