Thursday, October 27, 2011

Passion without Preachy

Fiction is powerful. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Pilgrim’s Progress have actually altered societies. But perhaps more importantly, fiction affects individuals. It has me. As a lonely preteen I found intense comfort in the Chronicles of Narnia. And George MacDonald’s novels have also encouraged me. What books have influenced you?

Off the Soap Box
Let’s face it, as Christian writers we love the craft—delight to create characters and plots—but it’s the message that really motivates us. At least for me, I yearn to use my passion for writing to share truths about Christ.

But with fiction we must be careful how we show our message. The most profound Christian fiction is never preachy. Spiritual themes flow from the characters, sneaking into readers’ hearts and minds in powerful ways. If we’re too “in your face” with our beliefs, not only will our stories seem awkward and trite, they will actually lose power.

So how do we make our writing spiritually meaningful without the reader feeling preached at? First, some don’ts.

Don’t #1: Thrusting Your Own Voice into a Character’s Mouth
Ever had the annoying feeling that an author has barged front and center into a novel, jamming the story with her own agenda? It usually happens when a character spouts opinions unrelated to the plot. A reader will see right through this. It makes her feel tricked, like, “You think I can’t tell you’re trying to manipulate me through your story?”

Don’t #2: Convoluting a Plot
Recently I watched a movie where everything that happened seemed contrived to make me accept as true a certain philosophy—one contrary to my own values. By the end, I had lost track of the plot and was only feeling frustrated.

As an editor, I’ve also seen this. In one example, the author thrust an irrelevant flashback into the middle of an action sequence just so he could squeeze in an altar call. It felt like a cheap trick.

Don’t #3: Creating One-dimensional, Puppet Characters
I once edited a book where the antagonist obviously represented greedy, self-centered, feminism. By only showing this character as horribly vulgar and foul, the author was obviously trying to say that greedy feminism is wrong. Which I agree with. But the character was completely unbelievable in the story. She seemed merely to exist to promote the author’s perspective.

This can happen with Christian characters as well. When we make them too perfect, they seem to be there only to show the reader how to behave. But even the strongest Christians have problems—just read the pages of Scripture.

Now some do’s.

Do #1: Abide in Christ
Study the Word, attend church, pray. When your cup is full, it overflows into all your life—including your stories.

Do #2: Trust the Power of Fiction
Create an A+ story with multi-dimensional characters. Let the words flow from your core—and the messages you most treasure will develop naturally.

In closing, let’s take a look at a master’s work. Remember this scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. … Aslan is a lion—the lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “… Is he—quite safe?”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”1

This is just one example of how Lewis layered spiritual meaning while maintaining the enchanting nature of his story. And from what I understand, he simply wanted to write a good story—yet his cup was full, so the message flowed.

1. Lewis, C.S, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, 1988) page 64. Note: This quote has been condensed by the author.


  1. I've always loved George MacDonald's books (the edited ones) and that quote from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is my absolute favorite. I guess it all comes down to making your characters real and complex - living out their faith just as we (hopefully) live out ours.

    Thanks for putting it all together for us.

  2. I strongly agree that fiction can have a profound influence on people. Jesus used parables because people relate to story.

    I recently edited a novel written by a sweet lady whose heart was in the right place, but I had to point out that numerous "speeches" had been included to get her feelings across on various topics. Once she realized how preachy the story was coming across, and how her agenda would have turned off and tuned out readers, she was willing to take them out.

  3. This is definitely a tricky tightrope. I find so many Christian novels DO come across as preachy. If the main audience is Christian, then the book does not need to give a complete breakdown of the gospel message. If the main audience is NOT Christian, nothing will turn them away faster than a complete breakdown of the gospel message. Either way, keep it simple - just enough to make the point, and hopefully encourage deeper digging AFTER they put the novel down.

  4. Great comments, ladies. I have a friend whose mom came to the Lord because of Francine Rivers' books. I think she's a great example of being richly Christian, but not preachy. If only we could all write like her! :)


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