Hello and happy Wednesday!
The topic I’m covering today is one that tends to be pretty controversial, but I think it’s important to discuss – Christian fiction. I’ve found that, for most people, the words ‘Christian fiction’ spark an instant impression. One that’s not often favorable.
When talking about ‘Christian’ movies, I’ve found that most people think of low-budget, attempted feel-good films that can be somewhat enjoyable, but are also often full of cringe-worthy acting, shallow plots, and unrelatable characters.
General impressions of Christian novels tend to be the same, though far more people also think of stories featuring Amish (which I have always disliked, not because of the Amish aspect, but because of the usual errors, stereotypes, and inaccuracies in the portrayals that are then believed to be true).
It’s horribly sad to be a Christian author watching the disappointed expressions when others hear that I write ‘Christian fiction’. I greatly dislike Christian fiction being synonymous with cheap stories, cheesy characters, and low quality in most people’s minds.
What’s even worse is that I often think the same thing. Though there are plenty of amazing Christian stories, sadly I’ve seen far too many lackluster or even bad ones not to be jaded now. And that’s just not right.
While the reasons behind so many cringe-worthy Christian fiction stories could be – and have been – debated for a long time, the biggest reason I’ve found is simply that most Christian fiction is too safe. Too clean-cut. Too predictable and fake.
But that’s not how life is. In real life, not everyone converts to Christianity, and if they do, their lives are not suddenly sunshine and rainbows. In real life, Christians aren’t perfect and lovable people that always do what’s right, and non-Christians aren’t terrible and brainless puppy-kickers with tragic backstories. In real life, not everything ties up neatly.
Personally, I feel that, while issues with a lot of Christian fiction can be broken up into many categories, it mostly comes down to not taking risks. For one reason or another, many Christian authors shy away from showing realistic struggles and difficult consequences. Whether it’s simply writing what we wish life was like, or because we want to ‘keep it clean’, a lot of stories that are meant to be inspiring end up being flat and uninteresting.
How compelling is watching a character that never struggles with sin enter into a tempting situation? Not at all, because we know the author isn’t going to let the character give into temptation. How inspiring is watching a character forgive someone who hurt them when we know nothing of their inner turmoil? Again, not at all, because when all we see is a character’s apparent perfection, of course they’re going to do the right thing.
But I think that, deep down, most of us want to see the struggles. We want to see the turmoil and pain and temptation, and we want to see characters deal with the same issues we do. We want to watch them face the same challenges as we do, see the choices they make, and then observe the outcomes afterward.
We want to read stories where everything is thrown at a character, where everything bad that could happen to them does, where they have every reason to give up on life – but they don’t. We don’t want to be told why life is worth living, why love is so important, or why a particular choice is good or bad. We want to be shown. We want to watch as the character learns, and make our own judgement from the journey we’ve witnessed them take.
The age-old writing proverb, ‘Show don’t tell’, is especially crucial when it comes to writing Christian fiction. It’s wonderful to have themes and messages in our writing, but if your intent is to tell someone why to follow God, why they need to forgive and love, and why sin is bad, then a novel is not the right medium for you. Try writing an essay, an article, a non-fiction book, or a sermon (very valid pieces to write!).
Fiction is not intended to be a way to tell someone why they should or shouldn’t do something. It’s a way of showing why you believe something is true, through a captivating story that presents all sides fairly, and then letting the reader draw their own conclusion from what they witness.
The author can’t be pulling strings to force characters into making certain decisions, or to cause story events to happen just to further their message. The message must come naturally through the story – and the author must be invisible. Characters must make decisions that are consistent with their personality, story events must progress naturally from the previous ones, and messages must be tested.
Personally, I think this is where a lot of Christian fiction – but not just Christian fiction – falls short. Often authors give their characters positive ideals and strong morals but then never test them. And how is that inspiring or encouraging to readers? As humans we know life is hard. We know people don’t always do the right thing, that they struggle with what they believe, and that life doesn’t always go the right way. Anything less than that in fiction will feel manufactured.
If you want to communicate that courage is important, show the main character struggling with fear. Show them letting people down because they’re too petrified to do the right thing. Continually assault them with opportunities to be afraid – but also give them a reason to be brave. Let the character learn and change and grow. Let them make mistakes and then have victories as their story progresses and they take lessons to heart.
If you want to share the truth of God’s unending love, show the ‘unlovable’ in your story. Show why they are considered unworthy of love, both by their own standards and/or by the world’s. Maybe they know the choices they’re making aren’t good ones, but feel too trapped to ever change. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they believe their choices are just as acceptable as the next person’s. No matter the case, introduce them to someone who loves them anyway, and show how those interactions impact them. Show their struggles and turmoil as they wrestle with how to handle the new situations arising; as they fight to discover what’s truly right and wrong.
No matter what message you’re passionate about, the most important thing is that you let that message stand on its own two feet. If it’s truly worth believing, you don’t have to help it. In fact, it will be far more impactful if you don’t. Let it speak for itself, through the story; through the characters and plot.
Readers are smart. Think about it – you’re a reader too, aren’t you? You can recognize when authors are pushing their own agenda, and not presenting matters fairly. You can tell when characters make decisions that aren’t consistent with what they’ve done before. You can tell when authors aren’t allowing truly bad things to happen in a story, as if they’re afraid to show what might happen to a character’s morals when they’re under pressure.
But that’s exactly what we need to show. We need to take risks in our fiction, and allow our characters to be tested and stretched and put through trials. We need to give an accurate representation of what it’s like to live while upholding values and also show why it’s worth it, no matter what difficulty arises as a result.
When we’re willing to take risks with our stories, and not allow ourselves to ‘play nice’ with our characters, it shows. People notice. Those are the stories that continue to circulate over the years, touching hearts and influencing lives. And that’s what we all want our stories to do.
We want our stories to be more than a way to pass the time. We want them to be remembered and cherished and reread. I believe the best way to craft stories that do that is to be intentional about writing real, raw, and risky fiction.
Not horribly grim, depressing, and dark, but not painting the world to be candy corn and butterflies either. Light won’t show if there isn’t any darkness to contrast with.
Though I’m still new to this journey, I’m striving to take risks in my fiction. and to trust that God will use my stories to touch hearts. Will you join me?
Well, there’s so much more that could be said about writing Christian fiction, but those are some of my thoughts. Though I know everyone has varying opinions about it, I hope mine made sense to you. I’m no expert, but I’m learning – and enjoying the process of discovering what truly makes a life-changing story.
What are YOUR thoughts on Christian fiction? Is there anything you’d like to see a lot more – or less – of within those stories? I’d love to find out what you think, so let me know in the comments!