Monday, November 14, 2011

Tell the Truth: Guest Post by Ariel Allison of She Reads

During the last few weeks I’ve been privy to several robust conversations concerning the role of Christian storytellers. At the heart of these debates is always the question of what we allow our characters to experience, and the responsibility writers of faith have in redeeming them.

Last Wednesday, Bonnie wrote in her post Transformation and Redemption in Story, “…redemption isn’t what we think it is. It’s better than that. It is a state of being that allows us to experience our fully aliveness. People don’t want to transform into churchgoers, they want to transform into wholly alive human beings with the courage to face difficult, even impossible odds…”

How often do we rush to redeem our characters? To make them into “churchgoers” as Bonnie phrased it. As authors (and readers) I wonder if we are so obsessed with seeing good come from bad that we sacrifice the terrifying and honest process that creates redemption.

Frederick Buechner gives a glimpse of that transformation in his book Wishful Thinking:

Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

I wonder what that would look like if applied to a character? What courage a writer must show to allow their Hero to savor his anger! And how deliciously uncomfortable for the reader to witness that self-cannibalism. Oh but what a revelation for every person who touches a novel like that!

So what about that responsibility of the Christian writer? Must we connect each dot and hold the hand of our reader as we lead them toward that redemptive revelation? Explain it with flow charts and the four spiritual laws? Isn’t that what “religious fiction” is supposed to do?

Frederick Buechner didn’t think so and neither do I. This from a lecture he gave to a Book of the Month Club:

"Maybe it's all utterly meaningless. Maybe it's all unutterably meaningful. If you want to know which, pay attention to what it means to be truly human in a world that half the time we're in love with and half the time scares the hell out of us. Any fiction that helps us pay attention to that is religious fiction. The unexpected sound of your name on somebody's lips. The good dream. The strange coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Even the smallest events hold the greatest clues." (emphasis mine)

That, I believe, is the responsibility of a novelist. Not to guarantee redemption, but to tell the truth. To show what it means to be “truly human.” Consequences and all.

Question for you: as writers do you find yourself tempted to redeem all of your characters? Or are you willing to let them fall for the greater good?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

I've had several stories wherein the characters are not redeemed. Or the redemption is not as the reader would like it to be. These are the stories that make me sweat a little. Well, and these are the stories that tick my friends off. And I hear,

"But what HAPPENS?"

I just say, "What do YOU think?"

Thanks, Ariel. This was a great one to start a writing week!

Katie Ganshert said...

I absolutely love that snippet about anger. I read it three times, just to really let it soak in.

As for the question....I have to think on that one. I don't redeem all my characters. But I do redeem the main ones...

I'm not sure I'd like a book where the main characters weren't redeemed.

As novelists, we have to tell the truth, yes. But I also think we need to infuse our stories with hope.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Susie & Katie, thanks! This is a subject I've pondered a lot lately. I do agree that in most cases, the Hero must be redeemed. There are rare examples however, like The Godfather, where the entire theme of story rests on the Hero being destroyed. But those stories are few and far between and are extremely difficult to pull off.

What prompted me to write this post was a recent conversation where someone insisted that Christian novelists must redeem ALL of their characters. I don't think that would be honest, given that in the real world many lives end badly.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Honestly, I let them fall and go where the story leads. I feel my best writing results when I let God lead even when I end up with characters in the good, bad, and ugly catagories.

Tweeted this!
~ Wendy

Nicole said...

Not all choose redemption. It takes a savvy and even brilliant writer in Christian Fiction to let the protagonist remain unredeemed. (J. Mark Bertrand does a masterful job with his Roland March.)

The other side to this quandary is when an author decides to redeem the protagonist after he's behaved in an ugly way but suddenly becomes a believer. No thanks. By then in the literary sense I don't care about him/her anymore or what he/she decides to do. Too convenient with no indicators beforehand.

Choose life: real life. Not all choose Jesus. Show the way, long or short, but don't spring it on a character who gives us no intention of softening until Voila! I'm saved!.

Lynn Dean said...

Loved this post! One of my frustrations with Christian literature has been that in so many stories every church-goer is good and every unsaved person is either bad or destined to be wonderfully transformed in the end with no residual consequences. Real life is not like that. A man may find God in prison, but he will still serve time for his crime. A single mom may turn to God, but her life remains a challenge. Sin steals, kills, and destroys, and sometimes there are consequences. God does not necessarily remove the consequences, but He DOES give us the strength to endure while He works all things together for our good. That's redemptive, too, of course, even though it's not quick and easy.

The flip side I've encountered is a reluctance to allow a hero or heroine to be "too troubled" at the beginning of the story. I understand that we need characters who will act on their own and not simply let the story "happen to them," but is it not true that at least initially we can be so beat up by the world that even finding the will to act is part of our character arc?

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ariel, I agree. Redeeming all the characters would be so artificial. Ick. I don't want to read that book!

Heather Marsten said...

Right now I'm writing a memoir. I spent 40 years in the wilderness hating God and wanting nothing to do with Him. I show those false paths I took graphically. Currently I'm in my story having the Holy Spirit (though I think of it as a voice in my head telling me to give God one more chance and read the Bible from Cover to Cover). I am - and make some comments that are not flattering to God or the scriptures. Then I have to sit in a religious ed guided meditation with my kids where the leader says imagine Jesus coming toward you - I said in my mind - why should the Great Abandoner come near me. It took quite some time for me to accept Christ, and then later see that He was there when I thought He abandoned me. But I am not showing my most churchy, flattering side in this memoir.

What I hope is that nonbelievers will be encouraged to pursue God.

I think the hard thing is that many novels are written for a Christian audience - preaching to the believer, but sometimes I think there needs to be some gritty stories that reach out to the unsaved, giving them things to identify with.

My prayer for my memoir is that others lost in the occult will see that I knew what I was doing when I was in the occult, and listen when I have a change of heart later.

Have a blessed day.

Debra said...

I'm willing to let them fall...
because isn't that the truth about real life?

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I love Heather's comment about preaching to the believer. "I think there needs to be some gritty stories that reach out to the unsaved, giving them things to identify with." YES! I totally agree.

Unbelievers often have a really negative view of "religion". Some of their criticisms (judgementalism, hypocrisy) are not without basis. I don't believe in shying away from that. Let's show the good and ugly side of humanity, Christians included, but contrast that with the extravagant grace of God. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. I can't help but hope that by acknowledging peoples' genuine blockages to faith and showing a character who struggles with the same things, an unsaved reader might find something to identify with.

Of course it depends on the author's purpose in writing. Many Christian authors write to encourage believers, which is an excellent and worthy aim. I just have such a passion for the lost.

Cherry Odelberg said...

To tell the TRUTH by using FICTION, that is the goal.