Ep.10 – Character Development and Believable Faith Journeys with Elizabeth Jacobson

by | Aug 4, 2022 | Ink and Impact Episodes

Ep.10 - Ink and Impact

Today I am excited to introduce another author to you. Elizabeth Jacobson is a middle school math teacher in sunny California, who loves the Bible, fantasy and science fiction. She got bit by the writing bug at age thirteen, and has been frantically putting words on pages ever since.

Her goal in writing is to share with the world the most important message anyone can express: the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ.

Not by Sight: A Novel of the Patriarchs is her first novel.

Welcome, Elizabeth. So glad to have you today!

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Hi, Dalene. It is so good to finally meet you in person. Thanks for having me.

 

Dalene Bickel 

I’m so glad to have you.

One thing that I always ask each guest at the top of the show is what is one book, in addition to the Bible, that really made an impact on you, whether it was during your childhood or in your adult years?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Yeah, so the book that gave me the writing bug is the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. My mom handed it to me at age thirteen, and told me that I had to read it under no uncertain circumstances. I didn’t want to at the time; it was the longest thing I’d ever attempted.

But I just remember being completely blown over by the fact that there was a world inside this book. I enjoyed reading growing up, but that was the first book where I felt like the author really made me see what he thought. And that really inspired me and it sort of dominoed from there.

 

Dalene Bickel 

That’s great. That’s definitely a popular book and go, mom for encouraging that

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Yeah, well, I’m making her read The Silmarillion now, so what goes around comes around.

 

Dalene Bickel 

So your debut novel, Not by Sight, a Novel of the Patriarchs, is a retelling of the Joseph story in Genesis. How did you select the story in particular?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

My favorite part of writing is exploring characters more than anything else. And so what initially drew me to the Joseph story was the extreme level of the character. I thought it would be just a super exciting exploration of people in desperate circumstances.

Character is what drew me to writing fantasy and science fiction. So I wasn’t necessarily looking to write a piece other than fantasy and science fiction. But when I looked at Joseph’s story, and when I looked at everything in there – all the chances there were to explore character – I couldn’t help deciding that I wanted to try a more historical piece.

As I was writing, it really became clear to me that if you’re going to spend time dissecting Joseph’s character, you’re going to spend a lot of time dissecting a faith journey, which didn’t necessarily occur to me at the beginning, I’m not sure why. But that’s sort of what led me down the rabbit hole. At first, I was just wanting to examine his character, which led me into examining what his faith might have been like.

 

Dalene Bickel 

Yes. And it is a really popular story that it is first told in the Bible. How did that affect … what challenges were there in maintaining that historical accuracy, while fictionalizing such a well-known character?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Historical accuracy was not something I’ve ever had to deal with before. It was really, really difficult. And I think partially because no matter where you place the Joseph story, there are some differences in opinion based on dates in the Bible, when it would have taken place.

I chose 1800 BCE, which is squarely in the Bronze Age. When we think about historical pieces, pre-Jesus, a lot of the time we’re thinking about ancient Rome or ancient Greece, Alexander the Great, etcetera, which are eras that we have a lot more data on.

The world was much smaller and boilerplate in the Bronze Age. The things I thought were the most natural things to put in a historical piece, I came to find out didn’t make sense in the Bronze Age. For instance, horses. We don’t have documentation of horses in ancient Egypt until 200 years after Not by Sight, which I thought was bizarre because horses have been domesticated for thousands and thousands of years.

But the world was a much smaller place, even if you lived in a place as cosmopolitan, relatively, as ancient Egypt. People had had horses for thousands of years, but not in Egypt. They hadn’t made it there yet.

So I did end up putting some horses in my book. First of all, there is a chariot mentioned in the Genesis story of Joseph. So I felt, if we’re going to take biblical accuracy over anything else, then okay, there needs to be a chariot. And second of all, a lot of the time we find with ancient Egypt – this is kind of the other problem – is that we have so many gaps in our knowledge. We’re constantly finding, “Oh, wait. Actually, look at this new thing that we didn’t know about,” or “Look at this thing that we didn’t understand was connected to this other thing.” So I stretched it a little bit. And I was like, yeah, there can be horses in ancient Egypt, if they’re only owned by the super-rich people who imported them.

 

Dalene Bickel 

That was a fact. I mean, horses were owned by the wealthy people back then, too.

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Yeah, there’s other things as well. Like I discovered in ancient Egypt, everything is so religious, you can’t just paint a color on the wall in ancient Egypt. You cannot because, for instance, if you wanted to paint your wall red, you’d better know what you’re doing because red symbolizes a lot of evil things. So, you can only use red as a good thing under very certain circumstances.

There were all sorts of things that I ran into where I realized, “Oh, we can’t have a wall painted red; don’t do that.” So it was just a very interesting experience for me, having not done a historical piece before.

 

Dalene Bickel 

How long did your research take?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

It was more like I researched on-and-off for a while before starting the book. And then as I was writing, I would come across something and be like, “Okay, can I do this? Can I not do this?” It was a process that happened. I do tend to be more of a pantser in a lot of ways.

 

Dalene Bickel 

I spent an inordinate amount of time researching for a book that I was writing. And because I just love history and I love research, I can follow those rabbit trails all day long. And then when I actually sat down and wrote the story – it was historical fiction – then I realized half of the research that I had done, didn’t really apply. I had to do more research to figure out how to fill in those holes, like you were saying.

The premise of your story is all about Joseph’s faith journey. How do you think that applies to your readers today?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

I think we have an issue in our Christian pop-culture understanding of Joseph because he is portrayed as a type of Christ. I think it’s filtered down, especially into Sunday school, and sometimes into big church as well, that Joseph is kind of this paragon figure. And it’s like, “Look at how great Joseph was.” There’s no description of the fact that okay, Joseph is a type of Christ; however, he’s also human.

 

If you are going to be a human on a faith journey, you are going to stumble and you are going to doubt and you are going to have flaws.

 

So I feel like what happens is that Joseph tends to become kind of a unrelatable figure. People enjoy the story – it’s been adapted so many times – but I tend to see that when it’s adapted, for instance, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, or even just Joseph: King of Dreams, the cartoon, which the people play it in Sunday school, they take faith out of it. I don’t know; maybe they think if you make him more relatable, you don’t have to discuss his faith. You don’t have to talk about okay, well, why is he type of Christ? And where’s the humanity even within being a type of Christ that kind of pull that out?

 

I think a lot of time we’re missing the point of the Joseph story, which is, I feel, a story of someone growing in faith in horrible circumstances, and how God can use horrible circumstances to make people more like His Son and be light to the world.

 

So I think Joe’s story is very relatable, but it’s easy to lose sight of that.

 

Dalene Bickel 

Those are great points. I know for me, personally, the story of Joseph … the focus has been on the redemption story, how he forgave his brothers, right? And so automatically, you’re just thinking, “Oh, he was just this perfect person all this time. Of course, he’s going to forgive them.”

So I love how you’re took that and challenged that and you fleshed it out into this wonderful story. I love the opening scene, especially, in the first chapter about the relationship with his younger brother Benjamin, and the relationship with his sister.

Let’s talk about that a little bit. Walk us through the process of how you wrote such a believable faith story. I have a feeling that a lot of it has to do with those character interactions.

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Yeah, I would start with character because that’s my favorite thing.

I sort of work backwards and say, “Okay, what makes a person act this way?” So looking at the Joseph story as narrated in Genesis, you have to say to yourself, “What made Joseph make this decision here? What made his brother make this decision here?” And et cetera, et cetera.

So the first thing you do is you definitely look at what is his home life like at the beginning? The first thing that I sort of decided upon was that I didn’t really see evidence that his father Jacob was doing a great job teaching his family how to follow God. You have Levi and Simeon going off and murdering everybody at Shechem. All the brothers, except I didn’t include Benjamin in my story, throwing Joseph down a dry well and that’s totally fine. But I don’t see evidence that Jacob is doing a great job leading his family.

So I tried to find those relationships in Joseph’s family that he would have had, despite it being just a disaster. And two of those were Dinah and Benjamin for sure. And also a close relationship with his father. And I tried to make it clear that he was questioning the merits of his father’s decision, but not necessarily really questioning his own belief or relationship with God because his father had never emphasized that.

It was only when I got him isolated in Egypt with nothing else to hold on to that I brought God to the forefront of his mind. Because yeah, nothing else was left – nothing else left of his family, nothing else left that he knew. And that in itself, going forward, was a very interesting sort of character journey. Because how do you get or grow your faith in God without any instruction in your present life? You can only think about, you know, the things that you had heard in the past and only through, I don’t want to call it trial and error, but if you are honest with God, and you’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna follow you,” then God is going to lead you slowly and show you your mistakes. And I tried to show that with Joseph, because that was the only way he was going to grow if I chose to make him not have a strong relationship with God at the beginning.

 So it was almost like a thought experiment of how someone would step through the very, I call it unusual, way of coming to faith in God. I wanted to show it as being very human, that he would make mistakes, and that he would get angry with God. And he would say to God, “What is happening? I put my faith in you, and over and over, I ended up getting pushed back down again. I don’t believe that you don’t exist. But what in the world is happening?”

It’s that kind of dark-night-of-the-soul moments.

 

Dalene Bickel 

Yeah, and that, I believe, is very relatable to readers today. So many people … all of us have had those moments of once we accept Christ, we were looking forward to good things happening. And then inevitably, we make mistakes, bad things happen, all kinds of things happen. And that’s when the true test of faith comes in.

I liked how at the beginning of the book and in one of the earlier chapters, you make it clear that Joseph doesn’t have that personal relationship yet because you mentioned about “the God of my father Jacob,” right? He’s remembering all these things he’s heard told about God. And obviously, they’re following the laws, or attempting to follow the laws. But there isn’t that relationship yet.

I think you’ve done such a fabulous job showing his growth and maturity because he started out as a teenager. But also the faith journey as well.

So I was curious: I know that we’re talking about historical fiction. But do you think that the faith journey and the character development and all that would apply equally to nonfiction work such as memoirs or autobiographies?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

I really strongly do because it’s the same mechanism that makes us paint Joseph as a paragon in church. If you’re wanting to write an accurate memoir, autobiography, or biography, the person you are talking about is not going to be a paragon because they are human

It’s tempting to portray them as such, for whatever reason, but you lose the relatability and you lose the instruct-ability of being able to learn from this person’s sin, growth, and mistake.

 

Our flaws and how God worked through them are what makes our stories relatable, and are what inspires us. It’s not the people’s perfection, which doesn’t exist, that inspires us. It’s people overcoming through God’s strength that is inspiring and uplifting.

 

So I think it’s very important to look for the humanity and the flaws in everyone’s story. Especially when it comes to faith, because it’s very easy, I think, to point to someone slipping in their faith and being like, “Oh, I would never do that” and “What are you doing? What are you thinking?” When really, we all do that in our own ways.

 

Dalene Bickel 

Yes. It might not be the exact same issue, but we’re doing something and we can we can learn from that and grow in our faith journey, for sure.

We’d corresponded before we started recording this episode. And in one of your emails, there was a quote that stood out to me. You said, “I don’t claim to speak for Joseph. But I know the love of our God.”

I thought that was a beautiful sentence and I was wondering if you could expound on that a little bit.

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Yeah, just really briefly, one of my pastors always says that the way God dealt with people then is the way God deals with people now. So even though I don’t claim to speak for Joseph, Joseph’s God is my God.

And for my own story, I was recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I dealt with it for many years beforehand without realizing what I was dealing with. And then 2020 hit and it was super bad.

I think that it’s just amazing how God comes alongside us in our darkest time and shows us that He is there, and He is working to show us His love and make us more like His bride and be lights for the world.

And that doesn’t mean that everything’s gonna turn out perfect for everybody. That’s not how it works. But our life is in God’s hands. And He is using us for His amazing purpose. He is the one who will fulfill us. So I don’t claim any sort of kinship with Joseph, but that part of Joseph’s story, I relate to that.

 

Dalene Bickel 

That’s beautiful; I love that. Thank you for sharing.

So we’ve talked about Joseph’s faith story. And I was curious how you may have seen God at work in your writing journey.

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

That’s such an interesting question. I feel like not always. But a lot of the time as Christians, if we have a passion, it probably means that it’s something that God wants us to use for Him in our life. Not always … probably worth exploring.

I try to remember to pray before I write; that’s something I started doing. Because I’ve spent so much time just looking back, working on little things just for my own satisfaction. Like, “Let’s do this 100-word character piece” and just really dig in and do this. But I get that sort of nudge in the back of my head, “God wants you to work on the Joseph story.” That sort of thing.

I’m not claiming to say that every time you get a nudge that that’s God. Like the Bible says, make sure that things are aligned with God’s word.

But also, I’ve had the absolute honor, which maybe I dreamed of but did not expect, of a couple of people who have reached out to me and said that Not by Sight really spoke to them during a hard time in their life. So that was really, like I said, a huge honor. And I’m just flabbergasted that someone would take the time to say that.

 

Dalene Bickel 

Yes. So I’m curious, how did you land on the title for your book, Not by Sight?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

It comes from the verse, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” And I really felt that those two … that sort of dichotomy exemplified how I was going to segment the Joseph story. The first part of the book is called “sight” and the second part is called “faith.”

In the first part, he is, in all honesty … it’s not as if he’s purposefully doing anything wrong, but he is young on his faith journey and he doesn’t understand how God works. He doesn’t understand that, like I was saying earlier, it doesn’t mean that because you are following God, everything is always going to work out perfectly. We can’t see what God is doing in the big picture. And when I say perfectly, I mean what we would want.

So, the second half, “faith,” shows him coming to sort of a deeper understanding that of God’s providence and work in his life. By the end, he is walking by faith, not by sight. So that’s kind of where that came from.

 

Dalene Bickel 

I know that you mentioned at the beginning that you are traditionally a speculative fiction author and your current work in progress is a fantasy series with Christian themes. We touched on it just a little bit, but if you’re writing speculative fiction, had you been reading in the Bible about Joseph? What led you back to that story? What led you to historical fiction?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

I always loved the Joseph story; it really spoke to me. I felt like it was an important story. I felt led to write it, I think would be the best way to put it. The drama was all there and laid out. And like I said, I love character most.

In a sense, for my first novel, it almost seemed too good to be true that there was a story already laid out. The major touchstones of the plot were there.

That sounds like a cop out. But I don’t know what else to say.

 

Dalene Bickel 

It’s not a cop out. That’s wonderful. And in fact, I would think it would be harder to do that than come up with something totally on your own. Because there’s so much history around it. So I love that you took that challenge that you followed that gentle nudge to write it.

And so now that you’re back to speculative fiction, I’m assuming, has this process helped you in that kind of writing?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

I think so. I think there’s a lot of overlap in what speculative fiction writers call their form of world building, which is different from world building in a historical fiction novel. When you’re world building a historical fiction novel, you are researching a preset of rules, basically, for your world. It already exists and you have to figure out what the rules of your world are, within what has already existed.

In speculative fiction, you still have to come up with rules, but you have to come up with them on your own. You can research thirty laws of gravity or how languages diverge over time, or whatever you need to, but in the end, you have to make the decisions on your own.

So I think, in a sense, it kind of helps me be able to take a leap forward with my speculative fiction writing, because I’ve already experienced the sort of things that you need to know to create a functional, believable world.

In historical fiction, you need to recreate that and in speculative fiction, it’s just, I would say, a little more difficult, in one sense, because it’s all up to you.

 

Dalene Bickel 

I think it’s so fascinating how God has called each of us authors into different genres, and sometimes allows us to cross over those genres. That’s why I love having guests on, because I learn so much from each guest that shares their story. So thank you.

I know you’ve shared so much with us already – you’ve shared so many insights. But I was wondering if there’s one final writing tip that you might be thinking of right now that you could share with our listeners?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Yeah, everyone might be able to guess what I’m gonna say, and that’s character trumps over everything.

My thought has always been your plot – your physical plot, not your character’s internal plot – does not have to be the strongest. Your world building can have some questions here and there. Your dialogue can be not the best. But if your characters are compelling, you will still win over the audience.

That doesn’t mean that your character has to have any kind of relationship with another character; you can do a compelling piece to, you know, man versus self.

 

But if you are going to be able to grab people and make characters relatable, they need to have flaws.

 

I know that people always say, “Well, what’s a flaw mean? That they’re clumsy?” Okay, maybe that’s a start, but they need to have doubts. They need to have dreams, they need to have something that they need to overcome. And you don’t usually overcome clumsiness. I mean, you can add it on, but it’s something that they need to grow beyond.

If you have that, like I said, you can interest people and you can grab people and I feel like that’s more important than anything else. I know people will disagree with me, but that’s always been my feeling.

 

Dalene Bickel 

And I would add to that, that one of those character flaws is fear. Because even if we look at superheroes, they might look like they have it all together, that nothing bothers them. But there’s always one fear. Like with Superman, it’s kryptonite. There’s always something; everyone fears something.

And that’s what leads me – and I think most Christian authors want to talk about – to introduce Jesus to them to give hope. So even though you have fear, there’s God who’s going to be fighting for you. Even whenever you feel frail. Whenever you feel weak, whenever you feel you can’t go on, there’s that hope through Jesus Christ.

Well, I want to make sure that everyone knows how they can find your book and learn more about you. So would you please share about your website and where you’re at on social?

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Yeah, all my social media handles are @headdeskliz. And if you are a writer, you know the feeling of pounding your head on the desk, maybe not physically but internally. So my website is headdeskliz.com. And you can also find me at that handle on Instagram and Facebook. I’m a lot more active on Instagram at present, but if you reach out to me on Facebook, I will totally see you. And Not by Sight, the hardback, is currently on sale on Amazon for eleven bucks, which I think is a bit of a steal.

 

Dalene Bickel 

It is a deal.

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

It’s also available on Barnes and Noble, Target, all the other online booksellers as well. And I’d love to hear from you listeners, if you want to reach out.

 

Dalene Bickel 

Fabulous. Yes, listeners, please reach out to her take a look at the book. It is a fabulous read. I got an advance copy and it was really, really good. You will not regret getting it. And I’ll be sure to include links in the show notes to everything we referenced today for easy access for you.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for joining us. I enjoyed it immensely.

 

Elizabeth Jacobson 

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been so much fun.

 

 

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