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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Some Thoughts On Christian Fiction

The more Christian young adult fiction I read, the more I become divided about it.  I've read some utterly amazing Christian fiction, like Stephen R. Lawhead's In the Hall of the Dragon King and its sequels, Bryan Davis' Raising Dragons/Oracles of Fire series, and of course, the classic Narnia books.  I've also read some that I had issues with.

Before we go any further, can we not do this: "But it's Christian fiction, so therefore it's all good, because it's Christian!"  No.  I'm not going to argue that one here because I have better things to do.  Moving on.  (I'm also not going to discuss the definition of Christian fiction.  I had that discussion once, and it was interesting, and I'd link to it, except that particular discussion has been sucked into the black hole where Inkpop used to be.)

Christian fiction that I don't like has some common pitfalls.  There's always the aspects of poor writing and characterization, lack of plot or structure, and so on, that make me dislike a book no matter what genre it is.  The thing, for me, about not liking certain Christian books is that when I don't like them, they tend to have made me mad in some way.

A major problem is making everything too black-and-white.  Many Christian fiction books have "good guys", the protagonists.  And they are obviously good people and the heroes of the story.  On the opposite side, we have the "bad guys", and this is more where the problem lies.  The villain of the story is completely and utterly evil, most times without explanation.  Every single thing about them is bad--there's nothing redeeming whatsoever. 

The problem is that real life isn't like this.  Nobody is ever completely good or completely evil.  Everyone, from the Pope to Hitler, is a shade of gray somewhere in between.  Many Christian books, though, just set up someone as the Designated Bad Guy, and then demonize him.  The most marvelous characters in fiction, though, the ones we can't forget about, the ones that we love like they're real people (because they are, in a way), are not these purely good people.  They're people with flaws and regrets and secrets.  They're people in gray.  Characters that we love make mistakes.  And it's okay.  It's what makes them real, which enables us to love them.

It goes the same way for villains.  A character can be evil, but we still have to be able to see the humanity.  And this means that a villain has to have something about him/her that makes them seem real.  For example, Galbatorix's pain over the death of his dragon, or Draco Malfoy's desire to please his father.  They're evil, yes, but they still feel loss and shame and pressure, and that's something every human can relate to.  Pure, uncontrolled, mindless evil with no good whatsoever just doesn't happen in real life, barring insanity, etc.  Ignoring sadists like Drake Merwin from Gone who are clearly complete lunatics and also just happen to have an evil alien radiation monster consuming their brains.  It's also worth noting that a significant portion of people who do "evil" genuinely believe that they're doing the right thing.  The terrorists who did the 9/11 bombings believed that this act would save their souls.  Saint Dane from the Pendragon series (I should probably point out, for those unfamiliar with the series, that "Saint" is used ironically.  Kind of.  It started non-ironically.), initially, believes that Halla, the universe, is in need of rebirth and cleansing.  So he destroys it, because that's what he thinks is right.  (If that makes no sense to you, well, it's a ten book series.)  And this means that all of our notions of good and evil are through a lens.  Whose lens are we looking through, then?  By what standard do we judge people who commit crimes against humanity in the name of something they truly believe is good?  I'll just leave that there, because I have no solid answer.  Christian fiction sometimes fails to take everything in this paragraph into account, and assumes all "bad guys" are just bad to the core with no rhyme or reason.   

Characters on the opposite of the spectrum annoy me even more than off-the-charts villains, though.  Some characters in Christian novels are so righteous, so pure, and so perfect that I just can't stand them.  They take no offense at anything unless it's an act from the villain.  They love everyone, don't get mad (unless it's directed toward the villain, again), and are moved to tears of joy at the slightest victories.  Because we can't have anybody doing the wrong thing in a Christian book, right?  Ugh, no. It gets on my nerves.  These people are too perfect to be real.  There's nobody that acts like that in real life, no matter how much we'd like to.  If nothing else, I can imagine having always-righteous characters would be a turn-off for non-Christians.  Nobody wants to read about a person this is just so wonderful that we know we can never be like them.  People want someone to root for and relate to, and we can't do that for an unrealistic character.  Better to have flawed people that are still good, rather than perfect people.

Another problem is that characters, mostly fantasy ones, kill off "evil" characters all the time.  And they think nothing of it.  We're supposed to think that this is good, because we're essentially killing off the devil's followers.  You'd think Christian books would handle the killing of antagonists even better than secular books, but in many cases, you'd be wrong.  The characters feel no qualms, no guilt, no hesitations, over tossing the villain into a giant vat of lava or something.  If they're "evil", they "deserve to die", and that's the end of it.  I find this to be wrong, in most cases.  It doesn't sit well with me.  What about this (note that Tolkien, who wrote both of these quotes in The Fellowship of the Ring, was a Christian author, and his books are full of Christian symbols)?

Frodo: What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!
Gandalf: Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.         


Gandalf: Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

 For example, Eldest, a secular book, handled it well.  I can't find any exact quotes, but I remember Roran discussing the guilt of all his killings.  No matter how much he tells himself he's doing it for the greater good, he can't ever get over it.  On several occasions, he becomes nauseous simply thinking about it. (Just for fun, though, here's a discussion of whether or not Roran could have actually killed 200 dudes with his hammer.  Short answer: Um, no.  But this is Inheritance, so what is logic?)  Arya says this in Brisingr:

Arya: That day was the first time I took a life.  It troubled me for weeks afterward, until I realized I would go mad if I continued to dwell upon it.  Many do, and they become so angry, so grief-ridden, they can no longer be relied upon, or their hearts turn to stone and they lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Also: "You'd think killing people would make them like you, but it doesn't.  It just makes people dead." -Voldemort, A Very Potter Musical

It's also worth pointing out that Christianity isn't about perfect people being righteous all the time.  It's about real people who make mistakes, but can find forgiveness if they so seek it (yet still have to live with the consequences of their actions).  Unlike some Christian books, I don't really believe that people are inherently good.  Or inherently evil.  (But again, LENSES.)  I believe that all people have good in them, and also that all people have some amount of "bad" in them.  It's not about anything that is inherent in human nature--it's about the nature of each individual to decide for themselves what kind of human being they will be.  (Perhaps this comes from me tending to come down around Lawful Neutral on the character alignment scale.  And also being INTJ, which often goes hand-in-hand with Lawful Neutral.)

So, in summary, can we not write Christian fiction that contains too-perfect, too-righteous characters?  Can we recognize that the world is not a battlefield where the "good" stand on one side of a line in the stand, and the "evil" on the other?  Can we have flawed characters, whether Christian or not? 

*Can we just keep talking about Roran's killing sprees for a moment here?  What I find interesting about this is how much this reminds me of Murtagh.  They both have the same drive, the same desire to protect what they love (once Thorn comes along, and once the Nasuada/Murtagh ship becomes apparent [I shipped that long before it happened, by the way.]).  If you throw them both into the thick of battle, they both go beserk (compared to Eragon, who goes all "What am I doing here, again?  How do I Dragon Rider?  SAPHIRA WHERE ARE YOU?" when the fighting starts).  If their positions were switched, Roran and Murtagh probably wouldn't have been much different at all.  The difference is that Roran, despite not even being Eragon's brother, gets the chance to be the brother.  To be on the "good side", if you will.  Murtagh, even though he's Eragon's half-brother, doesn't get much chance.  Roran feels guilty when he kills people, but it's likely that Murtagh burned down whole cities and enjoyed it.  Roran kills "evil" people (if being a soldier of the Empire constitutes being evil, which it really doesn't, but it's the only way to take down Galbatorix), while Murtagh kills mostly innocent people.  The point is that neither of these are ever fully justified, nor should they be.  Nor should either character be condemned as a "bad" character for this.  If someone ever asked me to write a critical essay on Eragon, I'd be ready.  I am so prepared for that.  Aaaaand that was the longest asterisk segment I've ever written.**

**On a semi-related note, are we not going to talk about Angela and her suspicious ways?  She's allegedly quite old (nobody's quite sure how old), but looks pretty young.  She travels around quickly, somehow, despite not having a dragon, horse, or, I don't know, airplane, taking short times to travel distances that take other characters weeks.  She's eccentric (one of her sendoff pieces of advice is "Don't eat earwax!", for goodness' sake).  She travels with Solembum, and I wouldn't put it past him to be an alien (because, you know, the all-fiction-takes-place-in-the-same-universe theory).  Are you getting where I'm going with this?  Also, there's a guy in Brisingr that raves about a question he's spent his whole life trying to answer.  The question is never revealed.  I wonder who what that question could be...
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  1. I so agree. I've been thinking the same way lately, as I'm planning a sort of YA Christian fiction for NaNoWriMo this year. My main problem is that even though I am a Christian, I don't read much Christian fiction, since most of it seems to be over-the-top evangelizing. If you have any recommendations, do let me know. :)

    1. Good luck with NaNoWriMo! I try my best to avoid the over-the-top Christian fiction because I read for enjoyment, not to be hit over the head with somebody's message, whether I agree with said message or not. As for recommendations, I'd recommend Stephen R. Lawhead's Dragon King Trilogy, Robert Liparulo's Dreamhouse Kings series, or Aquifer by Jonathan Friesen.

  2. I haven't read a huge amount of modern Christian fiction but I'm not all surprised by your post. I can well imagine a lot of Christian fiction being exactly like you say. To be quite honest I have very little interest in Christian fiction and I am a Christian. Most of the modern Christian fiction that I've seen consists of End of Times thrillers or Chick Lit/Amish Romance novels - neither of which I'd fancy reading! I love the fantasy genre but there doesn't seem to be very much of that in the Christian fiction genre, so your recommendations in that last comment are interesting to me :)

    1. There are definitely a lot of Christian novels that are Amish romance stories. I suppose it's a gold mine if that's your kind of thing, but, like you, that has never interested me. There should be more Christian fantasy novels, especially since fantasy lends itself so well to Christian themes. If you read any of the books I mentioned, I hope you enjoy them.


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