Developing a Novel as a Christian

This isn’t a guide to writing typical “Christian fiction,” but an exploration of how one writes fiction as a Christian. After writing my last post about “What Makes a Christian Author ‘Christian’?,” I realized there was still some unanswered questions. What does fiction written by Christians look like? How is it different from fiction by those who aren’t Christian?

Or is there no difference? Are we just as free to include all elements and sin in our stories, as much as every other writer? As long as our motives are pure, can we write morally ambiguous or even evil characters who commit atrocities, lying and stealing and swearing up a storm?

at-the-cross by prawny

Patrick from the blog patrick’s thoughts pointed out that “if there are no standards or values inherent in our writing, then the reader will remain entertained, but uninformed, under the limits of his personal prejudices” and suggested that a Christian writer would include the morals of Christ in his or her work, as a reflection of one’s relationship with Jesus.

And I think he’s absolutely right, but I wanted to explore what this looks like.

  • What does a novel do? A novel is not strictly designed to educate its readers, not in morality or anything else. And it isn’t necessarily designed to entertain, either. A novel, in the form that has developed over the centuries, is designed to show the good, the beautiful, and the true by depicting a form of real life. It may show all three of these qualities or just the latter, showing what life is like–what it is like to grow up in a dysfunctional family, or showing what life could be like in a dystopian society, for example.

This is what makes fiction an art form and lifts it from the realm of propaganda or textbooks and lesson plans. A landscape painting doesn’t have “educating” someone about what a place looks like as the goal. It’s focus is to reproduce something beautiful. A sculpture isn’t carved just to titillate the viewers (or shouldn’t, for that would lower the work into a kind of sensual entertainment instead of an exploration and pursuit of the good and beautiful and true–the beautiful is greater than just the “profane or sexually stimulating).

  • How Does a Novel Achieve It’s Goal? An author achieves the goal of producing an artistic work of fiction by indicating, on some level or another, that there is good to be had in life, whether in the kindness of strangers or the selflessness of true love. By showing the beauty in language, in life, in words, in personalities, and cultures. By exploring the truth of what it means to be human, by examining our fallen natures rather than depicting perfect persons who have no weaknesses.

And this latter category is where most of the fighting occurs, because most Christians have no problem with works that show forth goodness and beauty (two qualities found on the list in Philippians 4:8). But they can balk at being shown the truth, of the violence and sinfulness and immorality that such truth can, at times, encompass.

And I don’t disagree. I personally don’t believe the truth of life needs to be shown in all it’s gory or explicit details, because novels are already not a depiction of real life. They are a form of reality, but should not attempt to be the real thing, for then they’d just be documentaries and not art.

  • Writing this Out. Art is involved when we pick and choose among “real moments” to create an illusion of reality that makes us more aware of certain aspects than we would otherwise be. It is a version of reality, and as such should never try to replicate “real life.” (The goal should be to show us how people feel who go through a violent incident, and not exactly what a violent incident feels like, because victims of violence don’t notice every detail involved. At some point, the sense overload in shock and pain and only a few signals get through.)

And, since we are creating a version of reality, as Christians we should contemplate what sort of version we should show forth. For example, if we include people who are half-animal, half-human, what does this say about the human condition? If dragons and humans can mate, and the novel’s tone is to commend such matches, is that an implication that humanity is equal to animals? That we are no longer created in God’s image?

  • The Side Effects of Fiction. A writer can say, “I’m just writing a work of fiction, not a philosophical treatise” but what they write and how their characters view things can have great power in the minds of readers. If Jane Austen’s characters had no problem with Wickham and Lydia being together, unmarried, and expected Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley to support the idea, what would that have said about life, about morality, and marriage? What would that have implied about the value of commitment?

If one’s heroes, who are trying to do the right thing and are on the side of good, do evil and see no problem with such actions, it encourages readers to agree with them. It can set up a version of the truth where killing people for good reasons is okay, where swearing is acceptable, where cruelty to the cruel is admirable. And is this truly the sort of truth we want to depict? In good conscience, is this what our Lord would have us glorify or even replicate? Would He want us to spend hours in creating this sort of art?

Because, ultimately, the vision our art creates should contain something Christian about it, as we’ll explore in the next post. It shouldn’t be just the same sort of thing as non-Christians write, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:20).

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Prawny, Creative Commons

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