Christian fiction has begun to get a bad name. Why is that? Do you want to market your novel as Christian fiction? How can we begin making Christian fiction better?
What Is Christian Fiction?
Christian fiction readers expect a book to be free of profanity, violence, and gratuitous sex. It differs from clean fiction in that it also has a spiritual element, a person’s journey to faith or reassuring them of their beliefs. N. J. Lindquist says that Christian fiction typically tells stories that are comfortable and safe for evangelical Christians to read.
Often it is Protestant Evangelicals who have defined what is suitable, safe, or acceptable for Christian fiction readers. For example, many evangelical Christians will accept the wizards in the Narnia series and Lord of the Rings yet reject the wizards in the Harry Potter series. Christian fiction usually reflects evangelical Protestant’s views that a person is saved at a single moment in their life, while other Christians, including Catholics, believe we are on a continuous faith journey. Christians who are not evangelicals may not look for a book Evangelical leaders approve and may be comfortable reading books that are not marketed as Christian fiction.
Why Christian Fiction has the Reputation of Being Weak
In an online group of Christian egalitarians, a member asked for thoughts on Christian fiction authors and books. Here are some of the responses:
- Pithy Research. Christian fiction is inconsistent with the Bible or reflects inaccurate or incomplete research.
- Some have reduced books marketed as Christian fiction reading thinking it would put preaching above plot and character development, was too evangelical or manipulative.
- It might reflect a conservative, patriarchal hierarchy where a woman’s life goal is to get married and have children; it lacks female main characters, it show men as strong heroes and women in support roles.
- Avoid it because it is boring or uninteresting. Christian fiction is safe and fits with your existing beliefs, that comfort can make it bland. The faith journey may include unrealistic, pat answers or be too predictable.
- Poorly Written. Readers felt some novels marketed “Christian” were of lower quality, poorly written. May show Christians as spotless, blameless, flat. The plot may provide unrealistic solutions or show God makes everything right.
What Can Christian Authors Do?
As Christian Fiction authors, we need to acknowledge the weak reputation and address it.
Some Christian fiction has sacrificed biblical accuracy in telling action or adventure. Some novels using prophecy call readers to repent or the consequences will be suffering in the coming tribulation. However, many Christians do not share this premillennialism view of the end times. The Alliance for Biblical Integrity says The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn presents serious theological flaws in applying biblical prophecy to current politics. Baptist News explains that the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins promotes a misreading of the biblical text that appeals to fear, racism, and pat answers.
Other Christian fiction may provide false doctrine that if you believe in God, then God will give you a good life, good health, and a good husband. This idea is both bad doctrine and bad fiction. However, I am amazed at the extensive, thorough biblical and historical research portrayed in the Christian fiction authors I follow. As authors, we need to ensure our writing reflects thorough research, working as for the Lord.
To share the good news, some Christian authors believe it is important to explicitly explain salvation in the novel. This makes the story unrealistic and slows down the action. It is fair to criticize stories where the characters pause to give a monologue that seems more like a sermon.
A good approach is to show evil and violence in the story which breaks the rules for a ‘clean read’ but fits with the genre’s goal of a character arc resulting in salvation. Sometimes the plot tension comes from a mystery or action and adventure about prophecies or the end times. Popular books in the Christian fiction genre may make the spiritual elements more subtle as a secondary plot. Rather than an explicit message, the novel may focus on the impact on the character. Often the plot tension comes from a romance since both romance and Christian fiction genres end happily ever after.
Evangelical Christian fiction readers may be more likely to think the Bible restricts women and expect authors to portray women in secondary roles. Non-fiction writers like Kristin Kobes DuMez and Beth Allison Barr have documented the move towards hierarchal complementarian being the orthodox Christian view. Some Christian fiction writers present a strong male protagonist (The Last Disciple series, Chronicles of Nephilim), and some present women in strong roles as mothers or wives (authors such as Francine Rivers, Beverly Lewis, or Janette Oke). If your novel reflects egalitarian or progressive beliefs, evangelical Christians may not approve it. Christian authors who believe the Bible imposes no restrictions by gender and want to write a strong female protagonist may decide not to market their novel as Christian fiction but instead market their novel as a thriller (A.D. 30) or as women’s literature (The Book of Longings).
Having a happily-ever-after ending or a character coming to faith may make your novel predictable. To ensure Christian fiction is not bland or boring, Christian authors need to hone our skills. We may stand out from other authors by using courses, blogs, and other resources to improve our writing craft. We can add tension with romance, fantasy, mysteries, action, adventure, and unexpected twists.
I completed my first draft of my novel, Forgotten Followers, in 2020. Soon, I realized it was a series of anecdotes. I re-wrote it several times as I learned about writing techniques after taking courses from Skillshare.com, reading articles and watching videos on better writing. In 2021, I shared the tips from the work in eight months of editing. However, in 2022 I used feedback from professional editors and sample readers to continue to edit. I did not publish my book until September 2022.
To make my writing time more effective, I’ve committed to starting with a good plot plan. The “go-to” for my next biblical fiction is a spreadsheet with a column for the year, a column for biblical and historic events, and a column for each character showing their age, location, and activity for that year.
While I think of worldbuilding for fantasy novels, it also describes the type of research I did to understand the Greco-Roman culture in the first century and the place of women in it. I looked at maps of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea and details of Jewish festivals, typical jobs, the climate, crops, and food. For example, I had to remove tomatoes which did not arrive in the Middle East until the 1800s. Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah celebrations have changed since the first century. Good worldbuilding will immerse your readers; an anachronism that does not belong in the time and place of your novel will distract readers. To find out more about worldbuilding click here.
It is important to develop well rounded characters. I do a profile of each main character to keep in mind as we write the book. I outline their age, looks, tastes, fears, and motives. On Amazon ads, you have only 150 characters to identify your character’s goal, obstacles, and the stakes if they fail to achieve their goal. Authors need a truly clear idea of their character arc.
Following the tips above will improve the quality of your writing. As stated, I spent almost two years editing and re-writing my first novel. It takes time to build the world of your novel, the characters, and to plan out the plot. There can be structural editing and copy editing as well as proofreading.
- Pithy Research: Make it thorough and accurate to honour God. Avoid making promises that do not ring true. Avoid resolving the character’s problem with a pat, simplistic solution.
- Preachy: Keep it subtle, and secondary to the main plot and character development
- Patriarchal: Be aware that many evangelical Protestant readers expect to see strong male heroes and women destined for marriage and motherhood; make your choice to stay within the genre, expand the genre, or market your book outside of the genre.
- Add spice and surprises, use complex characters that are both good and bad, and well-crafted plots that are surprising and challenge the characters, with unexpected solutions.
- Poorly Written: Join Christian authors networks, online discussions. Take courses, read blogs, or watch videos on the writing craft.
About the Author:
Elaine Ricker Kelly moved from the financial business to author empowering women. Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold is a biblical fiction bringing hope and healing. She is also the author of The Sword: A fun way to engage in healthy debate on what the Bible says about a woman’s role. You can read her other blog here.