For the first six years of my writing life, I didn’t know how to find the exact spot where a story sinks into a bottomless pit of darkness.
Nobody around me could agree on which kinds of content deserved an R rating, and I wasn’t sure what my own stance should be. Half of the Christian community claimed that any book containing foul language or violence overexposed audiences to sin. To younger me, this made sense. But the other half of the Christian community cheered over gruesome battles and roguish characters, and they defended those inclusions with the shield and sword of realism. To older me, this seemed like a more progressive approach.
As often happens with two extremes, both groups are partially right—and partially wrong. Gunshot wounds and steamy subplots aren’t indications that the author is a satanist, but shoveling gore and immorality into a story for realism’s sake doesn’t justify triggering a sensitive reader either.
Faulty, incomplete definitions like these lead to insecurity. You’ll hesitate to tackle challenging topics because one too many details might damage readers’ consciences. And you’ll select entertainment according to the “clean” or “not clean” labels that reviewers tack on, rather than the message and accuracy.
So what are the signs that a story has tumbled over the edge? The answer is much simpler than you might expect.
Characters Who Play with Fire but Don’t Get Burnt
Examples speak louder than explanations, so let me give you one. A few months ago, I took a nosedive into a YA book that featured a snarky cast, a fun setting, and world-ending stakes. The main characters had flaws, but that made them realistic and relatable, so the story displayed potential overall.
Until those flaws were never treated like problems. One main character was a hot chick who embodied twenty-first century hook-up culture and kept a long list of past boyfriends. But instead of demonstrating the long-term harm of short-term pleasure (and developing a compelling character arc), the author surgically removed any and all issues her lifestyle might have caused in the real world. STDs. Pregnancy. Generational abuse. Emotional trauma. Shame. Readers leave with the impression that being a heart-breaker is a path of sunshine, rose petals, and dreamy boyfriends who can be exchanged at whim.
Now I’ll introduce you to Exhibit B. Fellow Story Embers teammate Rose Sheffler recently rattled off an unwritten story idea about a guy with a diagnosed allergy to responsibility. He’s overly friendly toward women, but because marriage is rare in his culture, he doesn’t carry any guilt. Then he discovers that his offspring is part of a prophecy and spends all his energy tracking down his partners to verify whether or not he’s a father. In the process, he learns the value of responsibility.
Because Story A ignores the ramifications of the protagonist’s looseness, it encourages depraved behavior. Because Story B forces the protagonist to confront and grow from his mistakes, it encourages positive change. The difference between addressing evil and endorsing evil is the presence of consequences, or the lack thereof. Without fallout, wrong masquerades as right.
If you center your plot around your protagonist’s bad decisions, you’ll clarify the message you’re trying to convey, as well as establish a precedent that allows you to gauge how much information readers need to be able to follow the character’s arc. In The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd’s arc involves murder. When he kills, Patrick Ness uses visceral descriptions. It’s unpleasant, but without probing into Todd’s mind, readers wouldn’t realize why he’s so disturbed.
A word of warning: even consequences can become heavy-handed. If you compulsively punish a character for his foolishness without understanding him first, your story will turn into a moralizing bully instead of being a moving portrayal of redemption. An action-consequence loop won’t teach readers anything until they’re conscious of why and where your character is broken, which begins with revealing his needs.
Before Condemning a Character, Acknowledge His Humanity
Authors tend to remove consequences because they’re worried about alienating the audiences they’re hoping to reach. Making readers feel accepted as they are is an admirable goal, because stories comfort tucked-away corners of people’s souls that nothing else can touch. But whitewashing reality doesn’t offer the lost and the hurting any relief—or escape. It only pretends that their troubles don’t exist. To coax these readers to invest in your story, you’ll have to form a bond with them that even the characters’ failures can’t destroy, and for that you’ll need a trait that our team crafted an entire article series on: empathy.
Most people don’t wake up and announce, “I’d like to be a horrible human being today.” We start out with good intentions. We don’t enjoy snapping at our coworkers or drowning our stress in sixteen episodes of The Office and a tub of ice cream. We resort to these habits because we’re struggling to deal with our own needs and desires.
From birth, we’re wired with a deep longing for love and peace. But after Eve tasted that forbidden fruit and evil entered the world, our relationship with the One who satisfies those longings frayed like a string. We have a God-shaped gap that we need to mend. But our default is to fill it with easily accessible, temporal things. In our search for love, we flaunt our talents and misconstrue attention for connection. In our search for peace, we spend hours in front of a screen to avoid conflict. Behind our sins hide needs that we don’t resolve correctly.
To build rapport with readers without compromising reality, show how your character’s need is linked to his screwups. If he takes unnecessary risks, perhaps he’s attempting to dull his desperation for a greater purpose. If he pours so much of his time and energy into others that he neglects himself, perhaps he’s silently crying out for love.
Patrick Ness is the king of writing humanity through the eyes of mercy. In Ask and the Answer, Todd contributes to the enslavement of his planet’s native species. He abuses those under his care and obeys the commands of a tyrant. But he’s aware of his own wickedness and his conscience gnaws at him. Readers hate him for his cruelty, but they also recognize that he’s doing it to survive and earn approval.
In essence, to cast humanity in a realistic light, you need to illuminate all of it. The evil, the good, and the inner workings of the immortal soul. This requires you to identify the virtues and vices that drive people.
If you’re introspective, I suggest digging under your negative coping mechanisms to see what needs or wants lie beneath. If people-watching is more your style, test out this theory on whoever you interact with each day. As long as you perform the exercise with kindness and a healthy dose of humility, it will help you sympathize with how your characters feel, think, and act.
Although consequences are a necessary component of a character arc, understanding a character’s wants, needs, and motivations is even more vital. Instead of preaching, you’ll be sharing experiences. Instead of a lesson that metes out judgement, you’ll be presenting a testimony that fosters friendship.
Writers Are Ambassadors of Mercy
Your judgment won’t always be sound. You’re bound to include a murder that scares someone or exclude a scene that provokes readers to call your story unrealistic. You’re human, and to steal a wise line from a famous pirate, “anyone telling you otherwise is selling something.”
But avoiding censure isn’t the point—it’s writing according to ideals informed by your faith. People, even well-meaning people, are fickle, and in the end, you are accountable for your choices, not readers’ reactions or assumptions.
So write with boldness and a gentle heart. Pass on the truth you’ve received with the mercy that softened it, for truth makes a story last, and love makes the truth beautiful. Our tales are retellings of that old, old story, after all. In the end, none of us can write anything better.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.