Have you ever read a book of Christian fiction and thought that it just did not measure up to your favorite fiction authors? I have as well. When I contemplated the reason for this difference, I came to the following advice for Christian fiction writers.
Characters need depth
When I mention depth, I mean for writers to move beyond the stereotypes. Certainly we tend to think in stereotypical ways and may even plot our characters to fulfill certain roles, but real life is not very cut and dry. Good people do bad things. Look at any Bible story and see this truth. Even saints make bad choices. The characters in your novel need similar complexity. Resist the temptation to have every Christian fiction piece have an overly simplistic Jesus-type. Look at the complexity of Jesus’ words in John 17 to see genuine personal struggle.
The story has to be strong
And it should be from the beginning chapter. The best stories are ones that grab you from the first chapter and never let go. There is a reason why I picked up John Grisham’s The Firm in high school and could not put it down until I read the entire novel. Books with a good first chapter still need to build suspense and have realistic plot points that move along the action. Contrivances just don’t work.
Go with real-life dilemmas
Readers can identify with issues related to love, friendship, work, personal mistakes, and everyday choices. Everyday choices may lead to unexpected places, but you want the reader to identify with the character and possibly being in his place, identifying with his choices.
Choices have to seem logical
If the decisions of a main character start to appear illogical and don’t make sense to the reader, you will quickly lose the reader. This is especially true when illogical decisions mount in a primary character. Real life dilemmas and real life decisions make the story believable.
Give depth and complexity even to the “bad guys”
As mentioned before, people who make bad choices aren’t just bad. They make bad choices for a variety of reasons connected to their past and current situation. Similar to the good character discussion above, resist the urge to have overly simplistic characters portrayed as pure evil. What are the reasons that bring them to the place they are in the novel? Readers want to know how a person could be like that or why they make those choices. Equally, people who do horrendous things also can be redeemed and make unbelievable turnarounds. Look at the Apostle Paul. His move from persecutor and accessory to murder soon turned to his becoming the greatest missionary of the Christian message of hope.
Make us want to come back for more!
Your ending should be satisfying in a way that readers want more. The best books have endings that leave you feeling that way but without an obvious to be continued ending. You don’t want to assume there will be an audience for the second book you have in mind just because you wrote your first novel to have one.
Tell Me A Story: Lessons From Parker Palmer That Can Transform Your Writing
I was still in graduate school when I attended my first American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference. I was not yet at the point of putting together a syllabus for any course but was still interested in attending sessions related to teaching religion. One course in particular introduced me to Parker Palmer and his philosophy of teaching. I still think of Parker Palmer every semester as I put together a syllabus and have used his teaching philosophy in every course I have taught. Palmer’s influence has several applications to writing as well.
The teacher (or writer) is the lesson.
If you want students or your readers to fully invest themselves in you, you must be transparent with them. Honesty is the primary factor in this type of openness. No one expects you to be flawless. They want to see your humanity as well. Share your life through your writing, and others will be more likely to connect with you, through both low points and successes.
The teacher (or writer) is on a journey with the student.
The goal is not for the teacher to talk nonstop, communicating information one way, filling the heads of the listener or reader. But how can a writer be on a journey with the readers? It is a matter of perspective! Write to share your vision, story, and passion and invite the reader to join in your journey together. This practice may be more prevalent in religion, where one investigates matters of faith and belief and calls out others to commit to faith. But no matter your subject, you are asking others to join with you in examining topics you care about.
The model for teaching is a conversation.
The same is true for writing. Open conversation with your reader. It is OK to challenge, confront, and even bring discomfort, but it is done in a way where everyone has a voice and seat at the table. Welcome feedback. Welcome questions. Welcome doubt and disbelief. Be open to new ideas and alternative theories. Teachers and writers who do so will build an audience and following much quicker than those who are distant and uninviting.
Provide a safe environment for an equal seat at the table.
The teacher sets the stage in his classroom, laying ground rules for conversation, confidentiality, and respect. A writer does the same thing through even through his word choice. Derogatory references and outdated euphemisms can kill a reader’s trust and willingness to invest in you or your writing.
Personal experiences provide the best entryway to conversation.
I borrowed a model from the professor I heard that day at the AAR. The first assignment I do every semester is to ask all my students to write a spiritual autobiography or about a key experience that shapes their spirituality. This assignment shows how each of us have opinions and thoughts about ultimate questions, even if we don’t have specific beliefs, and provides a current assessment. Teachers and writers should open themselves to sharing this same information in order to have students and readers take risks in sharing themselves. The result should be integral both to winning trust and taking the journey together through the pages of your book.