When writers work hard and pursue publication, at some point their words will be on a shelf or webpage for the public to consume. But the downside of our Internet age is that readers can instantaneously share negative opinions with thousands of viewers. We’ve all encountered posts about an author who got “cancelled” because of something their book included or excluded, and that can fill us with anxiety about how our own stories will be received.
All of us are experts at sad stories. We’ve read novels that schooled us in death scenes, betrayals, fractured relationships, and harrowing pasts. These examples taught us that tormenting the protagonist is easy: just thwart his deepest longings. Then we can type “the end” and congratulate ourselves for accurately reflecting our fallen world. But the real sad story is how untrained we are in the art of weaving meaning into tragedy.
Since the rebellion in the garden of Eden, our souls have longed for wrongs to be righted and life to be whole. Happy stories aren’t heaven on earth because they ignore our brokenness. One of the most challenging aspects of the human condition is when we fall into hardship, where we begin to question who we are and why God has seemingly forsaken us.
Books were history’s first long-range torture devices, subjecting readers to vivid renditions of holocaust, suicide, doubt, and betrayal. As the worlds and characters shatter, so do our hearts. But can we write about such situations without creating emotional scars? Should we even try?
Stories that focus on the rosy sides of reality are rarely compelling or memorable. They’re predictable—and indistinguishable from other patented plot lines. Just like Hallmark films. Although lighter fiction has a place in today’s market, I’d argue that we need more stories tackling the gritty sides of reality from a Christian perspective. We explored this two years ago with our Tricky Subjects series. And this year we’re addressing it again from a new angle based on the eleventh resolution of our Christian Storytellers Manifesto.
A non-writer friend once told me that I seem to enjoy making my characters suffer. I disagree. Sure, portraying pain can be an exciting challenge, but I don’t relish putting my characters through trials. If their hearts are breaking, so is mine. Despite this, I realize that characters, like people, grow through adversity, and oftentimes they experience the greatest change when their circumstances can’t get any worse. In storytelling terminology, this hopeless moment is known as the low point, and it happens shortly before the climax.
Characters need flaws to humanize them. When we try to follow this advice, sometimes we populate our stories with characters who are perfect except for one glaring issue, such as selfishness or insecurity. But how many of us have a single weakness?
Last August, a young man in my church killed himself. He came from a large family, and our community loved him. I decided to chronicle the impact of his death, because a Christian suicide is a troubling situation. If the gospel is a message of hope in the midst of ultimate suffering, what happens when a Christian commits the ultimate hopeless act?
Abortion. Homosexuality. Feminism. Race/border politics (because those have gotten conflated). These topics dominate the news, and fiction needs to accurately portray our world, but how do we write with caution and avoid inflaming or alienating readers?
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the interaction between two lovers became graphic? Have you ever been absorbed in an adventure story and suddenly had to skim unnecessarily steamy scenes? I have, and I hate it. Not only does the sensuality rip me out of the story and make me roll my eyes, it taints the characters (and prevents me from recommending an otherwise great novel).