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:
- Today I’ll outline the lessons Fawkes teaches about portraying Christianity in fiction.
- On Wednesday, Brandon Miller will explain how Fawkes exemplifies honest storytelling.
- On Friday, Maddie Morrow will demonstrate that a misguided protagonist like Thomas Fawkes can deepen a story.
- And, on the podcast this Saturday, we’ll interview Nadine Brandes about her learning experiences while writing Fawkes.
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?
Josiah DeGraaf is the summit & marketing director at Story Embers and the program director of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday he hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching young writers at the Young Writer’s Workshop or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.