Psychological Writing Series: Integrity

My absolute favorite quote comes from William Backus.  In TELLING EACH OTHER THE TRUTH, he writes:

“The concept behind personal integrity is wholeness. When a person is the same without as within, when what others know about him is the same truth he knows about himself, he has integrity.”
I love the poetry of these words and the very clear message they send.  Personal integrity is acting out what you believe and believing what you do.  It is honesty at its finest.
As a child, I distinctly remember The Summer.  The one where I got caught snarking behind someone’s back.  My sister and I were visiting rellies.  Our aunt and uncle took us to visit extended family on the other side of the relations. 
We’d done it before and I loved the experience.  Okay, I loved the bologna sandwiches my uncle’s dad made.  He put lettuce in them and it rocked my socks off.  What I didn’t love was my uncle’s little sister.  For the life of me, I can’t remember why.  Likely it was me being a booger and not through any fault of her own. 
Yet, this didn’t stop me from complaining about her to my sister–in private.  I guess I didn’t realize that hiding behind a camper in the dark wasn’t private, because my aunt over-heard and I got my rear end chewed.
I learned a valuable lesson that day.  If you don’t have the guts to say something to the person’s face, you have no business saying it at all.  Apparently I hadn’t taken Thumper’s mom seriously and needed to learn this through my own embarrassment and humiliation.
Integrity.  Who am I and does the inside match the outside?
Lack of integrity is probably the easiest conflict we can give our characters.  Learning it through the events of a story can help our characters change and grow.  Losing it can create more conflict than we have imaginations to capture on paper.
  • Can a person have integrity and still be villainous, or does integrity always mean being good?
  • Do you agree with Mr. Backus and his definition of integrity?  If not, how would you change it?
  • Can you compromise your integrity and still have it?
  • What if you are better on the inside than you show the world?  If these two don’t match, can you still be considered as having integrity?  What if the opposite is true?
  • And does it really matter if you truly have integrity or just fake it?

I like the idea of wholeness in the characters I write.  It gives me boundaries to work with so I know how they will react much of the time.  For example: my current chapter book MC only believes in the facts.  Whimsy has no place in her life.  Therefore, when she’s asked a question, her answer is always the unadulterated truth.   Makes it easy for me as a writer…not so easy for her to live with the consequences.

In my young adult novel, my MC had ideals about who she was.  They didn’t match with what she showed the real world.  Striving to reach this place in her life drove her to seek painful answers.  Her desire for integrity (and self-preservation) motivated her. 

Likewise, the antagonist in my YA exuded a smooth exterior, yet was hideous on the inside.  To make his nasty deeds ring true, I had to show small fissures in his exterior all the way through.  The hints were subtle, but there.  In this way, readers are more willing to accept the outcome.

Good, bad or indifferent, writers must maintain consistency in their characters’ behavior.  By keeping in mind the wholeness that comes along with integrity, we can create strong characters with depth.  Also, when we challenge their personal integrity, we can ramp up the conflict within our stories on an internal level that rivals any external difficulties our characters may face.

How do you use integrity to create physical conflict for your characters?  How do you challenge your character’s inner sense of integrity?  What literary examples do you have of characters with strong integrity? 

Lastly, can a good character lack integrity?

Curious minds want to know.

6 responses to “Psychological Writing Series: Integrity

  1. Great post, Cat! I’m loving this series.

    I think that a good character can “suspend integrity”, not necessarily lack it. In the defense of something greater then a sense of morality, such as protecting a child, spouse, lover or an aspect of themselves that they are struggling to accept. In those moments, even those with high integrity will suspend it or at least struggle with the choice.

  2. Well said, Gene. Thanks so much for your input on this. What I find fascinating about integrity–in particular as defined by Backus–is that even an antagonist can have integrity in that s/he acts truthfully within the confines of her/his ideals. It’s what can allow us to create multi-dimensional characters across the board.

    I think integrity is so difficult for people/characters to acheive because our values can shift based on the situation. I love your idea of suspension of integrity. But is suspension the same as compromising?

    Hmmm, great things to contemplate!

  3. Nice post, Cat. Integrity is a tricky beast. Two people can appear to have integrity by an unbiased third, yet not see integrity in each other due to some difference in ideals. I always looked at integrity as being more about holding to your ideals as much as possible. Flopping around is not integrity.Evil people can have integrity, albeit not a very good version of it. Keep the info coming.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Your insights are fabulous.

      Like you, I worry about a shifting integrity and wonder if it’s akin to a GPA. It’s pretty easy to change at the start, but once you really live with a value for a while, is it harder to alter without a serious shift within yourself?

      This idea is what makes it so important for us as writers to lay the groundwork for any growth or fall in our characters. We must see the potential in the character as well as have a firm sense of the ideal we are working with. If we simply flop around whenever it suits the situation, our readers will cry foul on us!

      Great food for thought.

  4. Don’t think about it much but now that I do, I see that some of my favorite dark characters don’t have much integrity. They’ll say and do anything to get what they want, and don’t really care who they hurt.
    What I’ve done with my MC is make her make too many promises to too many people (including people in her past) and sort of loses all her integrity with certain people. But this is something that kills her inside.
    The person she wants to be most faithful to is the one who she has to lie to the most.
    So is integrity something you have or some transitory state that only works when you don’t have to make hard choices?
    Then again, once she makes those hard choices, she regains her integrity…but is it too late?

  5. See, Andrew, this is the very question. I personally think intrity is almost like a code of ethics you live by. They may not be great, but it’s the set of rules that you hold yourself accountable to–and that you show the world.

    Yet it can be extremely difficult to maintain integrity when you have hard choices to make.

    So, does a breach of integrity make completely knock you off the ladder and you have to start over again or do you get a grace period because you had a tough choice to make?

    Oh, boy. I feel like I’m back in college…

    Sounds like you are very aware of your character’s flaws and motivators.

    Thanks for commenting. I’ve got lots more to think about now!

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