How Ignatian Contemplation Can Help You Write Better Characters

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When I first learned about Ignatian contemplative prayer, I didn’t expect it to make me a better writer. My goal was to grow closer to God, and contemplation certainly helped me to do that. But the more I practiced it, the more similarities I noticed between how Ignatian prayer engages the imagination and the methods that I used in my fiction writing. In particular, it reminded me of the intentional, imaginative work that I did whenever I was trying to get inside a character’s head.

I hold to the philosophy that characters aren’t created as much as they’re discovered. This was inspired by an insight in Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which I read when I was 16 and first falling in love with writing fiction. King writes: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

Characters are like that, too. The more time I spend with my characters, the more I learn what is “true” about them and how to write them most authentically. This isn’t to say that they exist as literal separate entities outside of my imagination, but that for me the process of character writing is more organic than logical, more mystical than mechanical. Ignatian contemplative methods help me to immerse myself in my characters’ minds and hearts so that I can bring their complicated, messy, graced humanity alive on the page. I want to share a little of what has worked for me, in the hopes that it will work for you as well.

Composition of Person

Ignatian contemplative prayer begins with the “composition of place,” in which we use sensory details to immersively imagine ourselves in a scene from Scripture. When I’m getting to know a character, I do something similar: a composition of person. Before I can write a character, I need to know what it’s like to live in their skin. I do that by spending intentional time immersing myself into my characters’ reality, learning how to see the world through their eyes.

Like composition of place, I start by filling in details: physical appearance, interests, jobs or hobbies, family. Some of this might be key to the plot, but other facets just help me to put flesh on my initial idea. These details help me to imagine how they spend their days, who they spend them with, what matters most to them as the story starts.

When it’s time to get deeper — to really dig into my characters’ emotional lives — I turn to music. I make playlists for characters based on a few songs that either describe something about them or that I just think they might like and listen to it as I brainstorm. As I work on the project, I’ll add other songs that feel like they fit as I get a better grip on the character. Some become powerful enough that just hearing them out in the wild will put me in that character’s head, get me thinking about how they might respond to whatever I’m encountering in my daily life.

Formal research is also important, especially when I’m writing about characters coming from different identity groups from my own. I find it helpful to read fiction and nonfiction (especially personal essays) from writers who have something in common with my character. Seeing their experience from “inside” helps to bridge the gaps in my experience and knowledge. I also can’t overstate the importance of sensitivity readers to let me know if my characters feel authentic or miss the mark (I’m fortunate to have a diverse community of writers and friends who I can turn to for that sort of feedback, but you can also find professional sensitivity readers online).

It’s important to note that all of this imagining is just the beginning. A composition of person makes it easier to slip into my characters’ minds when it comes time to write a scene from their point of view. But I continue to discover new things about those characters as I write and rewrite. Indeed, some absolutely critical things about my characters never occur to me until I actually sit down to write them.

For instance, in high school one of the characters I wrote the most was a bumbling teenage supervillain. He was conceived as a one-note joke for shared stories I wrote with friends on a message board, and mostly stayed that way through early installments. But as I wrote about him, I discovered deep wells of sadness in this character and a fear of abandonment that drove his schemes for world domination. None of that had been in my original plan, nor were any of those elements that I consciously chose to add to the character. They just emerged through the process of writing, and ended up changing the course of where I took that character in the future. Just like in real life, action reveals a character’s true nature.

A Certain Point of View

Using contemplative methods also helps me to write more dynamic scenes and interactions between characters. While a scene will (usually) only be seen from one character’s point of view, every major character in the scene should want something. Ideally, they should want contradictory things: This creates the potential for drama and conflict. Contemplation helps me to flesh out each character’s perspective in a scene, but it also helps me to imagine them all with compassion, even when they are at odds.

As an example, a few years ago I wrote a story for the Jesuit Conference’s Pilgrim Stories series called “The Provincial and the Pilgrim.” It’s told from the perspective of the Franciscan provincial (who I named Pietro) in Jerusalem who has to tell not-yet-St. Ignatius that he can’t stay in the Holy Land. Pietro has a tough job: balancing the spiritual needs of pilgrims with his responsibility to keep them safe, a tricky proposition at that point in history (especially because many pilgrims’ zeal outweighs their good sense). Despite the fact that he was a 50-something 15th-century Italian monk, I related to Pietro: my job, high school campus ministry, requires a similar balance between the prophetic and the practical.

St. Ignatius made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1523. (Society of Jesus)

But I wasn’t happy with the first draft of Pietro’s conversation with Ignatius (still Inigo in the story). Inigo came across as a little stubborn and entitled, Pietro felt surly and officious. Neither character looked good, which was the opposite of my intention (that seemed like a particularly poor way to repay St. Ignatius for all of the times I’ve prayed for his intercession). I realized that I’d written the scene with only Pietro in mind, so his frustration with Inigo became the primary emotional beat.

I spent some time rethinking the scene from Inigo’s point of view and, in the manner of the Presupposition, being as charitable as possible. If contemplating Pietro reminded me of my experience as a campus minister, contemplating Inigo reminded me of being on the other side of that desk, as a student. There were definitely times when my passion had outweighed my practicality, and I’m sure I could be annoying. But I also remembered how joyful and exciting that time was, how close God felt.

When I rewrote the scene, I had Ignatius makes his case from a place of spiritual consolation and humility, disagreeing with Pietro in a way that very nearly disarms him. The scene ends the same way, but both characters came across as more complicated and sympathetic. At the end of the story, when they part ways having both learned something from each other, it felt earned. Applying the Presupposition to those characters allowed them both to bring their full humanity into the scene, leaving an impact on each other — and, hopefully, the reader.

Sympathy for the Devil

The secret to a great antagonist is not that we agree with them, but that we can understand them. Those same contemplative practices that help us realize the full humanity of our heroes can help us do the same for our villains. It’s more challenging, but maybe even more important: the truest test of empathy is if we can find the humanity in people who we find reprehensible.

There’s a bit of uncomfortable soul-searching in this, too: putting myself in my antagonists’ heads often means coming face-to-face with my own fallibility, selfishness and capacity for harm. But this is an important part of Ignatian spirituality: Indeed, the Spiritual Exercises begin with meditations on our sinfulness. Critically, we emerge from those meditations understanding that we are loved sinners, uplifted by the grace and mercy of God. Compassionate imagining allows us to see our villains as loved sinners, too, and that’s fertile ground for dramatic writing.

Here is an example from my current work in progress, a young adult novel that I describe to people as a super rom-com. The antagonist is, in addition to being a supervillain, proudly selfish, loathsome, destructive and annoying. He repeatedly steals from his already-struggling hometown to fund a life of debauchery in the big city. He is also, to add insult to injury, one of my protagonists’ ex-boyfriends. He is not, to put it mildly, very likable. But he’s also, beneath the bluster, an impulsive kid who’s afraid that he’s screwed up too much to ever go home.

We never see a scene from his point of view, so when I contemplated him, I would focus on what he was doing before each of his appearances and where he went afterwards. This gave me deeper insight into his insecurities and the hollowness of his supposedly thrilling life. When I sat down to write his scenes, I let hints of those secret fears and sorrows slip into his villainous persona. The reader probably won’t like him, but I hope the way I write will allow them to empathize with him and hope for his redemption.

Conclusion

Any time I offer writing advice, I like to include the disclaimer that every writer is different. Some people, like Stephen King, really benefit from spontaneity, and obviously I’ve found that a more organic approach makes my character writing better. At the same time, I’ve also learned over the years that I need a pretty solid outline of my plot in place before I start writing, or I’ll stall out before the end of the first chapter. You go with whatever works best for you.

My goal here, then, hasn’t been to prescribe a particular writing method, but to encourage compassionate writing, however that might look for you. We often talk about the Catholic imagination, and an essential element of that is seeing all things — and all people — through the eyes of grace. For me, adapting Ignatian contemplative methods allows me to do just that, and I find that it makes for better stories and richer characters. And more than a better writer, I hope that this sort of compassionate imagining is helping me to become a better person: to see people as God sees them, in all of their beauty and brokenness, in fiction and in life.

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