Category Archives: teleology

The Teleology of Characters Part II

One of my blog readers accused me of being purposely vague regarding the subject of teleology. This reader, who will remain anonymous, was correct. Yes, I was being purposely vague. But my reason for ambiguity may surprise him a little. He claimed the idea of using teleology for characters in books is fascinating and suspected I was keeping trade secrets–as if I have any!

Here’s the sad truth: I’ve been dwelling on personality types for weeks now. My mind is consumed with characterization and, therefore, I have little else to talk about on this blog at the moment. At the same time, I don’t feel confident in my understanding of this subject to write more than an overview. So you can see I’ve created a conundrum for myself–lost in my thoughts, but not having the expertise to reveal them fully. This is how I respond to the world all the time. In any given situation, my natural reaction is to give vague, mysterious, or inexplicable answers if my knowledge hasn’t prepared me to respond with definitive answers. Now you see where I’m going with this, I hope. My own natural responses play into the idea of teleology.

The word teleology is of Greek origin and can be broken down into two parts, telos meaning end; logos meaning science. Teleology is the science of final causes. When adapted to characters, this doesn’t mean writers should look to the end of the novel and work backwards in order to understand their characters’ motivations. Instead, this philosophy suggests that the universe was created with design, and that its multitude of parts don’t act outside their natures. In a simplistic way, that is the reason the causes are final, because the nature of the universe has been fixed from the beginning. Furthermore–and this is very important when considering characters in Christian novels–God works from within the nature of the individual, rather than from the outside.

I suspect my utter disbelief in many Christian redemption scenes has to do with a lack of teleology. In other words, God is working from the outside, rather than within the nature of the individual, or (and this is perhaps more common) the individual suddenly acts outside his own nature when responding to God.

Working within the scope of a person’s nature/personality type may seem limiting, but it’s actually expansive, at least for me as the author. I’ve forced myself to look at how psychologically healthy my characters are, why they’re exhibiting signs of good or ill health, why they might be acting disingenuously and mimicking other personality types.

Next time, I’ll compare two historical characters of the same personality type, and give concrete examples of how and why they are so different from each other despite their similarities.

In the above image, you will find two familiar characters who play out their types rather well.


The Teleology of Character

Definition of Teleology (from the online Merriam Webster dictionary):

1.a : the study of evidences of design in nature
    b : a doctrine (as in vitalism) that ends are immanent in nature
    c : a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes

2 : the fact or character attributed to nature or natural processes of being directed toward an end or shaped by a purpose

3 : the use of design or purpose as an explanation of natural phenomena

Lent is over. Holy week is on us and, therefore, my children are on their spring break. I have time to think and breathe and move forward with the tasks at hand. I’ve completed my vow of forgoing writing for lent. I would jump right in again were it not for my brain which, unfortunately, spins in so many different directions on any given day that I have difficulty focusing. It’s only when asleep that my mind is still enough to focus.

Without dreams, I would probably not be a writer at all. It’s mainly in my dream world that my mind works out the plots for stories.The other night, I dreamed a beautiful story, as if in preparation for holy week when I could begin to write again. And then I suffered from three sleepless nights in a row. I’ve been thinking far too much about character, motivation, and personality types and, as my husband puts it, I haven’t given my mind the permission to sleep. I’ve given myself the permission to write, but not to sleep.

Well, how am I supposed to write w/o sleep? Instead, I continue pondering personalities and examining them in published works of fiction. Have you noticed that some characters don’t feel quite right? Their reactions or lack of them are helpful to the story or the message the author is forwarding, but they don’t ring true. I’ve been attempting to understand this phenomenon, this instinctive knowing that the characters whose eyes I’m seeing through are pure fiction, especially while also knowing that all fictional characters are unreal, even the ones who seem genuine. They are all fabricated, and some are false fabrications, while others are true.

Understanding personality types aids in understanding characters. It has its limits, however, because people are greater than their types. They have unique histories and genetics, individual ways of representing themselves to the world. Understanding their basic fears and desires in relation to their own environment is important. Understanding them in light of a larger inner working of mankind–what Jung calls the collective unconscious–is perhaps the most crucial element of all. How characters respond or conversely ignore teleology is fascinating to me, and may give reason for my gag response to far too many Christian salvation scenes.

And all of this is to express my frustration that characters are as elusive as the people they are supposed to represent–so much more complex than their eye color, which is complex enough, and whether they are spontaneous or organized, introverted versus extroverted.

p.s. And as for the image above, what exactly motivated the Baron to cut a lock of Belinda’s hair, anyway? Alexander Pope understood characters and people very well, I think (except himself, of course).