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.
INTEGRITY QUESTIONS TO PONDER
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.