Read Like an Artist: Identification & Points of Contact

Updated: Jul 13, 2019


In modern adult storytelling, we value having emotional points of contact: characters that we can identify with and imaginatively inhabit. Even our villains need complex and realistic motivations that we can sympathize with or at least understand. This hasn’t always been a primary value in storytelling, however. Heroes and villains in the stories told by other times and cultures are often intentionally un-relatable; we aren’t meant to be able to put ourselves in their shoes. They can be ancient, mysterious, unapproachable, larger-than-life, even divine, and that is precisely what makes them useful for telling certain types of stories – the types of stories that have fallen out of fashion in most quarters of modern storytelling except for some strains of science-fiction, fantasy, and comics.

This poses a unique challenge for Bible Artists seeking to adapt the stories of the Old and New Testament into Bible Art that reflects modern forms of storytelling. Although characterization is indeed an important aspect of biblical storytelling (see my previous post), not all characters are deemed worthy of a complex, realistic portrait (e.g. most wicked rulers). Moreover, even when characters receive more in-depth characterization, that characterization can at times end up making them hard to identify with (e.g. Solomon, and his depiction as simultaneously the most wise and foolish of kings). If the Bible Artist wants to hold onto the narrative core of the original story, while at the same time appealing to modern sensibilities, they need to get creative about how they turn characters into emotional points of contact.

The Dilemma

When trying to adapt characters whose biblical portrayal is difficult to identify with, the Bible Artist can take one of two approaches:

The Aragorn/Faramir-Effect


Photo from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167260/mediaviewer/rm2359853056

If you’ve ever read The Lord of the Rings and then watched Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, you’re immediately struck by all kinds of differences between the two. Of all of these changes made by Peter Jackson, however, the change that has been most obvious to (and criticized by) Tolkien fans is the transformation of the characters of Aragorn and Faramir. The Aragorn we see in the films is a man tormented by self-doubt so strong that it has led him to reject his love for Arwen and his vocation as king; it takes a demanding situation and a last minute pep talk by Elrond to help him overcome his low self-esteem and take hold of his destiny. Faramir, on the other hand, is a man weighed down so deeply by his daddy-issues that he very nearly succumbs to the power of the Ring in the same way as his brother Boromir. By contrast, the books depict Aragorn as having absolute, almost unearthly confidence in his destined role as the restorer of Gondor, and they ascribe to Faramir such indomitably noble virtue that he cannot entertain the idea of claiming the Ring.

Lowering or diminishing larger-than-life characters allows them to undergo more “realistic” and "relatable" internal conflicts like doubt or temptation - the kinds of struggles that most of us view as "human."

Those devoted to the books object to how the changes in Aragorn and Faramir diminish who they are as characters and change what kind of story The Lord of the Rings is telling. In the book, the larger-than-life depiction of Aragorn and Faramir is precisely the point. The Lord of the Rings is a modern story and it does have an emotional point of contact, but it’s not the humans; it’s the Hobbits. We aren’t supposed to identify with Aragorn and what it would be like to become King of Gondor; we’re supposed to put ourselves in the shoes furry feet of the Hobbits who are watching this legendary event unfold before their very eyes. Even so, to the average modern moviegoer, the changes made in Aragorn and Faramir make perfect sense. The Aragorn and Faramir of the books feel too remote and lofty to identify with, and so the changes in their characterization create even more emotional points of contact for us as viewers.

The gospels rarely encourage us to identify with Jesus’ internal struggles. We don’t root for Jesus because he’s just like us; we root for him because he isn’t.

All of this serves as a model of one approach that Bible Artists can take when adapting characters that aren’t the most relatable. In this approach the Bible Artist creates an emotional point of contact for the audience by changing the core qualities and motivations of the characters being adapted. Lowering or diminishing larger-than-life characters allows them to undergo more “realistic” and "relatable" internal conflicts like doubt or temptation - the kinds of struggles that most of us view as "human." Audiences can more easily identify with characters who share in such struggles and we sympathize with and root for them much more readily.

Effective as this approach may be, however, Bible Artists who are genuinely devoted to the original biblical stories should recognize that following this path requires sacrifices. Changes like this are not merely cosmetic; they fundamentally alter what kind of story is being told. How we relate to the protagonists (or antagonists) affects how we view the events that unfold and their significance. In Bible Art that stretches to make Jesus more “human” – biblical adaptations like The Last Days in the Desert or Jesus Christ Superstar – the most significant change isn’t to the details of the plot but rather to how the audience is prompted to relate to Jesus. The gospels rarely encourage us to identify with Jesus’ internal struggles. We don’t root for Jesus because he’s just like us; we root for him because he isn’t. Yes, we know theologically that Jesus was tempted like us in every way, yet without sin, but the gospels usually don’t try to give us a window into what that felt like for Jesus; they just show us the result.

Now, none of this is to say that such an approach is inappropriate. In some cases, Bible Artist can make characters easier to identify with without changing the nature of the biblical story in a fundamental way. In other cases, the Bible itself proffers suggestive details about the motives of a character without taking the time to delve deeply into the internal conflict that such motives would likely create. As readers, Bible Artists can find opportunities to transform characters into emotional points of contact by asking questions like:

  • What inconsistencies or contradictions are there in the way that the biblical character acts, speaks, thinks, or feels?

  • Are there competing motives or internal struggles that might explain these inconsistencies?

  • Does the narrative ever directly suggest to us that the character is struggling internally or that the character has conflicting motives?

  • Are there events in the story that might shape the way that the character’s internal struggles might unfold or develop?

  • Do these potential internal struggles have an analogy in modern life? What contemporary struggles will the audience connect with them?

Create Your Own Merry & Pippin

The Lord of the Rings books are themselves a helpful model for alternative approach that Bible Artists can take in order to create emotional points of contact without completely changing the characters in their Bible Art and adaptations. As a modern storyteller, Tolkien was quite aware of how audiences need a protagonist to identify with – a protagonist of their own stature. As I noted above, The Lord of the Rings already has characters that serve this role – not the human warriors like Aragorn and Faramir but rather their Hobbit companions. This allows The Lord of the Rings to evoke awe and wonder through larger-than-life protagonists doing deeds that none of us ever could, while at the same time exploring what kinds of internal struggles an onlooker would experience in the face of such events. The epic characters can remain epic as long as they have a point-of-view companion who we can sympathize with and understand.

Instead of needing to lower Jesus to our level, The Chosen takes characters that we already relate to and invites us to imagine the internal struggles that they face when encountering the God-man.


Many biblical stories have these lower-to-the-ground companions already at hand, ripe for use as a point-of-view character in an adaptation or Bible Art. So far, that’s been the main method used by The Chosen, VidAngel’s recent adaptation of the gospels into a Netflix-esque, binge-watchable multi-season series. The show mines the gospel accounts for characters who we can identify with – Mary Magdalene, Matthew the Tax Collector, Simon Peter, Nicodemus, children – and it then puts us in the shoes of these characters as they encounter Jesus. Jesus in The Chosen is human, but he isn’t like most of us humans – we can tell that he’s different. Instead of needing to lower Jesus to our level, The Chosen takes characters that we already relate to and invites us to imagine the internal struggles that they face when encountering the God-man. Bible Artists should read biblical stories with a keen eye for the minor characters who may not serve a significant role in moving along the events of the plot but who could function quite well as a point-of-view companion to the more primary protagonists or antagonists.


Mary Magdalene in The Chosen by VidAngel

Image from: https://www.press.thechosen.tv/

Of course, not all biblical stories have such a wide cast of minor characters to draw on for emotional points-of-contact. Biblical stories often give us a relatively small set of named character, relegating the supporting action to “the people” or “some men” – red shirts, essentially. But red shirts are people too. The voice or actions attributed to an entire group can easily be consolidated into a representative individual with whom audiences can sympathize and connect. Although this requires the invention of a new character, the introduction of such a character may be much less intrusive than changing the qualities or motives of a character that already exists. It is merely a way of taking what is described more generally and making it more concrete, a move that most forms of modern storytelling do by necessity. Bible Artists shouldn’t just keep an eye out for named characters to serve as their potential emotional point-of-contact; they should also be aware of groups or unnamed characters that might be embodied into a specific individual with whom the audience can identify.

With all of this in mind, it helps to ask questions like:

  • Who are the minor characters in this story that don’t play a significant role in the action?

  • How do these characters view the more primary characters? What internal struggles (e.g. fear, doubt) might occur as a result of the actions of the primary characters?

  • In what parts of the story do groups of unnamed characters show up and play a role?

  • Are there patterns in how the group speaks/acts/thinks that could be embodied into the characterization of a single person?

  • If a single person is going to come to represent the group, what role would that new character play in the group? Is the character an everyman? A leader? Or would the existence of the broader group be eliminated, leaving only the new character?

  • How does the characterization of any of the above characters include or suggest potential weaknesses, competing motivations, or internal struggles?

  • Are there events in the story that might shape the way that these struggles unfold or develop?

  • Do these potential internal struggles have an analogy in modern life? What contemporary struggles will the audience connect with them?

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