I’m so thrilled by the post I get to share with you today! Earlier this year, I was reading a blog post interview by K. M. Weiland (right here) about the production of her dramatized, full-cast audiobook, Wayfarer. In it, she interviewed the producer Kenny Sargent, who is also an author himself. I love audiobooks, fiction, and voice-acting, so the post was incredibly interesting to me.
Then, being the easily distracted person that I am, I explored the Sargent Family Productions site, signed up for their mailing list, and shortly afterward, was blessed to hear from Mr. Sargent, both to confirm my subscription… and to inquire about a guest post.
I’ve not been shy about sharing my thoughts on risky Christian fiction in the past, writing a blog post about it here, shortly after launching my website. I believe Christians have a unique responsibility with what they write, non-fiction and fiction. In our fiction stories, we need to find a careful, prayerful balance regarding how we portray reality.
One of the most common complaints about Christian fiction is that it’s too unrealistic. Unfortunately, there are many stories in the Christian fiction genre that either portray life for Christians as all sunshine and roses (not true, as Christians know well), or feature Christian characters as sinless, always-kind, essentially perfect people (also not the case).
This type of fiction is upsetting, whether the reader is Christian or not. Life doesn’t work that way. We all realize it. So to read a book that tries to share powerful truths and make an impact but goes about it by painting a portrait of life that no one can relate to or even believe is disappointing. The power of the Christian message, the Gospel, is lost unless it’s shown against the backdrop of the often difficult, confusing, and painful world we live in.
To write a genuinely realistic and powerful Christian book requires a lot of prayer, care, and seeking God’s help and guidance every step of the way.
That’s why when Kenny Sargent asked about writing a guest post on this topic for my blog, I was more than happy to take him up on it. Being the author of the novel Generations, he had several relevant stories that occurred during his writing process – ones that taught him a lesson very valuable for any writers seeking to glorify God with their work. I hope his message inspires you, like it does me!
You’re Chickening Out
Somewhere around May of 2017, I sat in a Colorado Starbucks with my computer open and an earpiece in my ear.
“You know you’re chickening out, don’t you?” came the voice of my editor from Kansas City.
It was one of those half-statement, half-questions that we, as authors, ignore at our own peril. Midway through the third draft of my debut novel, Generations, this was not what I wanted to hear.
And yet, it was.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“You’ve got a contract killer in your story,” she replied. “He’s not acting like one.”
Over the next few minutes, we discussed what she meant. The upshot is this: I was playing it too safe. Our conversation concluded with something like this:
“You have a river cabin scene… you need to take this all the way to the river.”
That exchange forced me to confront the following problem: How does a protagonist escape from a deadly hitman who doesn’t monologue and is good at his job? Needless to say, it took me a month to solve that conundrum. In the process, a new character was born, the story got much stronger, and the sequel was teed up in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time.
Why was I chickening out? Simple. In an effort to tell the story in a wholesome way, I’d sanitized the threat. Because conflict is the engine that drives story, and stories are only as strong as their oppositional forces, when we dumb down the threats, we limit the power of our stories.
What’s the bottom line? For the drama to be real, the threat must be real–no cheating, no cheese, no chickening out. We must do the work to properly set up the threat and ensure—in universe—that we raise the stakes to the appropriate level.
Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not a license to put gratuitous evil into our work. We must remember that we will stand before God and give account for everything we say and everything we write. Therefore, we must prayerfully approach our work as a holy responsibility. Our readers and listeners are entrusting themselves (and sometimes their children) into our care. We want to tell stories in a manner that is worthy of that trust.
Like many things in life, the challenge of writing wholesome, yet gritty, stories is a narrow way. We can fall into a ditch on either side of the road.
Let me illustrate it this way. Near the end of the final draft of Generations, I had a scene (just after that river scene) where the sidekick gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the protagonist. Shortly after that, the protagonist said, “I never thought you’d be my first kiss.”
I must confess I was proud of that line. I thought it was quite clever. However, something didn’t sit well with me. It was as if the Holy Spirit inside me was putting His finger on it.
I did all the normal things after that: rationalize, dismiss, push down the thought, justify, etc. However, the burden didn’t lift. I understand that many people—possibly most people—would not have an issue with that line. However, we ignore that feedback (the nudge of God) at our extreme peril. I finally relented and took it out. Looking back, I have zero regret. I personally don’t like to joke that way, and I’ve had stories that I’ve otherwise enjoyed that were tainted by one line or one scene.
Even more importantly, I feel like I honored the Lord in what He was asking me to do. In fact, I feel humbled and grateful that he insisted so strongly on something that I would have come to regret later. There are other areas where I’ve not listened well, and I do have regret.
Like I mentioned above, it’s a narrow way to drive real conflict into your story (i.e. don’t chicken out) and yet tell it in a wholesome way. I’m not saying everybody has to see it exactly like me, but in all you do, I encourage you to partner with God in what you create and do it all to His glory.
Kenny Sargent is an author and producer of full-cast, dramatized audiobooks. You can find him on Amazon and at www.sargentfamilyproductions.com. Their latest work is a fully dramatized version of the gaslamp fantasy, Wayfarer, by K.M. Weiland.
What are your thoughts on Christian fiction? Are you an author dealing with this careful balance? Have you read books that do this well – or don’t? I’d love to hear your opinion on what makes powerful, God-honoring fiction, so feel free to share in the comments below!