WEAVING FAITH INTO YOUR ROMANCE
Robin Lee Hatcher
Every novelist has a worldview, and like it or not, our worldviews find their way into our fiction. It’s partly why we write. At least, it’s partly why I write. I want to invite readers into the world I’ve created and have them see it from my point of view. For me, that means a worldview influenced by my Christian faith. For someone else, it could be a worldview influenced by another religion or their politics or a passion to save an animal from extinction or a host of other things.
For those of us who write romances for the CBA (Christian Bookseller Association) market, we need to weave our faith into our novels as a natural and integral part of the stories.
In general, there are two plot threads in every romance: the internal/emotional plot thread and the external/action plot thread. In an inspirational romance, there is a third plot thread––faith. That faith thread should be so important that, if you removed it, your story would no longer hold together or feel complete.
In Writing the Christian Romance (Writers Digest Books), Gail Martin defines this genre of romance thus: “Christian romance is the story of two people with individual goals and needs, the physical and emotional attraction that holds them together, the conflict that separates them, and their coming together, through a deeper purpose and God’s guidance, to embrace in love and commitment.”
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In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner, says: “I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life … that is worth pursuing.”
Because the Christian fiction market has grown by leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years (often being the fastest growing segment in publishing), I have seen novelists, aspiring and published, eager to write books for CBA publishers without a complete understanding of what Christian fiction is. But even before they try to understand the market, those writers need to have a deep and abiding Christian faith themselves. With that as the starting point, the rest will be much easier.
When I was preparing a workshop on this same topic earlier this year, I asked a number of successful CBA novelists to share their wisdom about weaving faith into a Christian romance. I’m delighted to be able to share some of those gems with you here.
You may know James Scott Bell as the author of the fantastic “how to write” books from Writers Digest, Plot and Structure and Revision and Self-Editing, as well as the superb The Art of War for Writers. He is also one of my favorite novelists (Try Dying; Try Darkness; Try Fear).
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The above advice is equally applicable to weaving faith into an inspirational romance as it is to weaving theme into a novel.
“The faith element adds another level to a novel,” says Maureen Lang, Christy Award finalist and author of Look to the East, “deepening internal conflict, inspiring action, explaining motivation. It is underneath and in between every line in a Christian novel, often part of the underlying theme rather than in actual dialogue.”
Hannah Alexander, Christy Award winner and author of The Hideaway Series, has this to say: “Reading a sermon poorly disguised as fiction is offensive to readers, no matter what that sermon may be. It may be a fire-and-brimstone Christian sermon, or it may be a sermon on women's rights, gay rights, or any unnecessary scenes that don't provide forward thrust for the main story––such as a travelogue. When I pick up a book, I want to enter a totally different world, where the characters are real, and aren't simply a mouthpiece for the author. I read fiction to walk in the footsteps of well-developed characters.”
Most readers of the RWR already understand how important characters are to the success of our stories. Before I can get into my work-in-progress, I have to know my hero and heroine so well that they’re able to tell me their stories rather than me making up the stories for them. And if my hero shares my faith, he won’t preach at my readers; his faith will be such a part of him that he walks it out on the pages of my manuscript.
St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” So it is with weaving faith into fiction. The sharing of the faith plot needs to be done in the actions of the individual character, not in his great oratory on the page.
In the best fiction, the faith plot has to do with the journey of the characters.
“To ring true, faith elements must rise naturally out of the characters’ individual journey and character,” says Christy Award winner Marlo Schalesky, author of Shades of Morning. “Given that, I find that the faith elements that arise most naturally are questions, doubts, and challenges to the faith of characters for whom relationship with God is important. When tension arises due to plot elements, that tension then creates tension in the faith of the characters. Exploring those tensions make for a deeper, richer experience for readers as characters struggle not only with outside forces but also with how those outside forces affect their internal journey of faith.”
RITA Award winner Deborah Raney, author of Almost Forever, says: “The faith element must be about the character, not about the author. While I sometimes realize, after the fact, that my heroine's faith journey reflects a faith issue I'm going through or have struggled with in the past, I feel it's important that when I'm writing the novel, I become my character––not the other way around. If I go into a story hoping to teach a lesson or a moral, it is bound to feel tacked on, forced, or preachy. But if I discover, or am reminded of truths about my faith right along with my character, those elements will feel much more organic to the whole of the story.”
"So long as faith is a real and vital part of your characters’ lives,” says BJ Hoff, Critics Choice Award winner and author of The Emerald Ballad, “it will be a natural part of their story. Prayers and sermons and messages will almost always appear to be ‘tacked on’ and contrived if they're simply inserted to supply an inspirational thread for a novel. Faith needs to be an integral part of a character's life in order for it to be genuine.”
RITA Award finalist Denise Hunter, author of Seaside Letters, says: “Every novel has character growth. In an inspirational novel, that growth is often of a spiritual nature because God is related to every aspect of our lives. If a character needs to see that she can't, in fact, do everything and be everything to all people, then she might come to see the importance of depending on God. If she's been abandoned by everyone she cares about and must learn to trust, she might come to realize that God is the one who will never abandon her. If a protagonist needs to learn to forgive herself, she may learn that God is waiting and eager to forgive her and give her peace.”
Golden Heart winner Leanna Ellis, author of Once in a Blue Moon, says: “The inspirational part of a story needs to come from the very heart of the characters and grow organically throughout the story. You can have a mentor character help your main character along by imparting wisdom they have learned through their experience but no long winded speeches, sermons or prayers. That stops the action of the story and causes readers to roll their eyes. The vine of inspiration needs to be rooted in the theme of your book.”
It is only fair to point out that some readers who don’t practice the Christian faith (and perhaps some who do) may find CBA fiction “preachy” no matter how well a character’s faith is woven into the fabric of the story. I hope the majority of readers will enter the Christian world created in CBA fiction without prejudice, the same way most readers entered the Muslim world created by Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner, but I know not all will.
As a woman of faith, I talk about God as naturally and openly as I talk about my children and grandchildren or my writing or my pesky Papillon, Poppet. It is second nature to me to offer to pray for someone in need or who is hurting, as natural for me to say “God bless you” as it is to say “have a good day” or “how are you?”. Thus it is second nature for my characters to do the same. Yet even these small things can turn some readers away from Christian fiction, and the writer has to be prepared for it.
I believe Christy Award finalist Stephanie Grace Whitson, author of Sixteen Brides, says it best: “Faith informs my writing in the same way it informs my life. Having characters who pray or ask God for help comes naturally to me as a writer because it comes naturally to me in my everyday life. That seems strange for people who don't practice the Christian faith. If someone doesn't know anyone in their everyday life who prays about their problems or reads the Bible looking for answers to their problems, then it's difficult to accept characters who do. It's only natural to think those story elements are forced and preachy.
“But the truth is, there are millions of people who do live that way, and for them, seeing their imaginary friends play out those behaviors in the fiction they read isn't weird. In fact, it's a reflection of real life in 21st-century America. It may not reflect everyone's life experience, but to presume that it's inauthentic says more about the reader than the writer.”
If you’re interested in writing romance for the inspirational/Christian market, I encourage you to absorb the advice of these best-selling and award-winning authors on weaving faith into your romance novels. Also, take the time to explore the many different sub-genres within the CBA market and the many different styles of the authors writing Christian fiction today. Then go forth and invite your readers to see the world through the eyes of your characters.
A Home for Christmas, a two book novella that is ebook-only from Robin Lee Hatcher and Mary Connealy
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A Christmas Angel
Ten-year-old Annie Gerrard, stuck in a wheelchair since falling from the barn loft, hopes for a beautiful angel to go atop the Christmas tree, but God’s answer to her prayer is completely unexpected.
Annie’s widower father, Mick, hated to ask his in-laws for help, but he had no other choice. He never imagined they would send his wife’s stepsister, Jennifer Whitmore, to care for his daughter. Nor did he foresee the love she would bring into their home. Did he and Annie dare hope that Jennifer might choose to stay?
Heart of Gold
Coming in February 2012
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Against Shannon's wishes, love stakes its claim in her heart. Will she discover treasure or treachery?
When Shannon Adair accompanies her minister father to the western gold rush town of Grand Coeur, she's certain she'll never be happy away from her beloved Virginia, even though the South is still gripped in civil war.
Wells Fargo driver Matthew Dubois isn't sure the lovely Shannon belongs in Idaho Territory either, but he is a desperate man. His widowed sister is dying and leaving her young son, Todd, in his care. If Matthew ever wants to return to driving coach for the express company--and he does mean to return to it--he'll need a wife to look after the boy when he's away.
Shannon is determined not to lose her heart to a man who is neither a Southerner nor a gentleman. But love stakes its claim. Now, will her heart survive learning the truth behind the courtship?
RWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and former RWA President, Robin Lee Hatcher is the author of over 60 novels and novellas. She is an eight-time RITA finalist and has won two RITA Awards. Robin serves on the board of directors of the Faith, Hope & Love chapter of RWA. Her latest release is Belonging (Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins, 9/2011). Visit her web site at http://www.robinleehatcher.com/.