Monday, April 13, 2009

The Christian Ethic in Fiction

Dear readers, please keep in mind our very exciting, truly amazing Audience with An Agent Contest, and your chance to slip your manuscript past the slush pile into the hands of literary agent, Wendy Lawton. Read here for full details.

Is there such a thing as a Christian ethic of fiction writing, a way to show Christlike love to our characters, and, through them, to our readers?

One evening at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, while we six ladies relaxed in our cabin, Bonnie said to me, "You love the slow turning, don't you?" She'd observed that neither of my novels contained what I would term an "altar call:" a sudden dramatic transformation of a character from a state of doubt to a state of faith.

There are authors who do altar calls well, who draw their characters through a story that builds to a seemingly instant metamorphosis that has in fact developed through the crysalis of a well drawn story. (Bonnie is one of these, as is Latayne, whose Latter Day Cipher released just this month.) But it's true: I love a character who does not eat her salvation whole, but instead digests it bite by bite.

It crossed my mind some time ago that, rather than the Damascus Road experience of the Apostle Paul, I would rather give my readers the desert experience of Hagar the slave woman. I'd read the passage in Genesis 16, about the servant given to Abram by his wife, Sarai, so that he could have a child by her. A familiar story, but this time I stared at the word, "slave," and let myself absorb its meaning. Had anybody asked Hagar if she wanted to bear a child by Abram, to sleep with him? Perhaps not. When Sarai began to resent the girl and said as much to Abram, he replied, "She's your slave. Do what you want with her."

So Sarai mistreated Hagar. And Hagar ran away to the desert, where she met an angel who reassured her, who made promises and predictions, some comforting, some... not so much.

But the thing that allowed her to return to the camp was the new way the angel caused her to understand God. He was no longer the God of Abram. He was, she said, "the God who sees me." Had anybody ever really seen her before?

That's the story I remember when I write my fiction. I remind myself that if I develop my characters well, then some of my readers will see themselves in my story, and perhaps they will feel themselves to be seen, to be understood, as never before.

Please tell us about your experiences. Have you read any novels where a conversion scene was well-written? Do you prefer a sudden surrender, or a slow turning? Have you ever read a novel that made you feel deeply understood?

If you're a novelist, how do you express the ethics of your faith in your fiction? Please share with us how you prefer to write your stories, and why.

We do love your comments.


PatriciaW said...

I'm sure I've read novels where the conversion scene was done well, although none come to mind. I tend to find that they're usually pretty heavy-handed. I prefer the slow turning also.

Latayne C Scott said...

Katy, I love this: "I love a character who does not eat her salvation whole, but instead digests it bite by bite."

I agree with PatriciaW -- and probably most of the non-Christian reading world -- that "sudden" conversion passages in fiction usually aren't satisfying.

Thanks for mentioning Latter-day Cipher. I'm going to give away five free copies of it, starting Wednesday, here on this blog!

Latayne C Scott

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

the internal spiritual turn of a character is such a pivotal point of the book and the character's journey. it's so easy to stick them in a church to have a revelation. but this is so overdone! another thing is to have this one scripture verse that just becomes the character's lifeline. of course, i'm not saying that these things can't happen...they can and do...but these two particular things seem overdone to be in christian fiction. so i'm trying to do something a little different in my WIP to show my heroine's turning: the testimony of another. just my thoughts...

Patti Hill said...

I can give you a date and time of my surrender to Jesus, but I'd been moving toward Him for months, maybe years. When did I move close enough to be considered a Jesus follower? Was it when I first turned an ear toward Him? When I sat on shag carpet for Jesus talks? How about the time I read The Good News for Modern Man never guessing it was a Bible? All of this happened before I crawled into bed to pray my life into His hands.

And let's get honest. I'm still in constant need of surrendering to His Lordship, and, I pray, I'm moving incrementally closer to Jesus, sometimes by a circuitous route.

All of this is to say that I like the slow turning too. It's what I've observed and lived. I like that I have a date and time, but some of us never will. We'll just notice that we love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. It's like falling in love with that boy you thought was all wrong for you and discovering a Prince.

The novel I'm plotting now is my first novel from the point of view of an apathetic church attendee. She believes, but she isn't so sure she likes God. Of course, I want her to draw closer with cords of lovingkindness. I'm expecting this to be a plotting challenge. Thus, the long entry.

Is it time for lunch yet?

BTW, I wrote a conversion scene, and my editor told me I'd swung and missed. They're tough to write.

Carole said...

First of all, I want to tell you ladies how much I enjoy your blog. Thanks to you, I've learned that "upmarket fiction" is the descriptive term for what I like to read.

I'm sure I've read books with a dramatic conversion experience, but can't think of one at the moment. Most have the slow turning, which I believe is more true to life. Like Patti, I can remember the day and time when I walked down the aisle to accept Christ. But I was raised in a Christian home, and this decision had been building as I grew in years. In fact, when I read of dramatic conversions, I'm tempted to feel that I have no testimony - until I realize that my life has been a testimony of God's faithfulness.

Patti, I just finished "Like a Watered Garden" last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope to read books by all the authors in this group soon.

Bonnie Grove said...

I love this post: Way to go Katy! Brilliant comments too. I love hearing the perspectives of all of here.
My question to Katy came in the context of a larger conversation where she was talking about her astonishing ability to see the human journey toward God as a stumbling forward and backward rather than a steady stream. She's just brilliant.

In my current WIP I begin the book with a rather sudden (and humorous) conversion moment for my protagonist.

She notes: "Sure, it seemed sudden, but a single moment in time is always backed up by a million other moments that came before.

It was as if I’d been waiting for this man to tell me this story. A true ‘where have you been all my life’ moment."

In my book, her conversion to Christ in a moment's time isn't the point. It is how her decision stands up (if it stands up) over the course of the novel. Sort of a "what happens after I say yes" story.
Of course, she's framed for murder and on the run, so let's hope it sticks!

Latayne C Scott said...

Sheesh Bonnie. Wish you'd put some drama in your posts and in your novels.

Love ya!

Kathleen Popa said...

What great comments. And what great ideas - to tell the conversion story from the POV of an outside observer. To open the story with the conversion, and to make that conversion part of the problem the character must solve in the course of the story. (It's a very Biblical fact that salvation has often proven to be a problem in the life of the convert.)

Bonnie, I don't remember being brilliant. I do remember you reading from the work in progress you mentioned in your comment. What a privilege. I can't wait till our readers find out what amazing stuff you write!

Lyle said...

In my latest novel, my first chapter opens with, not one, but two altar calls. But rather than those being the conversion scenes, they began a story that would end on a bridge railing in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. It was at that moment, inches from death, that the two women's conversions were realized.

Rosslyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bonnie Grove said...

Latayne: I shall strive to be more dramatic! I will use exclaimation marks willy-nilly to add to the excitement!!
:) I love you too, chicky.

Katy: You are brilliant. I said so, I mean it, so there. All one has to do is read The Feast of Saint Bertie to know how brilliant you are!!

Lyle: Your novel sounds compelling. I'm interested to know how all that plays out. Well done!

I just love hanging out here.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

I'm also glad you mentioned Latayne's novel. You reminded me to buy it, and I just did. I love online shopping!

Thus far, I have not taken a character all the way from non-belief to belief. Instead, I show characters whose relationship with God changes over the course of the story. It may be a faithful person who grows more mature, or a quasi-believer who becomes aware of the reality of God's work in her life. I think it's very tricky to show a real zero-to-one-hundred-percent conversion, but I admire those who can do it convincingly.

Latayne C Scott said...

I love this (NovelMatters) countreeee!

Rosslyn (and anyone else in the vicinity of the Southwestern US-- I'll be speaking on "Taking the Plunge into Christian Fiction" at the University of New Mexico's annual writers' conference on April 25. Here's a link -- -- and I would love to see some of you there!

I will be addressing this very issue of what is called "the Damascus Road experience" and the challenge it poses to Christian writers -- among other topics.

Latayne C Scott

Steve G said...

One of my favourite scenes is Peritti's 2nd book Piercing the Darkness. The woman ends up in a meadow, on the run, about the middle of the book. She is at the end of her strength, and surrenders all to Jesus. His portrayal of the angels' perspective on conversion is wonderful.

Word verification - essess: How I start spelling my name when I am freezing cold (which is usually December to early March)

Mary DeMuth said...

It depends on the character and the story. But the more I write, the less overt I get. I'm personally wary of instantaneous conversions. Something my husband shared with me from the bowels of seminary has stuck with me. He said in the early church it was such a big deal to get baptized that they waited a long period of time to determine if the person actually converted.

In our walk down the aisle culture, we've duped people into thinking Christianity is merely a one time decision, forgetting that the journey involves millions of decisions married with God's power. It's a process.

Michelle Ule said...

Mary, of course, is right. And I think the process, including afterwards, is often far more interesting than the actual "moment."

Unless you get to actually hear singing angels . . .

Bonnie Grove said...

Mary: We are an instant society, and I do think a part of that may have carried over into how we think about our faith and what it looks like to convert. I agree with your hubs - the early church took things very seriously and had far more patience than we do when it comes to "seeing the fruits". Good lesson there. It is a process.

Conversely, in Latayne's novel Latter-Day Cipher, she shows us the slow loss of one's faith (in this case LDS).

I think, for me, when I've read a conversion scene that didn't work, what it felt like was the character was converting to the church, or to an idea about God, but rarely have I seen a conversion scene where the character meets with God on a level that deepens my understanding of God.
Tall order, and it doesn't always fit (As Mary pointed out, it is about the character and the story too), but I love it when it comes together well.
Great discussion!

Janet said...

It is because of the conversion of my character that I had to label my novel "Christian fantasy". His actual conversion takes several days, but his preparation to take what was for him a very radical step began years earlier with the erosion of his previous faith and an encounter with the "numinous" on the shores of the Great Sea. I'm certainly hoping that it doesn't come across as heavy-handed, but necessary and compelling. I haven't had enough feedback yet to know.

My own commitment to the Lord came gradually as a rather natural progression, so I can't pinpoint a day or even a year.

Steve G said...

One of the biggest things I love about Bonnie's writing is the fact that she respects her reader. It forms a foundation to her style and voice partly because it means she doesn't have to explain things. This is the heart of "showing, not telling", at least in my way of thinking. When it comes to writing about conversion, then, it is more about the emotion and power of the transformation.

Say you are writing about an erupting volcano. There is a vast difference from saying "big mountain goes kablooey" to describing the vibration and noises and how the 5 senses are attacked by this overwhelming thing - same as salvation... kinda sorta. One of Bonnie's endorser's for Talking To The Dead said the scene that blew her away was Kate's conversion. Hands up - who cried when they read it? I did, and I'm a manly man, so...

Charles Wesley wasn't writing fiction when he wrote this 3rd verse, but it is powerful all the same:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray
I woke the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off my heart was free
I rose went forth and followed Thee

Word verification - versixi: High fashion designed by a grade 1 student.

Unknown said...

Please tell us about your experiences. Have you read any novels where a conversion scene was well-written?

Creston Mapes Nobody had a great conversion scene. When I read Gilead I felt like the entire book was a conversion story for the reader. It really pulled me in.

Do you prefer a sudden surrender, or a slow turning?

It depends on the book. As long as it's well written I'm fine.

Have you ever read a novel that made you feel deeply understood?

Claudia Burney's Zora & Nicky there were parts in there from Nicky's pov ironically that spoke to me. Lisa Samson's Embrace got to me.

If you're a novelist, how do you express the ethics of your faith in your fiction?

I sprinkle bits of my character's Big Voice when he or she describes a setting or reacts to a disaster. My stories theme are always founded on a biblical principle.

Please share with us how you prefer to write your stories, and why.

I prefer to write compelling, relevant, realistic stories. If the characters need a conversion, then it must come organically for me. I don't make it a requirement.

GReat discussion, Kathleen!

Emily said...

This blog post was put up a long time ago, but I couldn't help myself :)

I can't really say I'm a fan of either one. Each character in each story is different, and has to have an experience that fits their unique personality. I've seen some very well-done slow turnings and some very well-done sudden conversions.

The best conversion experience I can come up with right of the top of my head was a sudden conversion, and came from Francine Rivers' book "As Sure as the Dawn." The entire book had been leading up to that point. It was sudden, powerful, supernatural, and totally believable for the character. Although now that I've written that, I remember the conversion experience in Talk to the Dead and how it left me in tears (I'm really, really not just saying that, I promise. I just can't get over that book).

To me, there needs to be elements from both the slow turning and the sudden conversion. There needs to be moments that shows the character shifting, little by little, towards the Lord, but there also needs to be that 'bang' moment when they realize they believe.