How to Depict Characters Living in Sin without Endorsing Their Choices

March 11, 2024

Has your work-in-progress ever taken a dark turn? You thought you were writing about teenagers falling in love for the first time, but instead you ended up with scenes where the characters crossed physical boundaries. Or maybe your plot veered into other uncomfortable territory. A violence-ridden city. An unfaithful spouse. Gender dysphoria. Because the world is broken, you can’t portray it authentically and empathize with your audience unless you recognize the struggles around you.


As Christian storytellers, we’re called to adhere to truth, even when it’s unpleasant. That means we’re responsible for how we use the gift of creativity. Although we may be tempted to cater to man, God is our ultimate authority, not publishers, agents, or readers. Sometimes that knowledge paralyzes us: What if we inadvertently romanticize immorality? What if we hurt someone


Human depravity cannot be erased this side of heaven, but it can be and has been conquered—through Christ. When we show the damage sin has caused, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, we help readers to long for the wholeness and comfort only He can bring. That process starts with examining our intentions and calibrating our imaginations to the story God is writing.


Accentuate Sin with a Purpose

Before you can write both a meaningful and edifying story, you need to assess the maturity level of the audience you’re targeting, the topics that will or won’t resonate with them, and the emotional response you’re trying to evoke. Whatever you decide to focus on, remember that sin is not simply a transgression to atone for, it’s a deviation from God’s design. His commandments and instructions express His love for the beings He’s created—He has a plan that will provide hope and a future. 


Sin should never be peddled as entertainment. If a character acts on same-sex attraction, the incident needs to be tinted with an understanding of Scripture’s teaching on marriage. Since today’s culture scorns biblical ethics, addressing problematic behavior in some capacity is crucial or you’ll risk implying that it’s acceptable. Normalization occurs when sin is treated like a personality quirk. 


In the case of illicit romances, evaluate whether the relationship is necessary to the plot and why you’re inclined to include it. Are you attempting to increase your book’s marketability? Some agents require queer representation in their submission guidelines. Are you concerned about backlash if you exclude certain groups? Everyone feels the mounting social pressures to be inclusive. Or is the character’s journey weighing on your heart? If your motivation is anything except the latter, reconsider the direction you’re heading in. Otherwise, proceed with caution. 


The most memorable stories prompt readers to connect with the characters—and grow alongside them. Perhaps your protagonist’s downward spiral eventually demonstrates the power of forgiveness and redemption. Or the fallout may offer readers a glimpse of the suffering they’ll experience if they follow a similar path. 


Don’t Whitewash Situations, But Don’t Be Gratuitous Either

Finding the balance between realism and stumbling blocks can be overwhelming. But you have a potent example and resource you can rely on—the Bible! Spend only minutes flipping through the pages, and you’ll encounter numerous God-breathed accounts of people fighting temptation or indulging in sin. The text neither promotes nor conceals evil. 


Look at David, for instance, who is described as “a man after God’s own heart.” Even though he committed adultery with Bathsheba and slaughtered her husband, he became part of the Messianic line. When he gave in to lust, his iniquity multiplied, leading to murder, deception, and more. Throughout the seasons of his life, he fluctuated between pride and repentance. Yet God used him mightily. Your goal is not to blot out a character’s flaws but to display transformation (or, sometimes, a warning) that inspires change in your audience.


However, readers don’t need a steamy Bathsheba and David scene, nor a graphic image of Uriah’s mutilated body, to feel the gravity of a character’s mistakes. A few choice words can convey volumes. Keep in mind, though, that the absence of explicit details is not synonymous with reproving sin. Plenty of tasteful stories make light of wrongdoing. Even if you don’t show a married protagonist’s infidelity on screen, the absence of repercussions and remorse can send a distorted message.


Add Appropriate Consequences

Nobody wants to be preached at when sitting down to consume a story. In an era with so many hot-button issues, writing anything without offending someone is difficult. Your role isn’t judge and jury. You have much more effective tools in your belt, one of which is cause and effect


Sin carries a cost that’s often far-reaching, harming both the perpetrator and those around them. An affair could cause paranoia, alcoholism could cause abuse and isolation, and dishonesty could cause breaches in relationships. Whether or not a character reforms within the story’s timeline, you can still communicate that he’s erred. When readers see chaos mounting and joy deteriorating, they’ll draw that conclusion themselves, and you’ll have a natural opportunity to guide them to a stream of living water. 


Remember the Gospel

The remedy for sin in the Christian walk is grace and the pursuit of obedience. If we surrender our stories to the Lord, we position ourselves to hear His voice and write with ongoing discernment. We don’t have to figure everything out because Jesuss sacrifice was and is sufficient. If we truly believe this, leaving our characters in despair borderlines a lie. While the gospel may not be stated in our stories, it can inform our ideas, and thats more powerful than any book or article on story craft. We dont have to fear true-to-life portrayals, sin and all. Instead, we can visualize the conflict between the flesh and the spirit in a way that lingers with readers. 


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