Thursday, October 23, 2008

Internal Conflict

I love to read books on the craft of writing. My book shelves overflow with texts on characters, plotting, how to write romances, how to write Christian romances, mysteries, suspense, grammar (not my favorite) etc. You name it, I’ve got it.

So when I found a book about writing Christian romance from the perspective of the reader instead of the writer, I immediately bought it. It’s a non-fiction book called Romancing God, Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction by Lynn S. Neal. As a writer, I couldn’t resist learning what a researcher and non-evangelical had to say about Christian romance, its authors and its readers. I discovered most of the information is common knowledge to inspirational writers since obviously most, if not all (I’d say all),are believers who write from a Christian perspective.

Ms. Neal says the fundamentals of Christian faith overlay the basic structure of the romance plot. That’s not earth-shattering news although most authors strive to integrate their spiritual message into the fabric of the plot not just gild it with faith. But maybe that’s what she meant.

In these stories, the obstacles that keep the hero and heroine apart come from their faith or lack of faith. That caught my eye and raised several questions.

Do the internal conflicts of the hero and heroine always emerge from a spiritual problem? If so, must it always involve faith? What about other spiritual problems like lying, cheating, stealing? These are behavioral sins, not difficulties with belief and unbelief.

Or can the internal conflicts come from something else such as a difference in personality, temperament etc. which have nothing to do with faith? Is the spiritual conflict a separate thread to weave in and does it always concern faith?

I wonder what you think—or know.

Also, does the spiritual problem become the theme? In many of the inspirational romances I’ve read lately, the themes involve God’s love for us, his faithfulness, trust or forgiveness. I’m afraid I’m probably forgetting some important ones. Can anyone add to the list?

Do inspirational romances ever have non-spiritual themes?

According to Ms. Neal, evangelicalism has three major beliefs: the authority of the Bible, a personal conversion experience and witnessing to one’s faith. She says George Marsden adds two more: salvation through Christ and a spiritually transformed life.

One or more of these tenets are woven into most Christian novels to one degree or another. Readers like this. I think it’s the Christian values that separate inspirational romances from secular even more than the behavior of the characters. But this also tends to make Christian books a bit predictable and similar to each other.

So how do we make our novels unique and not a sermon dressed up as a story? Any ideas??? I think it’s a challenge we all encounter.


Melanie Dickerson said...

What did y'all do to this blog's comments section? It's all funky today.

Anyway, I hope someone will answer these questions, someone who knows more than I do!

Frankly, I don't have any conversions in my books. My main characters are Christians trying to muddle through and stay on God's good side. A lot of Christian fiction does tend to sound the same, as you pointed out (is this Cara Slaughter?) and comes across as hokey, but I have never been able to figure out why that is. I'd like to hear what others have to say.

Julie Lessman said...

Ooooo ... thought-provoking post, Cara! Good thing I have a cup of coffee in me so I can rise to the occasion! :)

You asked: So how do we make our novels unique and not a sermon dressed up as a story? Well, for me, the easiest way is to steal from real life. I mean, look around -- the world is littered with various levels of Christian commitment and application (or lack thereof) -- from the flaming zealot to the lip-service lackey.

For me personally, I need to look no further than my own life to come up with scads of real-life scenarios for my novels (all of which I've learned the hard way, I might add) and guess what? Yep, they ALL end up in my books. From the die-hard good girl devoted to God (Faith O'Connor) to the love-starved bad girl (Charity O'Connor) who gives lip service to God and ... ahem ... another kind to men. Yep, been there, done that.

Soooo, I think when you pull from real life and/or your own experiences, the chances for it coming off as a "sermon" is greatly reduced ... uh, or at least I HOPE so!! :/


Kim said...

"One or more of these tenets are woven into most Christian novels to one degree or another. Readers like this. I think it’s the Christian values that separate inspirational romances from secular even more than the behavior of the characters. But this also tends to make Christian books a bit predictable and similar to each other."

Okay, as a reader, I don't think it's fair to say that Christian values make all inspirational novels similar. I have NEVER heard anyone say that secular books are all alike in their trashy immorality, sex, violence and nasty language. Hello!? Either the author can tell a good story or they can't.

The market used to be a small selection that was predictable in many ways but that has not been true of the CBA market for a long time. The variety, the depth, the complexity of the stories is much much different!! There are particular authors whose style is predictable but you certainly can't say that about all books in any genre of the market. Even inspirational romance.

I don't mean to rant, but I've read a TON of books this past year, and I've come across very few that were sermonized, predictable or formulaic in the the story telling. My only concern as a reader is that authors have bought into this "hokey", "sermonized" ect...misinformation and are changing their style to "fit" the market leaving Christ and the gospel on the sidewalk. Now THAT is just not right.

But don't get me started on that. If someone feels like God has gifted them with the ability to write and has called them to that task, they better make sure His fingerprints are all over their work. If our lives, our talents and our work fail to glorify God, then we've missed the point altogether.

Okay. I'll hush now.


Mary Connealy said...

Good morning everyone! :)
Okay, fake perkiness. It's about 45 degrees, drizzling rain for three days now in Nebraska. I don't have a perky bone in my body.

I liked the post, Cara. I'm doing revisions on a book right now I hadn't read in a while and I've sort of surprising myself what's in there. The Christian foundation of it.
I always look for a balance, the Christian foundation of the book but without giving up the entertainment, the two definitely can co-exist and a conversion or a renewal of faith or a test of faith or a growth in faith or a yearning for spiritual peace can be a really powerful thread in a book. So I likes trying to handle it with all it's potential power.

And Blogger comments ARE weird today. Maybe they've got something new. Who can keep up.

Janet Dean said...

Great post, Cara! You've given us lots to ponder. My themes have come from the book's spiritual thread.

I don't believe internal conflicts between the h/h have to be about their faith. Their pasts may make a character leery of getting close to another or give them different perspectives on the same issue that creates huge conflict for them. Yet has nothing to do with their faith.

To me inspirationals won't come across as preachy if the character's struggle with and return to God rings true. When backstory is strong, readers will sympathize with what's happened to the character and understand how that's impacted their faith or even turned them away from God. They'll root for the character. Writers need to use events or other characters to bring the character to a close relationship with God that's believable and emotional.


Cara Slaughter said...

I'm having hard time with commenting, also!

If this goes through, I'll try again.

Audra Harders said...

Mornin' Cara, great insights! I agree, you mentioned many elements that make Inspirational romances unique and at the same time similar. Yet it's the author individuality that creates a novel.

Like Julie said, life experience offers a deep well of imagination, theme and conflicts! Being a definite prodigal child in my twenties, I incorporate a lot of heartfelt thanks for the grace and mercy the good Lord has shown me into my stories. I think the Lord guides me to share these experiences with the world through non-threatening, thought-provoking fiction. God has a plan for our lives, He knows the good and the bad we'll get into. Plus I've lived the spectrum feelings of desperation and elation and everything in between. WE make our writing come alive through the life we've lived. We can't help it.

Or, I guess you can, but there is such an obvious difference in books that have heart and soul and those that do not.

Okay. Time to pack up soap box and put away coffee mug for the day : )

Can you tell you touched a hot spot?? Thanks Cara, you've fired me up for the day, LOL!!

Cara Slaughter said...

Well, my 'comment' went through, but I'm not sure what I did.

Thanks for your comments, ladies!

Janet, Julie and Mary--you all write entertaining books with a non-preachy faith message.

I guess I wondering if we can expand the faith theme to include other spiritual messages besides salvation, forgiveness, trust etc. If so, what a are few of them? Am I making any sense?

Jessica said...

Blogger changed the comment forms, everyone. Now you log in and it'll keep your name in there. I have to agree, it's annoying.
This is very interesting and something I find challenging.
My wip began sounding like the first in the series, in that the heroine struggled with faith. So I changed it. Instead of her struggling to trust God, she struggles with judging people, which, unfortunately, sometimes christians are known for.
Hopefully that'll spice up the internal/spiritual conflict. I think in life everything ties together. When there's some sort of internal conflict, I would guess that there's a coinciding spiritual conflict.
But that's just my guess, spur-of-the-moment style.
This is a thought-provoking post. I think many inspirational novels (and I'd say I'm widely read) can sound formulaic or preachy. Christianese is the most annoying thing to me (even though I'm sure I speak it, LOL)
Ack, there's no more point to my post. I think I'm rambling now.
Bye, y'all.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cara-mia, you're making perfect sense and this is a thoughtful post.

Other spiritual messages, huh?

You've cited the biggies. Forgiveness and trust cover a lot of human ground whether they're bound in a secular book or an inspirational story, mostly because we're all a bit loose in those departments. Once someone's lost our trust (or vice versa) it takes considerable effort to win it back, and that can cover fidelity, finances, honesty, integrity, work ethic, etc. Within those dynamics you've got the potential for myriads of great love stories, so they encompass a lot if you break down the umbrella of 'trust'. Forgiveness is another one because we don't forgive very easily and we never forget, so those two are pretty stable, huh? It's awful hard to forget when we've been wronged, and then expected to trust the wrongdoer. Ouch. I don't know anyone that grasps that concept easily.

How about humility? (Julie's Charity O'Connor is a great example of that). Modesty? Or an author can go the civic route and delve into stories about Big Brother, scabby politicians, bad churches, evil business heads, cantankerous old people, eco-disasters (A Civil Action) which can be presented through a Christian worldview or an inspirational setting, depending on what works and what publishers will consider.

And I'm going out on my typical limb here and slightly disagreeing with Kim. I think a lot of Christian fiction reads alike because the spiritual threads are reflective and often mirrored from book to book. Secular romances don't have that third thread and that's a huge difference in presentation. Anytime you add a third thread you run the risk of reflecting what someone else has already written, and since faith struggles are fairly universal, it can become repetitive in some cases.

If you read mysteries, you often find that after 'x' number, they all sound alike.


Same thing.

Real life crime. Four or five and you can actually plot them yourself from the opening chapters.

Suspense that uses the same hero or heroine in repetitive books. Big yawn here. How can that many good or bad things possibly happen to one person, especially someone not involved in law enforcement? That suspends my belief right there because while I loved Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames as a kid, I don't know a real person that faces mystery and drama (and that many jobs, LOL!)out of the blue like Nancy and Cherry did, so I can't read grown up books doing the same thing because it's just not believable to me.

While I think some opinions on the similarity of Christian fiction are a generalization, there is a valid point because that third thread (hero/heroine/faith)marks a similarity between books, especially if you're talking romance. You're starting with a basic profile (H/H/Attraction/Conflict) then adding faith in either a struggle or supportive role which stamps the similarity a bit deeper. Each book is created with the same three threads and it's tricky to maintain a distinction through voice and action.

I think Kim's right that there IS more diversity now than there was even a few years ago. Author voices are definitely more distinct and there's greater latitude in story telling. I think the rise of Chick Lit (which I'm not a huge fan of, although I like Chick-Lit-type heroines in romance)broke down some perceived barriers. There are definitely more 'hip' books out now under Christian labels, and that's awesome.

I'm going to vote that real characterization is the key, topped with a generous dose of good, strong writing and sprinkled with fun dynamics (humor, sexual tension, goofy secondary characters) so the reader doesn't throw the book across the room in a fit of infantile temper.


Hey, no food? What's up with that?

We made parfaits this morning. They're a blend of puddings and whipped cream, chocolate cake and a dusting of chocolate/peppermint mix to add an additional texture. Tell me what you think.

Real whipped cream, of course.


PatriciaW said...

Thought-provoking post.

I too read a lot of Christian novels. I think the "hokey, preachy" thing is old tapes being played over and over. I don't see nearly as much of that as I used to but it comes up every times there's a discussion about Christian fiction.

One might argue that there's a spiritual component to all internal struggles. Christian fiction acknowledges this. But the spiritual struggle doesn't always have to be about faith. It could be sins, as Cara pointed out. Maybe a difference in understanding of Scripture, without getting denominational, that causes the h/h to butt heads. Or, maybe about grace or seeing oneself as God sees us.

I think the uniqueness comes in developing real characters. We're all unique so if we remember that Christians are real people, not some stereotype, our characters and thus our stories will be too.

Cara Slaughter said...

Good points, ladies! I think the quality of Christian fiction has improved trememdously since I began reading it in the early 90's. There's a lot of diversity, too.

This is off the subject, I guess, but I think Christian heroes/heroines are sometimes put in straight jackets after they're saved.

Ruthy, I'm going to B&N Starbucks this afternoon to meet some writer friends. I'm going to have a light caramel frap with whip cream. Yummie! Would anyone care to join us? B&N in Pensacola.

Anonymous said...

One think I tackled in Gingham Mountain, coming in Feb. is what to do when bad things happen and nothing can stop them. When people are living in terrible strife, like orphan children on the streets, and the problem is just too big to solve and their suffering torments people who want to help.
Where is God in that suffering.
Mary-my Google id was here on the comments before but now it's not, what's that about? So now I'm anonymous...if this works.

Mary Connealy
I don't know if I 'solved' that problem, not of the suffering but of how to not be tormented by it. But I tried.

Mary Connealy said...

This is just me testing the system

Melanie Dickerson said...

How frustrating. Blogger just lost my comment. GRRRRR!

Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t get this whole “spiritual thread” thing. I’m reading the comments and feeling a little confused. I mean, why does my character have to be angry at God, doubt that God even exists, or have some huge problem with forgiveness? Why can’t they just have a goal, motivation, and conflict, go through their story with the normal reactions, spiritually and otherwise, and by the end of the story, have grown both spiritually and emotionally. Why does it have to be some big major spiritual flaw?

I loved the old movies where people went to church, prayed before they ate, and talked about God, but it wasn’t a “Christian” movie, it was just a normal American movie. Of course, I want more of a Godly element in my stories than that. I believe in miracles and answered prayers and I want those in my stories. But why can’t I have a normal loaf of bread sometimes? Why do you always have to take your bread and twist it into a pretzel? Isn’t it okay to have a normal loaf of bread sometimes?

This probably makes no sense, but if anyone thinks they know what I’m talking about, please chime in. That is, if Blogger doesn’t eat your comment.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

This is a great post. I learned a lot, Cara. My character's internal stuff always stems from their backgrounds. Thinking back, normally they've had a trauma or major event in their life that shaped or stunted who they are today.

Being preachy as an author is one of my fears. But my editors are really great at picking out that sort of thing, which I'm glad for.

I try to have a light touch, but sometimes I also have to let the story be what it is. Comes down to trusting God I think. That we wouldn't go one grain more or one grain less of something He wants sprinkled in.

Great discussion everyone!


Vince said...

On Inspirational Romances ---

This is a very interesting blog. I hope you don’t mind if I jump in.

Here is some creative advice:

Write something that only you could have written. This may be hard to do but even the effort can generate useful ideas. It can also help you develop your own voice.

First Rule: Be inspiring! An Inspirational should be inspiring and inspiring stories can happen even in a secular story where a person’s honor and courage carries her across the finish line against all odds. If the story is highly inspiring, a large burden is taken off the Christian elements.

Second Rule: Don’t overlook the mundane. Be sure to see the trees in your inspirational forest. Don’t just think themes. Remember: readers need to like your characters. In real life people tend to like people who are like them and share their values.

I feel comfortable reading a story where people pray, say grace at meals, go to church and all these actions are just commonplace. I like these characters and feel comfortable entertaining them in my head as the author’s story comes to life in my life. These Christian characters are a strong allure to reading inspirational novels regardless of the plot line.

Faith can help characters overcome non-spiritual problems. I like a strong Christian character who wins people over by his honesty and worthy behavior without any preaching. I particularly like a story where a good Christian widow with two small children wins the admiration and later love of an agnostic neighbor who was brought to God by her good example and not by church attendance or her efforts to convert him.

Right now I am reading one story after another where bad things have happened the hero or heroine or both and the novel’s conflict is in trying to understand why bad things happen to good people. This theme is really overworked – especially when the stories have the same solutions.

A big part of the “sameness problem” in Christian inspirationals are publisher guidelines. I was told that not only could I not have a Catholic church in a story, I could not even use a Protestant denomination by name.

Once in a while I’d like to see the hero and heroine kept apart by doctrinal differences. For example, predestination and free will disputes which I have experienced. I have a relative that won’t even go into a Christian church that does not allow women to take part in the services. However, you just can’t write about these things.

In any event, I don’t think that “doubt” or “a lack of faith” is required in an inspirational. A strong faith that helps a person overcome adversity (and may help others along the way) can make a very strong and rewarding story.

Some themes I’d like to see written:

A minister who tries to convert his non-believing neighbor only to end up respecting her as a child of God who serves God in her own way. Her example actually reaffirms his commitment to the Church while she is a non-believer. (He insists she is a Christian but doesn’t know it.)

A hero and heroine on a missionary trip who overcome their own conflicts when they try to convert a heathen native who actually helps them overcome conflicts with his native wisdom.

The wise Shaman who sees the inner conflicts in the Christian hero and heroine’s belief system and helps them find contentment in their Christian beliefs with an acceptable Christian solution. They don’t convert the Shaman but they see how God used the Shaman to bring them back the Christ.

These are not the same old stores but could anyone get them published?

I’d sure like read these stories.



Melanie Dickerson said...

Okay, Vince, I loved your comment, but then you lost me with the stories about missionaries who couldn't convert someone to save their life! I lived that story, for heaven's sake! It wasn't all that great. I'll tell you all about it some time. :-)

But I loved your saying, Write something only you could have written. And your point about writing an INSPIRING story. Some great points there.