Whether or not characters in fictional stories live up to their belief systems tells readers a lot about what kind of people they are.
Consider fictional character Alvin Pastorini, a beloved preacher in Mapleton, a beautiful fictional Midwestern town.
Preacher Pastorini has a lovely, kind sixteen-year-old daughter who has become pregnant.
As a respected Christian pastor it would seem this man's reaction to his child's situation would be one of compassion.
Readers would expect this beloved and respected man to stand by his daughter and help her find Christian solutions to her challenges. Some of her options would include raising the child on her own, marrying the father and raising the child with him or placing the child for adoption.
What if, however, Reverend Pastorini secretly forces his daughter to have an abortion because he doesn't want his congregation to learn his daughter behaved immorally?
What if his daughter is so emotionally scarred by being forced into the abortion she turns to drugs and the preacher hides her away in a clinic and pays for her treatment with church funds?
Every character in every story has a belief system. As writers we can more thoroughly flesh out our characters as "real" people by showing how they live up to their belief systems.
While it may be adequate for a writer to simply tell a reader, "Reverend Pastorini was a hypocritical, cold-hearted, thieving SOB" the reader gets a much clearer picture of who Pastor Alvin Pastorini is when she sees first hand how the reverend does or doesn't live up to his belief system during challenging times.
Accountant Annie who considers herself an honest person but frequently takes home office supplies can't hide her true nature from the observing eyes of readers. The "Thou shalt not steal" sign on her desk fails to keep her on track with her belief system.
Second string Steve who secretly works after hours with first string Frank night after night to help him become the best quarterback in the conference is a shining, heroic star in the shadows of the readers' minds. Steve obviously lives by the simple motto written on a piece of notebook paper and taped to the inside of his locker door "Team work."
Showing whether or not characters live up to their belief systems is an excellent way of illustrating characters in fictional pieces.
(For more on character development, see previous posts on use of comparisons, actions and illustrations in fleshing out fictional characters.)
Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author