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How Fawkes Delivers a Unique Approach to Christian Fiction

May 6, 2019

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly encountered certain mistakes in Christian fiction, and since I hope to eventually break into the genre, I don’t want to commit the same errors. Thus, I’ve formulated a few guidelines:

 

  • Don’t depict Christian characters as perfect.
  • Don’t center the story’s thematic arc around a conversion.
  • Don’t treat prayer as a magic spell that grants characters their every wish.
  • Don’t steer characters’ actions and decisions with the audible voice of God.

Though these taboos (and others) may not be universally applicable, books that include the above tropes tend to seem trite and unrealistic.

 

Fawkes by Nadine Brandes, however, broke the pattern—in a surprisingly enjoyable way.

 

Fawkes is a mainstream novel, but it’s one of the best disguised works of Christian fiction I’ve read in a while. It follows the story of Thomas Fawkes, who must join his father’s plot against the king of England to keep himself from turning into stone.

 

At Story Embers, we believe that—true to saying—instruction is more effective when a principle is shown instead of told. That’s why we’re releasing an article series to explore Fawkes as an exceptional example of Christian storytelling. We’re going to examine its strengths through four installments:

 

Our goal is for you to gain an in-depth understanding of the techniques that worked for Brandes in Fawkes and how to achieve similar results in your own stories. The book succeeds at defying the “rules” in three specific areas that ordinarily pose dangers.

 

(Warning: This article and its sequels will contain plot spoilers.)

 

1. Fawkes Pulls Off a Captivating Allegory

Unlike the other two taboos I’ll delve into below, I would never insist that an author shouldn’t write an allegory. I just haven’t seen this literary device used skillfully in the past twenty years.

 

One of our first SE podcast episodes focused on the problems with most Christian allegories, and I also wrote an entire article on this topic at Kingdom Pen. Whether my response is justified or not, hearing that a modern work of fiction is designed as an allegory often causes me to flee from it.

 

Fawkes, however, manages to be a compelling allegory for two main reasons.

 

First, Brandes doesn’t draw much attention to the allegorical elements for most of the book. I didn’t notice until deep into the story that the Keepers and Igniters represent Catholics and Protestants respectively. Readers have to connect the pieces themselves, which makes the allegory less preachy and more intriguing.

 

Second, Fawkes exchanges a simple correspondence for a real one. In many modern Christian allegories, the analogs for Christ, Satan, and so on are immediately recognizable. Brandes’ Protestant inclinations crystallize over the course of the story, but neither side is vilified, and she crafts manifestations of these religious differences that are unique to the magical environment. While a God-figure does emerge, and the Keepers and Igniters clearly symbolize Catholics and Protestants, the likenesses are complex instead of predictable.

 

These factors cause Fawkes to stand apart from other allegories. When writing an allegory, Christian storytellers need to create distinct, intricate analogies that illuminate the subject—without telegraphing the story’s allegorical nature. Subtlety is king.

 

2. Fawkes Tells a Meaningful Conversion Story

I’ve previously explained why conversions are problematic in Christian fiction. As Brandon will cover on Wednesday, character arcs are built on change that the reader vicariously experiences through the protagonist. Since Christians are already saved and God’s Word is the normal path to Christ (Romans 10:17), the conversion arc lacks an ideal audience.

 

Fawkes features a prominent conversion arc as Thomas gradually shifts from being a Keeper to an Igniter. Brandes masterfully navigates this potential minefield through the use of defamiliarization.

 

Defamiliarization is a concept from Russian formalism, a literary theory movement around the turn of the twentieth century. The formalists believed that one of literature’s most powerful tools was defamiliarizing the commonplace. As Victor Shklovsky writes in Art as Technique, “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perspective.” Art refreshes our perceptions of the world, allowing us to uncover wonders that familiarity has diluted.

 

As mentioned above, the allegory in Fawkes is inconspicuous, which helps conceal some of Brandes’ points. The magic system also distances readers so that the arc doesn’t seem aimed at them. After all, they don’t need to choose which colors to wield like the protagonist did.

 

Because conversion has been defamiliarized, Christians have the opportunity to see it through a new angle, and non-Christians aren’t alienated by religiousness. Fawkes shows the power of a conversion without directly telling readers they ought to desire it.

 

When you’re looking for ways to bring the gospel into fiction, experiment with defamiliarization. The less targeted readers feel, the more willing they’ll be to ride your story’s currents. If you present the gospel from a unique perspective—especially glimpses from a defamiliarized context—its impact will increase.

 

3. Fawkes Challenges Our Impressions of God

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of Fawkes is its portrayal of God. Books are seldom able to include God as a character without overloading readers with preachiness. But White Light is more than a plot device and avoids heavy-handedness.

 

Just like in real life, God’s voice isn’t a trumpet in the protagonist’s ear. White Light is present from the third chapter onward—but readers don’t realize who he is and thus need to determine whether to listen to this voice. In Christian stories, sometimes God’s voice is so loud that the correct choice is obvious. But in real life, we rarely have clarity in difficult situations—and neither do readers. As Thomas learns to trust White Light, we go on that journey with him.

 

Once again, Brandes relies on defamiliarization to rejuvenate our ideas of who God is. We usually don’t picture Him as witty or playful. White Light’s unexpected personality prompts us to question whether the depiction is accurate. Would God act like that? At times I go back and forth on it myself. Regardless of the portrayal’s authenticity, it forces us to seek the truth for ourselves—as all fiction should.

 

If you’re considering using God’s voice in your stories, take Brandes’ advice by accentuating a new facet of God’s character while also obscuring His voice so the protagonist must learn trust.

 

Setting New Rules

At the beginning of this article, I claimed that Fawkes breaks the mold for palatable Christian fiction because it accomplishes techniques that are rarely done well. However, Fawkes doesn’t disregard the rules as much as it honors the right ones.

 

As a storyteller, you might put safety cones around certain topics to avoid pitfalls. The parameters that “protect” you, however, can also limit you. If Brandes had opted for caution instead of attempting thematic tactics other authors had struggled with, she would have produced a good story—but it probably wouldn’t have been as fascinating.

 

Being a proficient Christian storyteller means boldly addressing difficult themes even if you make mistakes. Milquetoast storytelling won’t influence the culture. Crafting meaningful stories may require you to cut restraints and install new ones.

 

The risk is great. But, as Fawkes proves, so is the reward.

 

Return on Wednesday to read Brandon Miller’s insights on what Fawkes teaches about honest storytelling. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What tropes in Christian fiction do you feel could be done better?

16 Comments

  1. Violet

    I’ve been waiting for this article, and it’s great! It really got me to thinking about my protagonist and his struggles.

    I’ve never heard the defamiliarization concept before. I want to make my story an allegory, but am stuck on the right way to go about it. I’ll be sure to look more into this.
    You said “I just haven’t seen this literary device used skillfully in the past twenty years.”, is there any way you could give us a few examples of other books that do this?

    Thanks so much for the article. I can’t wait for the rest! Well technically I can; but you know what I mean.😄

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      So… most of my examples of allegories I like are going to be hundreds of years old since I don’t like most modern stuff post-Lewis that I’ve read. Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Spenser’s “Fairy Queene,” and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” are at the top of my list. That being said, I did like the film “The Song,” which has a strong allegorical element along with Lewis’ less well known “Till We Have Faces.” Alternatively, while I don’t know if he’d call it an allegory or not, Daeus Lamb’s “God of Manna” is doing a lot of interesting things with allegorical dimensions, and I really liked his novella.

      If you’re thinking about allegories in particular, I wrote at length about this topic a couple years ago at Kingdom Pen, and you may find that article helpful: http://kingdompen.org/why-most-modern-christian-allegories-fail-and-how-to-prevent-this/

  2. Kaleigh Flowers

    Awesome! One of my favorite articles so far 👌

    Reply
  3. Ariel Ashira

    Ooh, I’m so excited for this series! This was really great, Josiah! Thank you.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Ariel! I’m glad you’re excited for this series. 🙂

  4. Aislinn Mollisong

    Rolena let me borrow this book a few weeks ago and I fell in love. Certainly one of the best allegory-type books I’ve ever come across.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yeah; it’s excellent. Good person to borrow the book from. 😉

  5. Jane Maree

    I appreciate this series title so much. The puns! 😂

    I love all the points you made! Nadine did an amazing job of so many storytelling aspects in Fawkes and I love it so much.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Brianna gets full credit for the genius series title. xD

  6. Evelyn Kelly

    I’m afraid (no one scream at me please xD) that I’ve never understood why this book has been spreading like wildfire around here. The premise failed to peak my interest, even despite the book being praised from 95% of the rooftops in the Christian writing community. 😉

    I’m really interested in reading the rest of this series, though, and am awaiting the next article.

    Thanks Josiah for writing this one!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Hm; that’s too bad. I’ve certainly disliked books that a lot of other people like, though, so I can empathize with you on that point. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  7. Jenna

    This is so good! Nadine Brandes’ books have been such a refreshing change to Christian fiction. Really looking forward to more of what you guys are doing with studying Fawkes. 🙂

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      They really have been! Glad to hear it–we’ll be releasing the next post tomorrow!

  8. Eden Anderson

    This is a great article, Josiah! Really enjoyed reading it.

    That said, I’ve read Fawkes and I actually didn’t enjoy it that much. (I guess I just have weird taste…😛) There were some things I loved about the book…like the magic system and most of the plot. And there were some things that I didn’t like…such as the portrayal of God (maybe I’m being too nit-picky or sensitive); and the main female character was another one. Overall, my opinion was “okay, it’s good, nothing to rave about.”

    Still, I look forward to reading the up coming articles. Maybe I just read the book to fast…and when I take time to sit down and actually think about it, I’ll change my mind. 🙃

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Eden! I do get concerns regarding the portrayal of God. As I allude to in the article, I’m on the fence about that accuracy and can see arguments for both sides here. Maybe we’ll be able to infect you with some of the other reasons we really like this book over the course of this series, though. 😉

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