Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Modern storytelling relies heavily on well-developed, psychologically-complex characterization to draw in readers/viewers and create a sense of identification or sympathy. In ancient cultures, however, stories did not rely quite so heavily on characterization to draw in their readers/listeners – and whatever characterization they do engage in can be hard for modern readers to pick up on. This creates a couple challenges for those who are reading the Bible through the lens of adaptation: first, to recognize the often subtle or ambiguous characterization in the original story and, second, to consider how to amplify it so that it becomes clearer and more relatable to modern audiences.
Out of the Abundance of the Heart
Modern stories tend to craft their characters either through first person inner monologue (particularly in novels) or through extensive dialogue between characters. The Bible utilizes both of these methods, but its monologues and dialogues tend to be more pragmatic in achieving the needs of the plot. Less room is given for characters to simply emote or quip. This isn’t to say that there is no characterization being done through monologue & dialogue, but modern people reading through a translation are less equipped to pick up on it, because it can often come through the subtleties of diction and syntax.
That being said, you don’t have to be an expert in Biblical Hebrew to be able to detect characterization in monologues or dialogues. There certainly are patterns that you can pick up on, you just need to be looking closely. Examples of questions you can ask include:
Does the character’s speech more abrupt or long-winded than others?
Does the character’s speech suggest awareness/clarity or foolishness/confusion?
Are there any non-sequiturs? If so, do these appear to be intentional or not?
Can you depict wordplays in the character’s speech? (often observed in footnotes)
Are there subtle differences between what the character says/is commanded and what the character actually does? (unlike English, biblical storytelling expects repetition and consequently variation functions as a red flag)
Is the character’s speech oriented around self, God, or something else?
Does a character’s speech echo the language or manner of speech of another character or situation?
There’s a popular misconception about biblical stories, namely, that characters fall into two sides: the good guys (God’s people) & the bad guys (everybody else), and the differences between these two sides are simplistic and straightforward.
Son of a…
The Bible also utilizes a variety of other details that tend to not play a significant role in modern characterization. Be on the look out for stuff like:
Who are the character’s parents? (to see either an echo or a pun in the naming)
What tribe is the character part of? (to see if they are like/unlike it)
What locations is the character tied to? (these may have connotations associated with them)
The weapons/armor that a character uses (relying too heavily on weapons may reflect poorly on their faith)
What physical features of the character are highlighted? (usually the description is laconic and may be symbolic or emblematic of who the character is)
Clothing (special clothing often suggests that a character is an heir)
Déjà vu (the character may not be learning from his mistakes)
What happens to the character’s body after he/she dies?
Picture Book Samson
There’s a popular misconception about biblical stories, namely, that characters fall into two sides: the good guys (God’s people) & the bad guys (everybody else), and the differences between these two sides are simplistic and straightforward. Perhaps the popularity of this conception is due to how few people actually engage the Bible directly; rather, their primary exposure comes through Children’s Bibles, which tend to simplify in this fashion. Now, I actually don’t blame Children’s Bible for simplifying their characters – it’s okay for Bible Art to be shaped by the capacities of its audience. This just means creators of adult Bible Art need to realize that their audience will come with expectations shaped by these previous experiences, which means they will need to work harder to resist and subvert the tendency to polarize good and bad characters.
With that goal in mind, those who read biblical stories with an intent to create Bible Art should have an eye out for the ways in which the characters resist a simple dichotomy of good/bad. Some things to keep in mind:
God tolerating or even legislating around behavior (e.g. polygamy, divorce, or slavery) doesn’t mean he approves of it
Though God may use a character to deliver Israel, that doesn’t mean that the character carries God’s personal approval (e.g. the Judges, Saul)
An action may deliver God’s people and yet still be morally questionable (e.g. Samson’s suicidal destruction of the Philistine temple)
Early successes/faith is often followed by later failures/faithlessness
Biblical stories rarely offer an explicit evaluation of a character’s morality. More often, they expect us to pick up on allusions or analogies to earlier laws or design patterns & through these connections to come to our own judgment
There are other signs that narrators expect us to pick up on in order to see that a supposed hero is on a bad trajectory: gratuitous oath-making, intermarrying, animal-like behavior, imperfect compliance with God’s commands, over-reliance on weapons or military alliances (particularly with Egypt), or a craving for God to prove himself through signs
Many biblical stories end on an ambiguous note or leave certain characters’ motivations unclear. This puts readers in a place of uncertainty and prevents them from making a definite judgment about the characters or decisions involved
Narratives may also bring us into contact with a variety of perspectives on a character, forcing us to sift through the relative accuracy of each perspective. Although minority perspectives on a character may not be totally vindicated, this doesn’t mean they should be totally ignored either
The Bible goes to great lengths to paint non-Israelite allies as pro-Yahweh, even though its unlikely that these figures ever became pure monotheists
Although the leader of an oppressive empire is often painted in starkly negative terms, his advisors often undergo more development and as a result display more moral gradation
The evaluation of a character in later stories may graciously focus more on his positive qualities in order to inspire imitation. Conversely, if the character’s final trajectory is negative, later stories may mask his more positive qualities in favor of condemning his worst decisions
God's Eye View
Another important aspect of characterization that’s important to keep in mind is how a character changes over the course of a story (or many stories). In order to help facilitate awareness of character development, I adapted a helpful tool: the 9 Panel Window.
The 9 Panel Window has two axes. The horizontal axis proceeds chronologically (beginning-middle-end or before/during/after). The vertical axis can represent levels of specificity (people group-individual-body part/object). Visualizing how the character develops chronologically, as well as how his people group develops and how the character’s possessions or body parts change, one can discover interesting patterns and analogies that may give insight or help show the context for the ways in which a character changes. It’s a bit easier to show than to explain, so take a look at a quick example of how I did this with David’s character.
*Note that instead of having the vertical axis represent levels of specificity, it could also display layers of a character’s health (e.g. outward state-emotional state-spiritual state).
Do you have any other suggestions for what aspects of characterization to focus on when reading with the intent to adapt or create Bible Art? Let me know on Twitter @TheBibleArtist, #ReadLikeAnArtist.