I am certain there are those among you who will be amazed to learn that though I am both Christian and a novelist, I find the Christian fiction genre one of the most difficult to write about. This is probably because there are as many opinions on what constitutes Christian fiction as there are those who write it, making “it depends” a fitting answer to the question, “What is Christian fiction?”
Why I Am Drawn to the Christian Worldview Story
I personally like to write about Christian people, because to me they are just more interesting, well-rounded characters than people who don’t believe in anything beyond themselves. If someone believes in God and a life beyond this world, they are simply living larger than those who can’t think about anything but what they can touch or taste or see or hear in the here and now.
There is also the hope that something I write in a Christian story will help, in some small way, to bring a nonbeliever to at least consider what God can do for them and the world. In writing my novel, A Chance For Life, I had hope that a reader somewhere would come to see adoption as a viable option to abortion but also come to understand that the Church is not just a building with a steeple and a cross on it but a place where someone lost and in crisis can find both physical and spiritual support. When I write a Christian worldview story, I want to tell a story beyond good people living their everyday lives, going to church, and abstaining from drinking, smoking, and other bad behaviors. I want to help my readers to get at least a glimpse of God in a realistic scenario in which none of my characters are perfect, but all are striving to follow their Lord in community with one another.
What Constitutes a “Christian Worldview” Story?
This question is not as simple as it might sound, because there are so many and varied sects within the Christian faith. Even if you’re only writing for the American market, the outward and visible signs of Christianity range from high church Catholic (Roman or Anglican) to low church Nondenominational—and everything in between. All Christians, by definition, can agree that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but there are many flavors to that basic tenant, which will change a story, because how people worship God will affect their behavior and habits as well as how they think about the world and how they interact with others.
For example, church attendance may be required at both ends of the high church/low church spectrum, but attending Mass weekly—where Holy Communion is the center of worship—is an obligation for both Roman Catholics and Anglicans, but for many Protestant churches, Holy Communion is not a weekly occurrence. And, of course, a Christian’s attitude about the very nature of the Holy Sacraments also varies greatly between denominations, and this, too, can change the story. So beware of writing all Christian characters into the same mold, and be prepared to do your research!
Focus on Your Audience
The key to writing Christian fiction is really no different than writing in any other genre: You must know your audience’s expectations and fulfill them. For example, if you are writing books you hope will sell in the many evangelical book stores, then your characters will absolutely not serve wine with dinner and any romance should remain low-key with marriage as the ultimate goal. On the other hand, I know of a real-life Anglican congregation that actually serves wine at coffee hour, so the use of alcoholic beverages in a story, among other things, will definitely depend on the religious beliefs of your characters—and your intended audience.
Christian fiction is one of those genres where it remains critical to write what you know. If you are going to write of Christians who are not of your own denomination, then you will need to really do your research. For example, I tend to write Roman Catholic or Anglican stories, because I’ve been an Anglican all my life, and that’s the church I know. It is not simply a matter of doctrine or worship style either. For every denomination, you also need to understand how the church works if you are going to set a story within a church family. I can easily write Anglo-Catholic stories, because I understand the relationship between a priest and his congregation, his wardens, his bishop, the diocese, and the national church; I understand where lay people fit into all that—how vestries work, what the altar guild is doing, and what is meant by baptism and confirmation. On the other hand, I have attended Missouri Synod Lutheran churches off and on for a number of years, and I still don’t understand how the church hierarchy works or what it means to be an elder. I would be equally in the dark if I decided to write a story set in a Southern Baptist church.
I have written several Old Order Amish stories, but for those I did literally hours of research to get it right. And you have to get it right, because your credibility as a writer is at stake. I have read several Amish stories for which the authors obviously did not do the necessary research, and I’m unlikely to ever read another of their books, because they showed me they didn’t care enough to do the research.
Whatever you decide about writing your Christian story, the important thing is to tell it in such a way that it can have the greatest impact on your readers. Whenever you have something important to say and want to use storytelling to say it, be sure to let your characters do the talking. Whatever you want to convey about God and faith to your readers, you run the risk of sounding preachy if the narrator is the one to bring it up. Like followers of Christ in real life, fictional characters need to live their faith to be believable, both to the other characters in the story and to your readers. You need well-developed, three-dimensional characters who show Christ to the world through their actions, not just their words. And if you want them to be completely believable, give them the same doubts and uncertainties we all face from time to time. Even fictional Christians can’t be perfect if they’re going to be believable!
Finally, watch the rhythm and timing of your story. For example, don’t be too anxious to have that lost soul convert and be saved. I have a friend who is writing her first novel, and the man in her heroine’s life converts completely only a few chapters into the story. While my friend says all her Evangelical friends don’t have a problem with his quick conversion, it doesn’t work for me for two reasons. First, my reasoning Anglican self can’t help but recall the parable of the sower and wonder just how deep the soil is in which the seed was sown, if the guy converts so early in the story. And second, as a storyteller, I have to wonder, if the romantic lead is converted in chapter four or five, why would anyone continue reading to the end of the story? Shouldn’t such a high point in the plot be the climax? As with any secular plot line, faith-based plots need to rise and fall, with hints of what’s to come and an occasional set-back to keep the story interesting, and the climax should be toward the end.
I do believe in God’s miracles in real life, and if I’m going to write about one, I want to be sure to set it in a really good story so my readers might be drawn to believe in it too. For a writer, the storytelling comes first. Write a good story, and readers will get the message.
The next time, we’ll look at Romance.