In fiction you have main heroes, rounded characters, and flat ones. An example of a flat character is the Star Trek guy in a red shirt. You know the one. Recon party goes to Planet X to investigate some mysterious phenomenon. Kirk (gold shirt), McCoy (blue shirt), Spock (blue shirt), and red-shirt guy beam down, but only the familiar three return to the Enterprise. If there’s a shootout, explosion, or mysterious disappearance, you can bet that, as I saw on YouTube, “Red shirt dead shirt.”
Jasper Fforde in The Fourth Bear, a Jack Spratt Investigates novel, has a little fun with plot devices and flat characters. In this particular scene, psychiatrist Virginia Kreeper interviews Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crimes Division, to see if he’s fit for duty.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Jack, suddenly feeling a lot more self-assured. “You and I have perhaps more in common than you think. And you sitting behind that desk questioning my motivations smacks of the very worst kind of hypocrisy. Essentially, you’re nothing but a vehicle for a series of bad psychiatric jokes and a plot device to stop me from getting to the truth. A threshold guardian, whose only purpose in existence is for me to circumvent—which I’m doing right now, if you haven’t noticed.”
Kreeper stared back at him, trying to adopt a bemused air of condescension to disguise her sudden nervousness.
“A one-dimensional threshold guardian? No, no, you’re quite wrong. Look here!” She opened her purse and passed him a picture of a teenager in pigtails and wearing glasses. “It’s my niece,” she explained. “I take her out on her birthday to all kinds of places. Last year we went to the Natural History Museum. So you see I’m not poorly realized at all—I’m flesh and blood and fully in command of my own destiny—and having a recollectable past proves I’m not one-dimensional.”
She glared at him hotly, but Jack had enough experience of PDRs [Persons of Dubious Reality] and incidental characters to know one when he saw one.
“What’s her name?”
“Her … name?”
“Yes. Your niece has a name, I take it?”
Kreeper blinked at him, and tears started to well up in her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said at last, breaking out in a series of sobs. “I just … don’t … know!”
Jack felt sorry for her. It can’t be easy to have your entire life summed up in a few perfunctory descriptive terms, the sole meaning of your existence just a few lines in the incalculable vastness of fiction.
So what does all this have to do with you and me?
Let me ask you a few simple questions. Have you ever felt like you were the red-shirt guy in life’s big story? Your entire life could be “summed up in a few perfunctory descriptive terms, the sole meaning of your existence just a few lines in the incalculable vastness of [the universe]?”
How about the way you treat others? Are people just flat characters in the story in which you serve as the hero?
I’m the red-shirt guy. I’m nothing but a prop.
You’re the red-shirt guy. Move out of the way because this story’s mine, mine, all mine.
Jesus said two things that address both attitudes.
First, He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10b).
“I have come …” In His earthly ministry, Jesus had a clear purpose. He came “…that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Who are they? Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Lost, sick, confused, disheartened, troubled, brokenhearted … Jesus came for people such as these.
Peter wrote about why God delays judgment. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).
What Jesus offers to each and every one of us is an invitation to life lived to the full. That doesn’t sound like the life of a flat character to me.
Second, Jesus enumerated a number of people we’d classify as of lesser position—the poor, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner. He said, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40).
We find “the least of these” written into Jesus’ accounting ledger. Others count.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I think as a Christian author.
No one is a flat character in Jesus’ book. No one wears a red shirt, at least not as a sign of an expendable prop. Not you. Not me. Not anyone.
Each person has a complete story. David wrote one of my favorite Bible verses. “… all the days of my life were written in Your book before even one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16b).
I allow myself and others to become flat characters. One Russian proverb I learned while living there was this. “The tallest grass gets cut.”
That proverb spoke of the fear which permeated Russia during communism’s reign. If you stood out, you drew attention to yourself, your friends, and your family. Fear of imprisonment or execution did a great job of squelching creativity and individualism. Conform or die.
The stakes may not be that high where you and I live today but the fear of others still serves as a deterrent to accept Jesus’ invitation to live a full life.
She’s such a rebel.
What a dreamer.
Such an odd duck.
He’s gone overboard with this Jesus stuff.
But think about this. When you’ve read a story or watched a movie, which character did you remember later? My money’s on the dreamer, the strange guy, the one with the weird sense of humor, the fanatic, the rebel, the tallest grass.
Stories in this world have both round and flat characters. Flat characters have little more than a moment on the page. They don’t have a past worth noting. We may never know their backgrounds or even their names. They come and go with little fanfare.
They exist because an author can’t flesh out each character. To do so takes time, energy, and imagination. I can tell you from experience I’m limited on all three accounts.
I don’t think so.
Question: What color is your shirt?
Other posts I’d recommend:
Henry McLaughlin’s Is That You Lord?
Jon Acuff’s Jack White & God & Creativity
Chris Patton’s Unrealistic Expectations: “You’re Just Not That Good”
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Wow, Tom…I REALLY enjoyed that post! I love the approach!
I have felt like a red shirt guy before. Though I know it not to be true based on what the Bible says, it is still an easy trap into which many fall.
Thanks for the entertainment and insight!
I forgot to say thanks for the shout out!
Glad to do it and thanks for the encouragement.
This post hit me on a variety of levels. First, I really wish I would have written it. Second, I totally feel like I’m the one wearing the red shirt most (okay, all) of the time, and I feel a growing resentment for those who always get to wear the gold and blue shirts. They seem to turn their noses at us red shirts a lot too. (Yes, I have issues to deal with.) Third, I feel inspired to continue with the direction I am going in with my blog writing. The Holy Spirit is definitely leading the way for me on this, and I have to trust that this is how God wants me to live a full life. Great post!
Thank you for the compliment. That’s a big one.
If the Holy Spirit is leading and you’re following His lead, then you’re headed in the right direction. My best advice on the writing and blogging thing is give it time and persevere in what you love to do. Time and perseverance will pay off. Borrowing from Chris Patton’s theme in “Unrealistic Expectations,” let your expectations line up with your commitment.
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Thank you for your kind words.