For the first three-and-a-half decades of my life, I was a people-pleaser. I thought—I really did think—that niceness was next to godliness. The most important thing, if you wanted to show the character of Christ, I thought, was to be agreeable. To not ruffle feathers. To say, “yes, dear” to your husband, and “yes, of course, I'd love to!” to anything the church asked you to do. I don't know if I was ever taught this overtly, but it's certainly what I saw the nice Christian women around me doing. It was what godly women in books did (Ma Ingalls, from the Little House on the Prairie series, anyone?) But this faulty brand of “godliness” made me miserable. It left me with no sense of who I really was. It very nearly ruined my marriage.
Inspirational fictional heroines have, historically, not done us many favors this way. As a young adult, I read plenty of missionary biographies, and there, I found real heroines aplenty: women of true courage and fortitude, with a robust godliness that appealed to me. They stood up to corrupt governments, and went to prison for the sake of their ideals; crossed continents on foot, leading trains of little orphans behind them to safety. Women like these were one of the reasons I became a missionary myself, later on. But these were not the kinds of women who showed up in the novels of my church's library back then. In those earlier years, Christian heroines were often timid and helpless. They seemed to spend a lot of time standing about wringing their hands until someone with broad shoulders, a shock of unruly hair, and an impossible amount of money happened along to rescue them.
But it's 2016, and women's fiction can—and should—do better than that. We've evolved, it's true, there's still room for growth. I would like to see women's inspirational fiction be better at addressing real, complex issues. Not many of us will find ourselves orphaned and cast out into the world to earn our living with our secretarial skills, according to the 1980's Harlequin romance formula.
Twenty-first century women are more likely to face issues like a husband who has an affair; crushing debt; infertility. And while there are plenty of faith-based books on those subjects, they are still mostly in the non-fiction section of the bookstore. Women read self-help books, of course we do. But there is something about fiction that resounds and stays with us in a way that non-fiction rarely does. In spite of all the hype against gender stereotyping, studies are still pretty conclusive: Men change their minds when faced with facts. Women are more likely to change when the facts are presented in the context of relationships. And the essence of fiction is that the reader develops a relationship with the character. In fact, writers know that during the hours someone spends reading a novel, that person becomes the main character, in a sense. Stories shape the way we think and behave: and as women's worlds and problems grow more complex, it's more important than ever that women's fiction speak to those worlds.
We're improving at this, especially in the last decade or two, but there's still a lot of room for growth. For example, twenty years ago, prescription drug abuse and alcoholism weren't really publicly-acknowledged problems among Christian women. But today we know they're enormously widespread, even in the church. I wrote about them in my Darling Family series because they're issues that should be addressed in the fiction we read. And what about food addiction, obesity, and all the health and social problems that go along with it? I've never seen that addressed in inspirational fiction, yet it's clearly an issue for a lot of women. So I wrote a book about it (Better All the Time, Tyndale, 2015.) Other issues I've written about over the series are bad marriages (All Right Here, Tyndale, 2014,) perfectionism, and grief (They Danced On, Tyndale, 2016.) Real issues that women face.
One of the pitfalls of writing inspirational fiction is the temptation to become didactic: that is, that the author will try too hard to teach a moral or a lesson. As a writer, I have felt this pressure from readers and at times from my publisher, who knows what readers expect. I'm afraid it's a snare I've fallen into more often than I like to admit. But good fiction should not be didactic, and one of the first rules of writing is to simply tell the story and trust your reader. Fiction should not be a Sunday School lesson, with a moral to it, where the good girl always wins. Because life is not like that, so how is that helpful? Ideally—and again, I have not always done it perfectly—I prefer to show my characters with real struggles, let them battle their way through them, and trust the reader to take away what she needs. Can readers learn something from my characters' stories? I hope so, but it's not up to me to decide what that should be. I might even say that's God's job.
The Bible, I have learned over the years, has much to say about the answers to our problems, but is fairly silent when it comes to the process. And forgiveness, sobriety, grief, choosing to love...they're not one-time problems with a done-and-dusted solution. This is where fiction can fill in some of the gaps. It can show people like us grappling through the process. It can make us feel, for a couple of hours or weeks, that we are not alone in the fight. It offers hope that things can be different, and gives us examples to follow in our lifelong battle to become all that God made us to be.
What about you? If you're primarily a reader, what's a novel you've read—inspirational or not—that materially helped you through a problem you were facing? And for the writers among us, what's an issue you would like to write about: a theme you think could make a real, solid difference for women who might read your book someday?
Carre Armstrong Gardner is a former worker with children at risk in Russia. Now, she continues her work in Russian-speaking countries while making her home in Portland, Maine. She is a nurse and the mother of 3 grown children. Her latest novel is They Danced On, the final book of The Darling Family series. Follow her on Facebook or at her website: carregardner.com.
Today Carre is generously offering two books to commenters. One for each of two winners. All Right Here and They Danced On. Leave a comment to get your name tossed in the family hat. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.
|All Right Better All the Time They Danced On|