Can a Christian Author Write for The General Market?
I was doing some research for a class I’m teaching at Mt. Hermon in 2024—Christians Writing For The General Market—and I discovered something that was very interesting… and very disturbing. In 2021, total fiction book sales reached 10.3 billion dollars. In that period total Christian fiction sales reached only 85 million dollars (All religious book sales totaled only 750 million dollars, including the Bible). That’s a difference of 9.93 billion dollars. That means that only 11% to 12% of fiction books sold are Christian. 89% of all fiction books are in the General Market. Of the top ten best-selling books of all time, professing Christians wrote only two of them—The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. What this tells us is there is an enormous market for non-Christian fiction.
Where am I going with this? The statistics show me that Christians are missing a tremendous opportunity. While I am preaching to the choir, writing only for a Christian audience, 88% of all fiction readers are never reading books with a Biblical/Christian world view. The very people Jesus commanded the church to reach (Mark 16:15) are going into a Christ-less eternity while we remain inside the walls of the church writing books that a vast majority of the fiction market readers will never pick up.
This is my premise: We need to expand our horizons as Christian writers to take in the millions of readers who are waiting to read a challenging book that will lift them out of this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) and give them hope where they might have none, give them joy instead of despair, and give them eternity instead of a passing entertainment. And yes, there are genuine challenges to what I am proposing. Here are some of them.
Challenges facing the Christian writing for the general market
Every member of humanity feels the need of a power outside himself and above himself, but the unregenerate person does not receive the things of the spirit because they are foolishness to him. He cannot know them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:14)
The Holy Spirit indwells true believers, and therefore we see the truth objectively—as it really is—but the natural man, the unbeliever, can only think subjectively. He can only make assumptions about why things are the way they are based on his experience or education (i.e., the things he reads.) The unsaved person can grasp themes and ideas that are above him but his mind is enmity to God—the true God, and it is not subject to the law of God. (Romans 8:7.)
We must give our general market reader themes that are archetypical.
Love, redemption, sacrifice, honor, nobility—all these are placed against evil. We must confront the non-Christian reader with the outward call of God as seen in God’s creation—the proclamation of that which may be known of God—the invisible things of Him which are clearly seen and understood as His eternal power and Godhead. (Romans 1:20.) For the heavens declare the Glory of the Lord, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (Psalm 19:1.)
Thus, in writing for the unsaved General Market reader, we focus on the outward call to all men as displayed in the creation, in noble acts, in sacrificial love, in living an honorable life, in respecting and honoring women, etc. They cannot respond to the inward call, that they are lost and completely ruined in their Adamic nature and the only remedy is the cross of Christ, until they lay hold of the higher things of life through their mind, will and emotions—what the bible calls the soul.
By reaching for the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, or praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8) in our stories, we can bring the secular reader to a place where the Holy Spirit can quicken their spirit, so that they might respond to this inward call.
We can use situations of great love and sacrifice (A Tale of Two Cities), great fear of what lies beyond the grave (A Christmas Carol), nobility (Saving Private Ryan), great emotional stress (The Military Wife). Give them outcomes whose resolution we can only explain by the injection of something greater, nobler, more profound than simple human wisdom. We give them stories that leave them exalted, exhausted, broken, or awestruck.
One of the main purposes of Christianity is to take our minds and hearts away from the things of time and to lift them to the things of eternity, and the things of the spirit. As a Christian writer trying to reach the non-Christian, we should point the reader in that direction—even though they may not understand, we want their thoughts to lift to higher things, Romans 10:8 tells us that God has put the word of the Gospel very near to the lost creature—even in his mouth and in his heart.
The world accepts the reality of the cross, but the meaning of the cross is where the debate and the misunderstanding lie. If our work can push the unbeliever to the truth of the cross, then we have succeeded. A redemptive story will move the reader beyond their self-centered life and give them a glimpse of that which is beyond human understanding.
Writing an Enthralling Redemption Arc
As we have discussed earlier in this post, General Market readers are not looking for “Christian” books. But they are looking for themes that reach upward toward a God they may not acknowledge but know in their hearts is there. One of the best themes to weave into your story is the theme of redemption. To give the reader this theme, you need a well-crafted redemption arc. So here are some practical points.
What is a Redemption Arc?
A redemption arc is a type of character development that starts with your character being a bad guy and ends with him becoming good or at least better at the end of the story. The danger is that a redemption arc can become a clichéd or artificial construct that puts your character in a good light as the story ends, without really taking them through the literary meat grinder that brings them to a believable change.
Step 1: Know Your Character
Before launching into your redemption arc, it is important to know your character inside and out. Your task is to create a character who can believably change. To build a redemptive arc, paint your character with serious flaws. Make sure your character remains empathetic, despite their shortcomings. It is very important to create believable motivations for their actions. What has made them the way they are and seems—in their mind—to motivate their choices?
Step 2: Give Them a Reason to be Bad
In order to start your character as a bad guy, give them a legitimate reason for being bad. A Redemption arc needs an initial catalyst: a genuine reason that opposes their redemption. The Redemption Arc’s catalyst might be losing a loved one; suffering a near-death experience; losing a home; Being the victim or watching loved ones suffer a brutal act; growing up in evil surroundings. No matter what it is, for a character to find redemption, you need believable motivation for such a dramatic change—some traumatic action or event, not just an inner realization. They need to come to grips with the reality of who they are, and that life will be better if they somehow can change.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a great example of a thoroughly evil character who experiences a life-changing redemption. In A Christmas Carol, three ghosts who reveal his shortcomings visit Scrooge. Then he is confronted by his own death. That confrontation convinces him that if he doesn’t change his ways, he’ll die alone and unloved. Fear shocks Scrooge into realizing that greed has robbed him of the genuine gifts of life: love and community.
Important note: The big trick with redemption arcs is making your readers feel like the character has earned it… The reader will lose interest if they feel the redemption is unearned.
Step 3. Don’t Tie It All Up Too Soon.
The longer you stretch the redemption journey, the more you can infuse conflict, and thus credible character development. Conflict is the critical element. Every Redemption Arc needs both internal and external conflict. Internally, your character might struggle with their arrogance or their inclination to lash out. They might be a drug addict who can’t seem to overcome their demons. They may hate a particular ethnic group of people because of a horrendous event inflicted by that group. External conflict can come from other characters who either don’t believe redemption is possible or who want to maintain the status quo because they benefit from the protagonist’s negative behavior.
Step 4. Conflict—the engine of fiction—can also make the redemption arc feel earned.
Establish obstacles for your character. For genuine change to be believable, it must be difficult. Show your character tempted to return to old patterns. Relapses are a fact of life. As your character overcomes each setback, readers will see that they’re changing.
Important: When your character is still a bad guy, avoid having them go too far with their ‘badness’. Things like torturing innocents, killing children, rape, etc. will stick in the reader’s minds and build up the expectation for this villain to get his comeuppance. If you then pull a bait and switch and redeem them, your reader will feel you have cheated and cheapened the story. If your character has to do something really evil, consider letting them redeem themselves via their death… think Boromir, Darth Vader, or the Terminator in Terminator 2.
Be sure and emphasize motivation. We need not limit the catalyst to the event itself. Give your character reasons to fight to overcome obstacles. Show scenes of the character wavering in their beliefs… Maybe they disobey orders to kill everyone in an Indian village and leave the kids alive, or they are forced to help the good guy in your story to help themselves.
As I said above, don’t rush the change. The decision to change may be sincere, but the process requires effort and time. Show your character fighting old habits and even stumbling before they succeed. Don’t make your character unrecognizable at the end of their journey. Redemption shouldn’t erase a character’s personality. For example, if your character was a loner, they might remain reclusive, maybe still mistrustful of people’s motives, but more willing to see the good in people. Don’t redeem the irredeemable. Beware of creating characters too far gone to have a plausible redemption arc. Reserve redemption stories for characters readers will root for.
One last point
Many people don’t read Christian fiction simply because much of it is not as well written as General Market fiction. Remember, you are a Christian, but you are also a storyteller, and that is the heart of your craft. If you write well and fill your books with universal themes, you will find readers who may learn about God through your writing. Write the best book you can. Enthrall your readers—give them stories filled with Redemption, Faith, Sacrifice, Love, Kindness, Adventure, Action, Desperate Situations, Heart-touching Resolution and Faith.
Can we write for the General Market? Yes. Should we? Absolutely.
Best-selling author Patrick E. Craig has published with Harvest House Publishers, Harlequin Books and Elk Lake Publishers and his own imprints, P&J Publishing and Islands Publishing. He has written fourteen novels, including the award-winning Islands series with Murray Pura and two best-selling Amish series, Apple Creek Dreams and The Paradise Chronicles. He also has written two novellas and an award-winning book of contemporary fiction short stories and two Young Adult paranormal books. His work is included in two anthologies of Amish stories.
His books have won many awards including The Chanticleer International Book Awards First Place and Finalist Awards in the Hemingway Division for 20th Century War Stories, A CIBA Semi-Finalist Award for Historical Fiction, A Finalist Award in the Word Guild of Canada Contemporary Short Stories Division and The Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Selah Award for Contemporary Anthology.
Patrick lives in Idaho with his wife, Judy.