Telling A Better Story: The Character


In order to tell a better story, we first have to learn how to live better stories. The name LIBERATUS means set free, and out of that we have an anthem, “We Are Set Free”, which we repeat over and over so we will be so shaken by the depth of our freedom that we can’t help but live it out. It will be hard at times, especially because it’s largely not the starting point as we engage in politics—but it could be and should be.

To look more deeply at the story we live and tell, let’s break it down into sections using Donald Miller’s outline from How To Tell A Story. The overall structure goes like this:

1.     A character – 2. Has a problem – 3. Then meets a guide – 4. Who gives a plan – 5. And calls to action – 6. That results in a comedy – 7. Or a tragedy

So the beginning of a story centers on a character, and this is important because from the start we have to think about who we are, how we identify ourselves, what we believe about ourselves, and the makeup of our own character. We have to know what our core values are now, so that when the plot thickens, and we’re faced with problems and guides and calls to action, we have a center, a core, a deep down. And ultimately we need to know what that deep down is rooted in, because it will influence how we see our problems and guides and plans, and which ones we choose to listen to. This would be frightening if it weren’t true that we are set free, because we can’t escape living a story, which means we are constantly being guided and planning, and what is driving all of that?

Being set free changes everything, because it changes how we plan, etc. The master of the art of Story, Robert McKee, has some helpful notes on character and characterization from his book, Story (from pages 100-101):


Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes—all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind combination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular assemblage of traits is characterization . . . but it is not character.

TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.

Beneath the surface of characterization, regardless of appearances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire. As he chooses, he is.

Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature. 

There is indeed pressure in our political culture all the time, but before we get into all of that, let’s think about the characters in the current political narrative, and how being set free can change our perspective.

1.     Hero/Savior – Perhaps most common in our political culture is a desperation for a hero to follow. We want to find a hero we can follow who will fulfill our hopes and our dreams, who will lead the nation wisely, who is good and will triumph over evil. We either project that onto others—like presidential candidates—or we see ourselves in this role, but candidates never live up to that standard, and we never truly feel heroic.

2.     Activist – The activist is often placed at the center of our stories. Perhaps we have the hero we follow—and that’s the story we tell—but the story we live never fully puts us on the hero level. We just see ourselves and our neighbors as activists, as the army working to move policy, to support the hero. At the same time we see the work we’re doing as essential and critical for achieving whatever end goal we have.

3.     Victim – There are plenty of victims in the stories we live and tell. Either we are a victim of true or perceived injustice, or we view someone else as filling that role.

4.     Apathetic – Finally there are people who are distanced from politics in general, checking out to avoid the mess of it, or perhaps just finding other things to care about more. But apathy doesn’t free you or others from the broken political mess, it simply allows you to avoid it on some level.

Our true freedom, the Great Story, shatters all of these categories. At the center of it there is a God who is our Father and who is good and loving, has a Son who is our ultimate hero, and humanity that now has a way to be children of God. 

Recently I was talking to a friend and I asked what she thought the idea of life abundantly meant, because I don't think most of us have a clear vision for what it even means. Even when we think we do, I think it's still better than anything we can imagine. And so very wisely she pointed to the idea that we aren't called to strive, we are called to abide, like grapes hang on to a vine. They don't have to work to hang on really, they are just there, and in being there they have abundant life and can grow and are free. I love this idea, and maybe we should say liberty is abiding in Truth and Beauty, and in many ways it is, but in the Kingdom we will have work to do and it will no doubt be a pursuit of something, so it is a pursuit, it is an adventure, it does go on forever and ever. 

Why does all of this matter? We need to see ourselves not as heroes, or activits, or victims, or apathetic; we can rest knowing we are children of God, that we have an eternal inheritance coming. If we learn to embrace this new identity, it will change the rest of the story, because no matter what problems and guides and calls to action we hear, we will be rooted in a beautifully simple anthem: LIBERATUSwe are set free. 

Issue 004: A Better Story, Part 2.1