Abortion. Homosexuality. Feminism. Race. Border politics. 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?
Hint: Not with blunt statements like the opening of this article. God’s Word reveals answers and helps us form clear stances on controversial issues. Unfortunately, when we try to share our beliefs in our stories, we can come across as condescending (at best) or openly hostile.
Issues like the ones I listed above are difficult to address in real life, and equally troublesome in fiction. Not only is offending readers bad for sales, but (more importantly) it prevents our books from reaching and influencing people who need exposure to truth.
Why Compassion Matters to Storytellers
When we want to deliver a message compassionately, we often assume that means we need to tiptoe and speak softly. But compassion is a mindset, not a method. The Holy Spirit can use our stories to change hearts, but the goal of a compassionate story shouldn’t be to drive in a point. A story about abortion should act as a shoulder to cry on for a teen facing an unexpected pregnancy. And a story about homosexuality should guide a depressed gay man away from his sin and toward hope.
Compassionate stories should seek to help hurting, confused people, not convince other intellectuals that a certain lifestyle or action is wrong. We have the Bible for that. Instead, we can tackle sensitive themes by developing compassion in three areas.
1. Honest Characters
Like most writing principles, compassion starts with our characters. A stereotyped character (such as an antagonistic, God-hating, singleminded philosophy professor) preaches at the reader (perhaps a kind atheistic professor who openly encourages healthy discussions in his classroom) with a skewed depiction.
Characters who display a false worldview shouldn’t be typecast in negative roles. Without honorable qualities, flaws, and an internal conflict, they won’t be realistic or relatable. They’ll be straw men set up to win an argument.
Homosexuals can be friendly and nice. Christians can be self-righteous and hypocritical. We all have faults. Be humble when writing about Christians, remembering that only through God’s grace are we on the road to heaven. Be charitable when writing about atheists, remembering that we are all made in the image of God.
Characters (whether right or wrong) who are deep, genuine, hurting, and lovable will draw conflicted readers in. If they see the characters struggling valiantly with the same problems that they’re suffering, they’ll become invested in the story instead of repulsed by it.
2. A Fair Setting
Confession: I once wrote a book about the underground church in a dystopian, atheistic future. An alcoholic general obsessively hunted down a saintly Christian population who never squabbled amongst themselves or even showed fear.
I won’t do that ever again.
A story’s setting needs to allow for a neutral analysis of the controversy, where people can interact without pointing guns at each other. To create this environment, we have to avoid three pitfalls:
- Disproportion. If the hero is the only character defending Value A, then the thousands standing up for Value B automatically look like bullies. Conversely, if every character believes in Value A except for a few antagonists, then the novel will feel imbalanced.
- Higher-power intervention. Don’t let the government, the church, or any other large institution choose a side. Keep the story on a personal, intimate level. Once higher powers begin preaching morals, subtlety and compassion fall to the wayside.
- Prejudice. If a sci-fi story is about border politics, and the facts are bent so that the illegal (literal) aliens infect earth with a crippling disease, readers won’t correlate the fictional version of the world with reality.
We need to place our characters in a setting that’s fair to all parties. Otherwise readers might bail before the plot even unfolds.
3. A Well-Selected Plot
In my underground church novel, the plot forced the characters into cheap archetypes, with the Christians as the heroes and the atheists playing the villains. But a compassionate story enables conversation without drawing unnecessary lines in the sand.
Instead of pitting different perspectives against each other, we can opt for gentler tactics. Two parallel (equally endearing) characters can journey through a story together, revealing the contrast in their worldviews by serving as foils to each other.
J. M. Barrie applies this technique in Peter Pan. Wendy enjoys, learns from, and grows out of childhood, whereas Peter obsesses over it and uses it to justify his poor choices. If Peter had been the antagonist, he and Wendy would never have been friends, and the story wouldn’t have carried the same level of emotional depth.
Cause and Effect: The Truth of Pretty Words
Earlier this year, I read In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire. It was full of beautiful, flowing sentences. But the story gave me a hollow feeling, especially this excerpt: “Home always shrinks in times of absence, always bleeds away some of its majesty, because what is home, after all, apart from the place one returns to when the adventure is over? Home is an end to glory, a stopping point when the tale is done.”
Those words sound wonderful and dance on the page. They also aren’t true, which left me empty and sad. Home is a haven of nourishment and rest and family.
As we raise our pens, remember that Jesus is our divine ally. Truth is beautiful, and without its power, our stories won’t sway hearts. Poetic prose doesn’t normally convert souls. Our task is to tell the best story we can with genuine compassion and an ache for the lost. When we accomplish that, God will use our words however He pleases.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 13, 2019. Updated November 29, 2021.
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong coauthor, Megan.