Saturday, February 12, 2011

Human Yearning in Picture Books

Biographies for children today have for the most part deviated from fictionalized accounts to emphasize facts. There has also been a shift in purpose, from the raising of heroes to an attempt to help children to understand the development of history, personal choices, social concerns, and human experiences. There is an emphasis on accuracy, avoiding suppositions.
At the same time, as I wrote in a previous post, it's the element of human yearning that makes any story captivating. We want to know what moved the characters to do what they did. Since choices and human experiences are understood best through feelings, the author can give some hints, like "he probably felt..."
Of course, the best way to portray feelings in the context of a factual biography is by using actual quotes. For example, it was refreshing to read how young Athanasius, in the midst of all his problems during his first years as a bishop, started his Easter Letter to the churches in Egypt with a song of joy, "Come, my beloved, the season calls us to keep the feast … so that, when time has passed away, gladness may not leave us."
In pictorial biographies, however, there is another way to portray emotions and move the imagination without drifting too far from reality - illustrations! The masterful painting above is Matt's illustration of the dreadful time when Emperor Constans ordered all bishops to sign a paper denying the conclusions of the Council of Nicea regarding Christ's divinity and especially denouncing Athanasius. It's definitely hard for us to understand the feelings of the bishops who signed. It has been suggested that there was a general atmosphere of theological unclarity (after all, our "orthodox" theology was just in the process of being formulated at that time) rather than fear of the emperor, since martyrdom was still seen as a desirable death for a Christian. After that, we really don't know.
In the illustration, we find ourselves face to face with three pondering men - a bishop and two Roman soldiers, with the looming statue of Emperor Constans behind. We still don't know their thoughts, but they are in front of us and we find that all our prejudgments and rash conclusions are halted in our minds. This is, in my view, one of the main purposes of accurate biographies. They help us to understand or at least empathize. They draw us closer to someone else's life and thoughts and widen our own. They take us to another time as we would travel to another country and help us to sample it through another person's experience. And it's something our children need as well.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Most books on writing fiction advise the author to find their character's yearning. There is a perceived need and a hidden need. The hidden need is normally the motivating force, the yearning that carries the character through the story, even if at first it's not clear.
I had to determine that with Olympia (the main character in Weight of a Flame, the Passion of Olympia Morata). Being historical fiction, I could not make it up. I had to study her letters.
Her perceived needs and wants were obvious. She wanted to use her talents. She wanted to please her father, and others in general. She wanted to find a husband who appreciated her skills.
Her hidden need was not as clear. I had to go to the end of her life to find it, tracing it back to the start.
I remember sitting on a train in Italy, travelling back from Ferrara, her hometown, reading her last letters. Suddenly I saw something I had never noticed before - a repeated, almost unexpected emphasis on God's strength. She talked about it in almost every letter, with insistence, as if she were trying to convey a newly found treasure.
When did it start? Soon after she arrived in Heidelberg, giving signs of a mortal and incurable illness. What had happened? Just before this, she was a guest at the house of the Counts of Erbach, and was struck by their devotion to God. She had especially befriendedf the countess, Elizabeth, who apparently had been plagued by many ailments ever since she got married. That's when all seemed to make sense - maybe, Elizabeth said something to encourage her to rely on God's strength.
Being a work of historical "fiction," I was free to follow my instincts as much as the actual documentation. I began to see Olympia's character arc right in her letters. She started out as a young, talented woman, eager to please others, fearful of their opinions, and not very convinced of her faith in God. She ended with a deep faith and a total reliance on God's strength. The end result was the fulfillment of her hidden need, even if she didn't know she had it.
I then made that yearning the motivating force of her life from the beginning - a yearning for God, a God she came to know slowly through her life, first as Truth, in a letter by her father (this is a bit of fiction - the letter is true and so is her realization, but I put them together to give it a context); then as Truth worth dying for, in the prison with Fanini; then as Comfort, in her travels to Germany and throughout the war; as Fulfillment, in her meeting with the Fuggers (another bit of fiction - the meeting happened and the lesson was learned, but maybe not simultaneously); and finally as Strength.
Writing historical fiction is interesting, because even when we recognize a character arc, our hero or heroine doesn't usually follow it in a systematic manner. There are ups and downs, few steps forward and some back. Even after finding true faith in God, Olympia kept harboring a resentment for the people who had offended her, until the very end, which is what makes the story much better than a prefabricated account that goes from weak to strong, unbelieving to believing, bad to good.