Since time began, spiritual beings have played a role in literature, ranging from stereotypical devils with horns and pitchforks to angels with halos and wings. These invisible, mystical creatures can raise the stakes and tension, rescue or endanger their human counterparts, and embody the conflict between good and evil, but since most of us have never laid eyes on one, how can we both accurately and artistically develop them as characters?
Christian writers who want to involve God as a character in their stories face an ongoing struggle. We’re acutely aware of how monumental the endeavor is, so we hesitate. If we’re too bold and dive in without forethought, we may make mistakes that mislead readers. But if we’re too timid, we risk tiptoeing around the real source of story, beauty, and truth—God Himself.
The divine is an elusive subject to capture, yet humans have been fascinated with it since the beginning of time, exploring it through poetry, stories, music, art, and various other mediums. Whether God shows up in a burning bush, as a thunderous voice accompanied by fire and lightning on a mountain, or in the humble person of Jesus Christ, incredible wonders are guaranteed to happen. Any moment that He steps into the story of humanity is powerful and purposeful.
Despite being the most prevalent health condition in the United States, mental illness causes a devastating sense of isolation in the victim. That’s why those readers need characters they can empathize with—to remind them that they’re not alone and inspire them to push through dark moments. However, misrepresenting mental illness can be far more harmful than avoiding the topic altogether, as Netflix’s adaptation of 13 Reasons Why demonstrates. The month after the show’s premiere, youth suicides increased by 28.9 percent.
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.