Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Characteristics – And The Characters – Of A Christian Novel

Winnie Griggs
Hi Winnie Griggs here.  I’m so glad the folks here at Seekerville allow me to keep coming back for visits – I always have such a great time.
Today I’m going to switch gears just a little bit and instead of discussing a craft topic per se, I’d like to talk about the characteristics, and especially the characters, of a Christian novel.
But first, let’s take a minute to talk about what Christian fiction is.  A previous iteration of the Christy Awards website explained it this way:
"Christian fiction is a category of stories written by novelists whose Christian world view is woven into the fabric of the plot and character development.... C.S. Lewis resisted the label "Christian" for his novels, contending that he was simply creating a story. But whether overtly or subtly, Lewis’ fiction came out of his understanding of God and of the universe He created, out of the knowledge that God cares deeply about His creation that has been damaged by sin, and He joined the human race to build a bridge back to himself. This bridge between God and humanity will in some way inform and characterize every Christian novel.
"... Fiction published for the Christian book market does not include the gratuitous demonstration of sin—whether language, violence, sexual situations, or the more hidden sins of idolatry and self-worship. Credible characters in a fallen world, of course, will sin. But the Christian novel’s presentation of the grit and grime of human circumstance will not be done for its own sake or to titillate, but to point the reader toward hope, toward God.
"Because the essence of Christianity is a relationship with God, a Christian novelists’ well-conceived story will in some way, whether directly or indirectly, add insight to the reader’s understanding of life, of faith, and of the Creator’s yearning over His creation."

In other words, the what makes a novel Christian fiction is not that it is “preachy” or moralistic, nor does it necessarily contain a ‘conversion’ scene.  Instead, these books use a Christian worldview to tell stories of fallible people facing real-life problems.

In many ways, writing novels for the Christian market isn’t all that different from writing secular fiction.  To do it well, you must know your craft, have a vivid imagination that you can tap into, and you must be able to tell a story in an engaging, entertaining manner.
The key difference comes in being able to weave one very important additional thread into your stories - that of the Christian worldview.  Christian fiction strives to illustrate that added dimension of spirituality in the characters that populate their pages.
However, the first thing you need to understand is that, the mark of good Christian fiction is not that it is overtly “preachy” or moralistic, nor does it necessarily require a ‘conversion’ scene.  Instead, these books use a Christian worldview to tell stories of fallible people facing real-life problems.
That’s right, characters in a Christian novel should indeed be fallible and flawed, just like real life Christians.  Many new writers make the mistake of thinking that because the book is a told from a Christian worldview, that their protagonists, if they are Christian, should be perfect or at least near-perfect characters.  That simply because they have a deep faith, they should be able to make all the right choices, should never succumb to temptation and be perpetually happy and satisfied with their life.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Not only is that not realistic, as even the bible affirms, but it’s not very interesting or entertaining either.  Because really, who wants to read about perfect people.  Perfect people are boring.  
If you have a ‘goody two shoes’ character who always forgives the wrongs inflicted on him, who never struggles with temptation, who never has to deal with personal flaws such as jealousy, pride or anger, then how can your reader possibly feel any connection or sympathy for him?  And if your heroine has no real conflict in her life, if she doesn’t have to struggle with her decisions, and if she doesn’t fail occasionally, why would anyone be interested in turning the pages of her story? 
As a reader you want to see the characters you’re investing your time in, be torn over decisions, see them struggle with temptation, watch them stumble occasionally, because we learn the most about a character’s true moral fiber when we see how he deals with tough temptations and trials.  And we also want to go on a journey with these characters - a journey that illustrates a character arc that ultimately leads to growth and change.  But how can a character grow and change if they are already perfect to begin with?
We also don’t want to infer that if someone is a Christian, everything will go smoothly in their lives and that, as long as they have true faith, they will never stumble and fall.
So, if the characters in Christian fiction are as flawed as those in secular novels, what makes them different?  The difference is in how they will view their own flaws and transgressions in light of their beliefs, the added nuance to the remorse they feel for having failed to make the right choices, and how they seek to make things right not only with the injured party, but with their creator. 
As authors, our goal is not to ‘preach at’ our readers or to shoehorn in heavy passages of theology.  A spiritual message, no matter uplifting or how biblically sound, without an entertaining story to deliver it in, is merely a sermon, not a novel.   Instead, we want to depict in a realistic, engaging manner what it looks like for someone who is striving, perhaps not always successfully, to follow a Christian lifestyle and still deal with trials and temptations.  In other words, we want to convey the message that there is more to life than what we see on this earthly, physical plane of existence.  And do that in a way that resonates with readers and rings true to how they themselves deal with matters of faith - or how they wish they did.
Of course this extra thread we weave into our stories, that of faith, does hand us an additional responsibility, and means there is more work we must put into our writing.  At the same time it gives us an opportunity to add additional depth to our characters, and it gives us more layers and nuances to explore and tap into as we dig into the values, passions and ambitions of our characters.  
So when you’re digging into your character’s backstory, trying to unearth what molded and shaped them into the people they are in the now of your story, you need to also consider what his or her spiritual environment and upbringing were like.  
Some questions 
you might want to think about: 
·         Did he grow up in a family of devout believers, or were his parents of the apathetic or “in name only” variety.  What about his friends and others he looked up to?
·         Did he attend church regularly as a child?  What about now?
·         How does he feel about organized religion?
·         Was her faith ever tested and if so how and what was the outcome?  If not, what will happen when that test finally comes, because it always does? 
·         How familiar is she with the Bible?   Does she perhaps have a favorite passage, or one that speaks to her on a deep personal level?
·         Does she turn to prayer only in times of need, or does she have a regular robust prayer life? 

Those are just a few examples, but such questions are important for you to answer, whether they show up on the page or not, so that you can truly understand where your character is spiritually as your story opens.  And it can help you to see where you need to take her.  Because, in a work of Christian fiction, part of the character’s story journey will deal with that added dimension of a spiritual arc.  The hero and heroine are not only in conflict with each other as they try to reach their HEA, but there should be some aspect of conflict in their relationship with God - some area of their faith that needs to be changed, deepened or restored. 
And all of this doesn’t apply only to your primary characters, you can use the struggles of secondary characters and the consequences of their choices to highlight your faith message so that the choices your protagonist makes become more vivid.
For each of your characters, as with real life individuals, faith is a deeply personal matter and is something they must work out for themselves in their own way.  And because of this added layer we focus on in our stories, far from handicapping us, writing Christian fiction gives us room for added dimension and creativity.

So what do you think – agree or disagree?  And what can you add to this topic?

Winning the Widow's Heart 

To help his dying sister, Nate Cooper once broke the law and paid a heavy price for his actions. Now the ex-con turned saddler hopes for a quiet life and new beginning in Turnabout, Texas. Being declared a hero for saving a child’s life, however,  leaves Nate feeling like a fraud. 

Since the violent death of her husband, single mom Verity Leggett has attempted to lead a safe life, avoiding danger and excitement at all costs. And her daughter's handsome rescuer Mr. Cooper seems like a perfectly responsible man, one she can finally rely on. 

When his secrets come to light, however, will Verity be able to get over his past and see Nate for the caring man he's become? 


  1. I get to be first because someone set this to publish on the wrong day. (the 22nd).

    I stayed up for Winnie because she's the best teacher in the world.

    Hi, Winnie!

  2. Yikes, that would be me, Tina.

    I am sorry. Thank you for saving me. Again.

    Winnie, great post. Lots of things in here that are hard to put into words.

  3. Great post Winnie! Thank you so much!.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  4. Hi Winnie,

    Great post. One author I used to read years ago, always had a conversion story. So when I started writing, I thought I had to have a conversion story. I think this is good for 'seekers,' but many of the people reading Christian fiction have already been converted.
    I learn so much as characters learn new ways to deal with the sin in their lives. I hope to write stories that will draw the reader closer to God while entertaining them. Because fiction is what I write.
    Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Hey, Winnie, WELCOME BACK, girl -- you are a mainstay among our guests, and it's a pleasure!

    You said: "Perfect people are boring."

    LOL ... and yet we all keep trying to get there, eh? ;) I couldn't agree more, whether in fiction or in real life (i.e. those who "pretend" to be perfect, that is, since no one is).

    When I started writing Christian romance, so much of it was autobiographical, that flaws and imperfections in the characters came naturally to me, as did the conversion scenes because I lived them.

    You also said: "For each of your characters, as with real life individuals, faith is a deeply personal matter and is something they must work out for themselves in their own way."

    I totally agree because just as one size does not fit all in the genres people choose to read, one size definitely does not fit all when it comes to the spiritual aspect of a story either. Being an emotional CDQ (caffeinated drama queen), I have learned that my spiritual scenes are not for everyone because they are so reflective of my own deep and potent relationship with God, with which not every reader is comfortable. But one has to write from one's own heart, and the good news is that if God taps us on the shoulder to write for Him, you can bet your MacBook Pro He's got readers hand-picked for you to reach.

    Last year, because of the level of romantic passion in my books, I fasted and prayed about leaving the Christian market to go into the secular market, but I felt like God told me to stay. And to be honest, the thought of minimizing the spiritual aspects of my books in order to be more palatable to the secular market left me feeling very empty, so here I stay, and happily so. Because books without Christ at the center, whether a subtle thread or blatant like mine, seem so incomplete to me, when God is our All in All.

    Great post, Winnie, and very thought-provoking, as proven by my early-morning ramble here. :)


  6. LOL, Mary, sounds like something I would do, which isn't a compliment! ;)

    What would we do without Tina to keep us in line???


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  8. Hello Winnie! I'm always delighted to see you listed as the poster for the day. :-)

    I have such mixed emotions about 'christian' fiction. I better not even go there. I read the genre because it's clean writing with no bad language.

    I do get weary of the character who does whatever they please as long as they mention God at least three times on each page.

    Thank you for an enlightening post.

  9. Good morning, Winnie! Thank you for your insightful blog. I am copying your questions for use in developing my characters. By the way, there is a bootcamp for SYTYCW (So You Think You Can Write) by Harlequin on all day today.

  10. Winnie, welcome back! Thanks for the excellent post on writing characters in our Christian novels. I love the added layers, the richness, that characters' struggles with faith bring to our novels. And hopefully their journey gives hope to readers.

    Know your new book will be a great read as I always enjoy your books.

    So after writing all these stories, any tips on how to keep your heroes and heroines faith journeys fresh?


  11. Hi Winnie,
    From a reader's P.O.V, I appreciate the extra time and effort writers take to add a Christian perspective to a story.

    The best authors are those who have the talent of integrating their faith into their gift of writing seamlessly. Like most anything else, if it looks easy, you know it wasn't.

    Thank you to all the authors out there going the extra mile to provide us with quality Christian fiction! Much appreciated!

  12. Winnie, thank you for many great takeaway thoughts in your post. You expressed exactly what I hope to do in my writing...we want to depict in a realistic, engaging manner what it looks like for someone who is striving, perhaps not always successfully, to follow a Christian lifestyle and still deal with trials and temptations. Yes! Your questions about my characters' faith histories will focus my development of those characters. Thanks! Great keeper post!


  13. I am a reader, and a Christian. But those authors who HAVE to HAVE a dramatic conversion scene in EVERY book they write have lost my interest. Those characters who try to but sometimes fail to live As Christ would want us to have me going back for more! Thanks, Winnie!

  14. Jackie, I think years ago, it was more the norm to include conversion scenes...or at least the bulk of the books I read did, too. :)

    These days, my full-length books do tend to have at least one of the main characters with more of a spiritual arc than my novellas.

    Slade Donovan, the hero in Claiming Mariah, definitely had a lot to overcome spiritually before he became the man God wanted him to be.

    In Stealing Jake, both Jake and Livie are Christians, but that doesn't mean that they don't have some growing to do. :)

  15. Oh, and guess what I found in Walmart last night???


    Not only did I find it, I might or might not have rearranged the books (ahem) and took a picture of Missy Tippens' book, The Doctor's Second Chance, Winnie's book, and three other LI authors. Posted to fb this morning! :)

  16. Great post, Winnie! So glad you could join us today!

    I so agree about NOT writing "perfect" Christian characters. For one reason, if they already have it all together, where is the room for growth and change?

    For another, who can truly relate to a character who isn't flawed in some way?

    And MARY & TINA, I feel so much better now that I wasn't the one who messed up when I scheduled this post for tomorrow's daily Seekerville Tweet!!! It should go up any second now!

  17. Thank you, Winnie, for the indepth description of what makes a Christian novel. Your insightful comments gave such to think about when writing.

  18. Winnie your book sounds great.

    It's aggravating our Walmart doesn't carry LIH. They have the other LI books, just not historical. What's up w/that?

    I so agree w/you. Perfect characters are boring and unrealistic. I love it when a character thinks they have all the right answers until they're faced w/an impossible choice. Especially if they pick the wrong one. Their whole view of the world can change in that instant and suddenly they can truly know what empathy and forgiveness is all about.

  19. Winnie you do always have a good word or something that I need to hear.

    I think the trickiest part is to be able to add references to a Bible passage without having it be quoted verbatim or used as a skillet over the character's or readers heads.

    Peace, Julie

  20. Hi everyone! Seems I'm late to the party, again! But this time I have a good excuse. I'm dog sitting while my daughter is out of town. We had thunderstorms in the wee hours this morning and Dean does NOT like thunder.

    I woke up before dawn to hear him whining at my bedroom door, so of course I got up and sat up with him and played toss and fetch in the living room with his toys until the worst of the storm passed. Then we both fell asleep on the couch LOL.

    Anyway, I'm up and eating a late breakfast now.
    Looking forward to reading everyone's comments

  21. Tina and Mary - thanks for the kind words, you ladies are the best!

    Mary and Cindy, you both are quite welcome. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  22. Hi Jackie. It sounds as if you have a real heart for writing this sort of fiction. And you're right to focus on characters and their learning experiences - this is at the heart of our stories.

  23. Julie, I always enjoy reading your thoughtful comments. And LOL on being an emotional CDQ!

  24. Winnie, thanks for joining us again. What a great post! Thanks for the helpful tips. They'll be great to use while coming up with the backstory.

  25. Hi Winnie, Welcome back to Seekerville. It is always such a pleasure to have you aboard. You make some great points and things we really need to consider when writing Christian fiction.

    Thanks for the helpfull hints and have fun today.

  26. Winnie! This is a beautiful and well-scripted explanation of what a Christian novel should be. Well done, my friend.

    I love the C.S. Lewis quote. I love how he wove emotion and reflective faith into his work so seamlessly THE BRAT.

    And I'm delighted that his work is reaching greater renown as time goes by. He's truly reaching people far and wide, I would bet beyond his wildest dreams.

    I love working with parabolic ideas, with glimpses of mental scripture, with internal nudges because that's how I see God working among us. If our writing emulates Christ's actions on Earth, that builds a bridge toward faith without ever mentioning the word.

    Sacrificial parents, (the mother seeking help for her son), the tax collector (the bill collector, forgiving debt, making allowances), the father wanting a cure for his daughter (going to great lengths to help our children achieve happiness, sometimes too great a length!) and on and on.

    I find those stories from the Old and New Testament to be the perfect basis for fiction. I'm doing a Moses/sacrificial parent story right now. Reflective story-telling almost feels like STEALING!!!!!

    And yet there's not a thing wrong with it!

    Welcome back, buddy!

  27. Oh, Winnie, we have a couple of doggies who are absolutely terrified of storms, so I understand what you were going through! One of our doggies can't even bear it when something on TV includes the sound of thunder or gunshots or anything remotely close. She hightails it to her bed in the bedroom and shivers until she decides it's safe to come out.

  28. Jackie, I love what you said. So many early stories were built around conversion stories and I'm glad we've gotten away from that now because we believers have our own bevy of sin to master, don't we?

    And I used to look at the characters and think "I would never talk to this man/woman ever because they're too set in their ways. They'll never see the shades of gray life brings us normals."

    I'm with you, believable Christians or non-Christians when it works are the best part of the story for me. Give me the folks next door!

  29. Great to have you hear today, Winnie. I love this post. I often have wondered what is expected in Christian fiction. I know that there is a wide range of what readers look for. I enjoy reading Amazon reviews of books after I read them and sometimes people will say that they were disappointed in the lack of Christian content in a book. These are books in which there is a definite Christian world-view among the characters but they don't beat you over the head with it. I wonder what those readers wanted.

    I read a book once in which it seemed every character quoted Bible verses every time they spoke. This didn't seem realistic to me because most people don't speak that way on a regular basis. Some people might, and that could be important to that character. But I want books to be realistic.

    I also like that in many works of Christian fiction, the character who has been far from God will not have had a dramatic conversion scene at the end but it is clear that he or she is seeing God in a different way and is on the right path. That is also more realistic.

    Thanks for such an interesting topic.

  30. Great post, Winnie. My Book Therapy teaches about incorporating a Lie Journey into the lives of each of your characters. It's really helpful to think about what dark moment left the character with a lie they believed, thinking about the truth they need to learn in the story and the steps and events that happen that take them from the lie to the truth.

    I'm still figuring out how to make it more organic in my stories, but I really like using this to help me lay the ground work for the spiritual arc of my characters.

  31. Mary Hicks said: "I do get weary of the character who does whatever they please as long as they mention God at least three times on each page. Thank you for an enlightening post."

    You're right Mary, it takes so much more than that to depict believable, relateable Christian characters. And it's something that must be woven in, not added on

  32. Hello Olivia - You're welcome and I'm glad you found some good takeaways in the post today.

  33. Agreeling with Tina, Winnie is a wonderful teacher. I always learn something new when Winnie is our guest.

    Thanks, Winnie, for delving into Christian characters! Very insightful!

  34. Hi Janet - thanks for the welcome! And that's a great question about keeping the faith journey fresh. The way I approach it is to try to start with characters who feel fresh and unique. I delve into their backstories to figure out who they are and what their external goals and motivations are, and then try to answer those six questions I listed in the post. That way, the faith arc grows organically from who they are and even if it involves similar issues to what I've done in the past, that particular character's approach and stumble points will be different.

    Does that make sense?

  35. Hi Tracey - your statement that "if it looks easy, you know it wasn't." is so very true.

    Sherida (love that name!) I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and found some takeaways

  36. Hi Winnie, this is a very good article. It is good to hear how a writer brings in the Christian message and life style. I am a reader who likes Christian fiction. I grew up with Grace Livingston Hill books. Does that date me? I used to collect them. I would go to second hand book stores just trying to find one. Now there are so many authors that I can't keep up with them all. And now I mostly read ebooks.

  37. Hi Marianne - you're quite welcome. And I think the key is not whether or not there is a conversion scene in the book but how seamlessly and organically it is woven into the fabric of the story.

  38. Thanks Winnie for your great insight. I've enjoyed reading your books.

  39. Wonderful Winnie thanks for a great post and many great books.

    1. Ooops thought my first post didn't go through. .oh well I think I like the second one better.

  40. Hi Pam - thanks for the shout out on seeing Second Chance Hero (and for the creative rearranging of the shelves :) )

  41. Myra - Hi! Glad you agree with me about needing to write about less-than--perfect characters, and the reasons you listed were spot on!

  42. Hi Pat - glad you found some food for thought in the post.

    Connie, you're right - being faced with an impossible choice really brings out what is at the core of your characters.

  43. Winnie, I've had editors/contest judges tell me that one of my characters is preachy. It's always the heroine that I end up doing that to.

  44. Thank you, Winnie, for the post. Even though I write contemporary romance, I do like to read inspirational and thought this was a good perspective on several aspects.

  45. Hi Julie, good to hear from you. And as for Bible references used as a skillet over the character's or readers heads." LOL, that can be tricky. The key, of course, is to keep it in character and to make certain it flows naturally within the scene you're writing

  46. Hello Missy! Glad you enjoyed the post! And for me personally, backstory is where I normally start when developing a character

    Hi Sandra - thanks for the warm welcome.

  47. Hi Ruthie! I'm also a big C.S.Lewis fan. And I love what you had to say about reflective storytelling!

  48. Winnie, I do the same thing with backstory when I'm doing characters. It's how I get to know them. And mostly that all gets scrapped, but it helps me to commit things to memory by writing them down.

    I do that with some kids, too, because they retain more once written. Visual learners, maybe? Or just future crazy writers??? :)

  49. LOL Myra, it seems to be a common malady with dogs. It's really tough when I'm keeping him on New Year's Eve or the 4th of July.

  50. Sandy - Hi! Glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic, always great getting a reader's perspective.

  51. Hello Jeanne - The Lie Journey, I really like that. I'll have to see how I can use this in my own plotting.

    Aw Debby, what a sweet thing to say. Thank you my friend.

  52. Nancy - Hi, thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Bettie, Thanks for the kind words and you're quite welcome!

  53. Winnie, that makes perfect sense since everything comes from who the characters are! I have copied your questions to ask on my next novel.


  54. Hi Walt. Sorry to hear you're getting such negative feedback - I hope my post gave you some insights you can use.

  55. Tanya, you're quite welcome - glad you found something you think you can use in the post

  56. Ruthie - I agree. A lot of the backstory development I do is for my own use, most of it never makes it to the pages of the book.

    Janet, you're quite welcome! Glad I was making sense (I don't always :) )

  57. Winnie, What a great, thought-provoking post! Thanks for the insight!

  58. Yes, I agree! And I do enjoy Christian Novels :)
    My emails are getting multiples of the post in the same email... a few times now

  59. I love characters who obviously have a lot of backstory (thank you, authors! ;) that isn't blatantly stated within the story's text but emerges piece by piece over the course of the book. Dee Henderson does a great job inserting little details here and there throughout her novels that tell the reader something without the reader really realizing it. Just lovely character development...involves a lot of subtle 'show don't tell' I suspect!