Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Why Faith in Fiction?
When readers finish one of my Seatbelt Suspense novels, I want them to be breathless, shaken--and in some way enlightened.
As the trademarked Seatbelt Suspense novelist I am, in this order:
1. A suspense writer
2. A Christian writer
I write fiction for a Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins. When I first began to sell my fiction 10 years ago I was drawn to the Christian market because there I could include a faith thread in my stories. At the time I was writing both women's fiction and suspense. I'd written two of the former and one of the latter, all targeted toward the general market. They had no faith thread in them. When I rewrote the stories for the Christian market to include a faith element, I was amazed at how much better they became. The character arcs were stronger, more defined. The lasting value of the novels--those certain truths about life that linger with you long after you finish the book--also strengthened. I realized this was because I, as a Christian, had not been paying any attention to the inner faith journey of the character--a part of every human being I know to be very important.
All humans are physical, emotional and spiritual. My novels aimed at the general market certainly included physical and emotional stress, and lots of it. But what about the spiritual aspect? You could argue that our spirituality surpasses our physical and emotional natures, as our souls live on into eternity, long after the body has passed away. So why not include a character's questions about God, her turning away from or seeking after God in time of difficulty? The old saying "There are no atheists in foxholes" is true. When times really get tough, often even the toughest agnostic character may cry, "God, where are you? Help me!"
Now, 10 years into my career as a published novelist, it seems to me the great divide between Christian and general fiction has filled in significantly. I read more general fiction that pays attention to the spiritual thread. I read Christian fiction whose spiritual thread is present but minimal. Overall, I think this country is paying more attention to spiritual matters because we're in a "foxhole." It's a dangerous, crazy, unpredictable world out there, and many people are thinking, "Maybe I need a little more help dealing with it all."
Why do I say I'm first a suspense writer? Because my job is to entertain, not preach. People don't pick up a novel to learn something. They pick up a novel to be entertained. To plunge into the world of a character whom they care about.
To live up to my Seatbelt Suspense brand, my stories must have:
1. Fast starts
2. Well-drawn characters
3. Tension-filled, fast pacing
Woven through that fast-paced plot is the inner journey of the character--what he/she learns from the beginning to the end of the book, as a result of facing all the trauma. Here is where the emotional and spiritual elements come in. It's one thing to weave in the emotional elements--nearly all fiction does that. But particularly in suspense, where characters face death, high danger and life-threatening issues, cosmic questions become important. Where is God at times like this, and does He even care about me? Why is there such evil in the world? How do I turn to God for help? In my fiction, I want to be able to raise those questions. Readers understand those questions. Most readers have had similar questions themselves at some point in their lives.
The extent of the faith element in my novels varies widely from one book to another because this element arises naturally from who the character is. I never sit down to write a novel with the faith element in mind--through this story I want to say to my readers _____. I sit down with a plot in mind. A fast-paced, twisting story intended to propel readers through the pages. If readers strap on their seatbelts and commit to taking the ride with me--they're in it until the ride ends. Along the way they'll encounter the spiritual questions/answers of the protagonist--emphasis again on the word questions. My novels don't have pat, neat endings with every question answered. This world and life are messy, unpredictable, and often dirty. The spiritual thread in my suspense is not there to say "everything will be hunky-dorey if you just do this." It is there to say, "Hey, there's a redemptive God in the midst of this messy, unpredictable, often dirty world. Have you ever thought about that--and what it means to you?"