Desire, Choice, Consequence: Building Character Through Stories

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This is a version of an article I wrote for LifeWay’s ParentLife magazine. It appeared in the July, 2010 issue.

At writing seminars everywhere, writing teachers are giving stuck story-writers the same advice: “Ask yourself, ‘What is it that my character wants?’”

Why? Because once you know what a character wants, you know what choices he or she is likely to make. Once your character starts making choices, consequences follow. And then a story begins to take shape.

Desire. Choice. Consequence. That’s what a story is made of.

When we speak of the other kind of character—an individual’s character or integrity—we’re usually talking about the choices that person makes. A person of character chooses the good over the bad, the better over the good, the best over the better, whatever the circumstances. And why does a person make such choices? Because he or she wants what is good or better or best.

Each of us is a welter of warring desires. You want to lose weight, but you also want that other piece of cake. You want to make good grades, but there are a million things you want to do instead of studying. You want to please God, but you also want to please yourself. So how do you choose? You choose according to what you want at the moment of choosing. And your choices have consequences, which shape the next part of your story.

Desire. Choice. Consequence. It’s what character is made of too.

It is that parallel between story development and character development that makes story such a valuable tool in shaping your child’s character. In the midst of life’s battles, it can be hard for a child—for any of us—to step back far enough to see the connection between desire, choice, and consequence. In a well-told story, on the other hand, it is easier to see the big picture, even as we inhabit it in a small way.

If you are going to use stories as a means of shaping your child’s character, it is important, of course, to find stories that teach the right things. But that is not the only important thing; it is at least as important that you get in the habit of talking to your child about the stories he or she experiences. Help your child see the connection between desire, choice, and consequence by asking questions like these about the stories you read together:

-Why do you think the character made that choice? What was he trying to get?
-Did that choice get him what he wanted?
-What else did it get him?
-What was the cost of that choice?
-Do you think the choice was worth the cost?

And here’s the thing: these are the kind of questions that can help redeem even a questionable story. You might slip up with a book choice or a movie choice; it happens. But if you’re talking with your child, helping him or her make explicit the connection between desire, choice, and consequence, even a story that isn’t altogether appropriate can be a great learning opportunity. As character-building goes, a questionable story with great follow-up questions might be more valuable than a perfectly appropriate story with no discussion.

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that any old story will do for your child or that all stories are of equal value when it comes to character-building. Some are indeed better than others. In the examples below, I offer three foundational character truths, each with three books that portray it.

Character Truth #1: This world does not define you.

Children’s fiction is full of stories in which the main character suspects he isn’t who he appears to be. Why does that idea ring so true? Because it is true. We weren’t made for this world, and in the end it’s not the world that names us or gives us our identities. To live a life of Christian character is first to come to terms with this truth.

Consider the mouse Despereaux in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick Press): he is rejected by his fellow mice because he cannot bring himself to cringe or scurry. He is brave, adventurous; and as he follows his heart he finds out who he really is. Another of my favorites in this vein is Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten, Waterbrook Press). In these fabulously engaging books, two brothers and a sister find out that they aren’t who they thought they were.

The Story of Ruby Bridges (Scholastic) is a non-fiction picture book that tells the beautiful story of a six-year-old black girl who faced incredible hatred from whites in her hometown of New Orleans when she became the first black child to attend Frantz Elementary School in 1960. Her determination not to be defined by the hatred of the whites who verbally abused her every day—and her willingness to forgive—is inspiring.

Character Truth #2: You find your life by losing it.

This paradoxical truth is at the heart of the Christian faith. As with any paradox, we come closer to understanding it in story form than in its stated form. Generations of children have been introduced to the sacrificial nature of friendship through the spider Charlotte, who devotes the last of her life’s energies to rescuing the pig Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web (HarperCollins). And The Velveteen Rabbit only becomes “real” after his beauty has been loved to shredded ugliness. Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick Press), also about a toy rabbit, plumbs a similar theme.

Character Truth #3: Grace is primary.

True character is not a question of will power. Character that lasts must grow out of God’s grace—and the realization that we don’t have it in us to live a life that is up to God’s standards. That’s a hard thing to teach; grace is another of those paradoxes that can be better grasped as story rather than as precept. And yet it is hard to find children’s books that truly make grace come alive for the reader.

I have fallen in love with a picture book called Sidney and Norman: A Tale of Two Pigs, by Phil Vischer (Nelson Publishers). Sidney the Pig is a mess, even by pig standards. His neighbor Norman has it all together. Both pigs are astonished to learn that God loves them without regard to their ability (or lack of ability) to keep things together.

Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses (Sandpiper) is an achingly beautiful depiction of a poor girl’s willingness to show grace and forgiveness to classmates who torment her—and her willingness, in the end, to bless them with beauty.

And I couldn’t offer a list of character-building children’s books without mentioning Sally Lloyd-Jones’s Jesus Storybook Bible. It is a reminder that the Bible is a series of stories that add up to one big story—the story of Jesus. “The Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes,” Lloyd-Jones writes.

It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne—everything—to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!

That, in the end, is why story is so valuable to the parent who wishes to shape a child’s character. All the best stories are but faint echoes of the truest Story. And as that Story finds its way deeper into our hearts, we cannot help but be changed.

[Editor’s note: Jonathan’s blog is full of all sorts of great stuff. Be sure to check it out at Jonathan-Rogers.com]

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


17 Comments

  1. Canaan Bound

    P.S. Even though I don’t have any kids of my own (yet), I am a teacher and will definately use those questions when responding to literature with my Kindergarten class. Thanks!

  2. Eric

    Thank you for sharing this; I am now a bit smarter and more informed. Thinking back, the stories which have affected me most have had these particular traits. It may sound silly, but the book that comes to my mind is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Yes, it is written in a very sentimental style with loads of asides and hyperbole, but it clearly presents the three truths you’ve written about. Classifying it as a Children’s book would be a mistake, but it is a quality book; it truly truly is.

  3. ginger

    What a timely post… My 11 yo daughter just read “The Hundred Dresses” & was left with an indelible impression. Every time we talk about the story she brings out a different lesson that she learned from another character’s point of view. It’s lovely to see my child respond to a writer’s heart so many years after the story was penned. It also moves me as her mother to witness the tender inner dialogue that I might not otherwise hear without stories like this to bring it out.

  4. Jazz

    Right now, am I am writing a book and I m sure this information will Help me make it a better story.
    Thank you Mr. Rogers for posting this.

  5. Kyle Carlson

    This is so helpful, Jonathan. It’s great to have a tangible, attainable process like this. When we read a story (or see a movie, for that matter), asking my kids these questions will be a terrific way to drive home truth to their hearts.

    My question: My kids are 6 and under; what books do you recommend for very young kids, and do you ask them the very same questions, or do you adapt them in some way to younger minds/hearts? (For what it’s worth: my 6-year-old is a strong reader for her age.)

    Thanks,

    Kyle

  6. Kyle Carlson

    By the way, I just read “The Charlatan’s Boy” on my kindle during Christmas week. It was wonderful. After reading this post, I’m asking myself those questions about Grady. And, whaddayaknow, Grady turns out to be not quite who he thought he was…

  7. Witmer

    Thanks for this great article. I appreciate both the pointed look at how desire motivates choice, and your concept of the main “Character Truths”.

    I’ve nibbled around both ideas in my own mind, but you put some very good words to them.

  8. Suzanne Tietjen

    Strikes me as true. I’ve been reading all my life (well, mostly) and writing for the last few years but didn’t realize these these were at the core of so many stories. Thank you.

  9. Drew

    Oh my goodness. If any of you have not read “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” do so immediately. It is lovely and sad and beautiful and heartbreaking and . . .

    I cried like a baby.

  10. Sondorik

    This is rich, Jonathan. You are quickly becoming my favorite storyteller. Thanks for challenging my fragile notions of grace and redemption and real life through your writings. Saint Patrick is fascinating and I can’t wait to get into The Charlatan’s Boy.

  11. Jonathan Rogers

    Thanks, everybody. Kyle, you asked about books for the younger set. I’m not a great resource, to tell you the truth, but Sarah Clarkson is. Her book READ FOR THE HEART offers annotated lists of great family reading. If I remember correctly, there are books for kids under six. Sarah, are you reading this? Maybe you can clarify. Also, HONEY FOR A CHILD’S HEART is another helpful resource for book lists.

    If you haven’t started your little guys on THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE, you must do that forthwith.

  12. Ivan Stoikov - Allan Bard

    The best stories for children are those which could be read by adults too… Your post is amazing, every author, including me, could learn a thing or 2 from it! You are absolutely right, books are a great way to help kids (and their parents) to become better persons, to change their attitude, to think more deeply about everlasting problems, etc… Remember how well J.K.Rowling did that in her Harry Potter? She includes problems like racism, loyalty, friendship, etc… I remember also what a great influence my Tale Of The Rock Pieces had on 2 kids of a friend of mine. When I told them my story they were so impressed that even today, when they are shrewd youngsters, they keep taking a good care of their health, they don’t smoke, don’t drink strong drinks, just because the good characters in the book were doing that, together with the other great deeds and adventures… They even treat all animals well, as I described well enough how amazing they could be…
    Best wishes for the new 2011 and the years to come! Keep the good posts coming! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of my water dragons’hunters).

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