Is Prayer Actually Ruining Your Character's Credibility?

IF YOU ARE FOLLOWING The Penslayer, there is a pretty good chance that a) you are a writer + b) you are a professing believer. This puts you/me/people like us at a high risk of including our faith in our novels (gasp! the nerve!). But say we decide to do the ghastly inexcusable & include tenants of our faith in our stories; our faith makes our lives phenomenally better, so it should do the same to our novels, right?

christ did not die to save your novel

Does this sound sacrilegious??  Because yes that sounds sacrilegious.  But let's actively (not just academically) take our faith seriously for a sec & put our faith + our art in such blunt terms.  Oh.  No.  Okay.  Jesus' atonement + the work of the Holy Spirit within me does not make me a miraculously better writer, & the inclusion of a character's relationship with God in my novel is not infallibly assured to be golden.

Christ's work of redemption?  Real.
Your character + faith?  Fiction.

Before we move on, I suggest a healthy awareness of the fundamental difference between a VERY REAL THING & a thing you totally made up in your head possibly during nano + should not be taken seriously because we are fallen sleep-deprived humans.

jenny.  dontchu ask me to tear my faith out of my art.  

FACT NUMBER ONE: humans are awesome & can entertain philosophies that they don't believe as if they actually believed them.  Being good at this trick makes you a) better able to process opposing views & b) better at writing.  Guess who has gone through the juvenile stages of writing in which basically every character was a cookie-cutter Christian?  Yeah...  Not a great move for stellar writing.

FACT NUMBER TWO: no you don't have to divorce your faith from your writing!  Your faith is what gives your soul life + substance, it's what roots it + makes it grow.  You don't want to deny this kind of aid to your art, right?

the blindside bible smack

Let's briefly outline the plot of a novel I may have written // may have read // may be aware exists in Christian fiction today.

  • INTRODUCE MC - everything seems normal, character isn't perfect but usually not too bad
  • SUDDEN DIRE DRAMA - our pretty vanilla character is now in peril (life-threatening is standard)
  • UNEXPECTED VERBIAGE OF HELP FROM GOD - universally thin on theology, substance is nonexistent, uncomfortably reminiscent of certain Galileans in a certain fishing boat in a certain storm
  • SECONDARY CAUSE SAVES THE DAY - danger &/or life-threatening peril is removed
  • MC BRUSHES SELF OFF - continues through the plot with no recognition that perhaps God heard that pitiable prayer
(following is optional)
  • MC + OTHER CHARACTERS indulge in an existential discussion which has no bearing on the plot, in which the mc quotes copious amounts of scripture which we had no reason to believe the mc knew or relied on - other characters are usually moved // impressed by these arguments
  • MC + OTHER CHARACTERS PROCEED THROUGH PLOT - including more dire peril, life-threatening situations, extreme exertion, & surprisingly no reference to faith again
  • THE END - God usually goes unmentioned

...Not only is this yucky, it's embarrassing; because you know you've read this or done it.  Yep.  Me too. But you can see from this angle how damaging it is.  It turns God into exactly the sort of person irreverent folk choose to view him: a cosmic sugar-daddy to whom we owe no constant obligation, & who is just there when life starts to spiral out of our control.

deus ex machina...without the deus

How do we avoid these embarrassing fox-hole prayers by which we mean well but which actually poison our entire novel?  Do not be alarmed, neither let your manuscripts be troubled - the answer is not that hard.

you'll need to adopt two concepts which seem mutually exclusive at first, but which work perfectly together

FAITH BEFORE CRISIS  ||  Let it be established before your character is in danger of his life that his faith is of universal importance to him, defining all he does - not a crutch he grabs when he starts falling.  God is not an outside handhold that we reach for when we stumble, but the life which lights us from within, focusing our vision, training our minds, governing our actions.  When God is recognized as such both in reality & in our fiction, both our lives & our art avoid the fox-hole stigma.  In short, let God being in everything, & nothing will seem sudden or crutch-like.

THE SPEAKING SILENCE  ||  Once your character' established for the reader + the rest of the cast, there is relatively little need to reiterate the character's stance.  This seems to directly contradict what I said above, but it does not.  A city on a hill does not move; when a man has taken his position, he gains more credibility by his immutability than by dashing headlong after every sign of trouble like a dog trying to catch fireflies.  Other characters know exactly where the mc stands on any given issue: arguments are unnecessary.

silence is more intimidating than discussion.  discussion can be fought, words can be wrangled, strawmen can be set up & knocked down.  but you can't grip silence.  fools are windbags, but a wise man holds his ground.  a comfortably determined silence will give your character more weight than a hundred petty arguments.

if christian fiction has lost its credibility, wherewith shall it be made creditable again?

Unfortunately, it is currently basically useless, & ought to be thrown out, trodden underfoot by men.  My advice is to remember that faith in fiction is not a crutch, it's a backbone; it is not a glass of water, it is the lifeblood.  However your plots unfold, avoid the unexpected deus ex machina prayers, the convenient moral discussions, & the subliminal message that God is only there because we feel like we have to mention him (as Christians), & then he is brushed aside as soon as we perceive we can stand on our own.  These are lies which do no one (including the novel) any good.

know where you stand + stay there
strength + honour ;D 

6 ripostes:

  1. Thanks for sharing Jenny! Here's a question I have though. What about unsaved characters (I don't want to say "getting saved" gaining faith? or writing secular characters without using christian phrases philosophy. It's something I have been wondering. For example a character seemed to have to much experience with faith for someone who was supposed to not be familiar at all.

  2. Fantastic and this actually helped solidify something I wanted to do when I go back and tweak the Dying of the Light. <3

  3. Ooh, that's complicated. I can't speak to writing conversation scenes, because those of course require a LOT of buildup & work to pull off...and even then they tend to come across as fake because really the Holy Spirit's got that covered & none of us really know *how* to do it.

    As far as characters who are not believers communicating with biblical language, this is actually quite normal. In an odd paradox, our culture is both biblically illiterate & well acquainted with passages & philosophies from scripture. The past 2,000+ years have made biblical language common to all, even if faith is not present.

    As for faith itself, everyone has "faith." Whether consciously or not, everyone has faith in SOMEthing, and sees the world accordingly. It's just often the wrong faith. Humans are spiritual creatures, so writing them with reference to souls + the supernatural is...natural. But yes, if a character has had no exposure to a certain philosophy, suddenly communicating that philosophy in clear terms is unbelievable (it is very possible for the person to approach or determine this otherwise unknown philosophy on his own, because we're thinkin' folk & we often think the same thoughts without realizing it).

    I HOPE THAT HELPS it probably doesn't. XD

  4. This is powerful and refreshing. Thank you for saying what needed to be said!

  5. Yes! So many times in great literature (Tolkien, Lewis, Dickens), Christianity is not so much stated and made plain, as it permeates the whole work. That's a badly constructed sentence, but I hope it makes sense. The whole thing just shines with the truth and they don't even have to mention Jesus or the Bible for you to know that they are Christians and couldn't keep their faith out of their work if they tried.
    On a different note, Jenny, I think that you achieved the right balance with "The Shadow Things." The faith felt real, made sense, and fit so beautifully with the story.