Today’s guest post is by Hannah, a fellow blogger and fantasy writer on Lands Uncharted. Hannah is an incredible, analytical, and passionate writer (I go to get for my plot problems and moral issues, as you’ll see below) as well as a loyal and reliable friend. She’s been through NaNoWriMo, which is how she started writing her current project. Recently, I faced a moral dilemma while writing my story, so I emailed Hannah. She replied with a passion and conviction that touched me, and I’m hoping it’ll touch you in a similar way. So without further ado, I present her post:
Not too long ago, Liz had a moral question related to her story. Her main character was kidnapped as a bride against her will, but felt she had fallen in love with someone else. The way the story was set up, Liz believed it would be most natural for her main character to kiss her non-husband love interest. This presented a dilemma: Liz is working very hard to saturate her story with Christian values and themes, but would some people object to the obviously immoral act? She wanted to know my opinion.
I have been struggling with a similar issue. I am writing a fantasy action/adventure with its fair share of violence and danger, evil people, and intense situations. I also want to convey Christian values and themes, but due to the genre, it is difficult – how dark is too dark? How violent is too violent? This question nagged at my mind for a long time, and my answer didn’t fully crystallize until I started trying to answer Liz. She was encouraged enough by my answer that she thought it would be a good idea to share it with the readers of her blog, so that is what this post is about.
This issue is very personal for me. My young brother is thrilled to read my story, and I promised myself before I even started that I would make absolutely sure it would be appropriate for him. I also wanted to make sure I would not be ashamed to share it with others – parents, grandparents, and friends. This means I have to be careful what I include in terms of violence. My characters do some questionable things. They lie. They kill people. I even just finished a scene where the main character is tortured. I struggled with that one a lot, since it fit the story so well and would be conspicuously odd if it were missing. After all, the main characters are fighting against a terrible evil, and it would undercut the power of the antagonist if I backed down on his ruthlessness. To make sure the torture scene remained appropriate, I ended up having the antagonist use a potion that forces headaches, nausea, weakness, delirium, and other effects, instead of a typical beating or worse. I am so proud of it now because the restrictions forced me to find a creative solution, and honestly, it is one of my favorite chapters so far. My point is it is definitely a balancing act. Being true to the story, accessing the full power of your character arc, but keeping it something you are proud of and want to share can be very difficult.
I have ultimately decided not to back off of elements I feel are important to the story. I will try to keep them as appropriate as possible, but I am determined to take the leap and do my best to forget about how my story reflects on me. Because it does. I pour everything into it, and showing it to others is like showing them my deepest darkest secrets. That’s scary. I am a private person, and frankly, I am terrified of losing the good opinion of others. But one thing sticks with me: If I shy away from difficult issues, back away from the edge of true temptation and failure, and hide the vulnerable side of me, my story loses all of its power. Every drop. If it is safe, then there is no real tension, no real danger, no real stakes. Like Liz said in a fantastic blog post a while ago, you can’t see the light without the dark contrast. You can’t have the redemption of Christ without the sin of man.
Personally, some of the most moving stories for me have a character fall deep into terrible choices and bad mistakes (either before or during the story) and rise again stronger, wiser, and better. Everyone has made serious mistakes, so these questionable actions help humanize characters, especially if you show the realistic consequences. Characters can’t be perfect after all. Christ came to save those who have failed.
In the end, you can make your story work with whatever choice you make. It comes down to a few considerations.
First and most importantly: what do you want to do? What will make your story most appealing to you? If no one were ever going to read it, what would you do?
Next, consider the moral standards you will be held against. Not the social ones. Would your conscience allow you to do what you want to do? Does it feel right? Because let’s face it, we are fallen. I have secretly wanted to put plenty of things in my story that I ultimately knew were just my own sinful imaginings that should never see the light of day. It is important to be able to discern what is truly necessary, and what is simply excessive.
Finally, what will the real social effect be? Not the imagined one. I think it is easy to imagine the worst opinions others could possibly have. In reality, they probably won’t actually be that negative. So, how do other Christian books handle it? What will specific important people to you think about it? Don’t just generalize saying “readers” will object. Who? Your parents, siblings, friends, strangers? Pick three or four specific representatives. What would they say? Maybe even ask them.
If you have conflict between your answers, it is now a simple case of choosing what is most important to you. Morals? Your story’s honesty? Your personal freedom to write what feels true and good and right? Others’ opinion of you and your story?
I find that for me it boils down to two options: I could write a shallow, safe story that is acceptable to everyone but can’t touch the depth and breadth of my passion and convictions. Or I could show my vulnerable depths that are the source of my story’s power, even though taking that step might upset, shock, or disappoint those closest to me. I have to fight to remember that these are the only options. If I don’t, I write everything through the lens of “what would X think?” That’s an emotional response. Instead, I have to look at it from a reader’s point of view. As a reader, I love seeing characters fail. I love it when they can’t overcome their flaws or they make terrible decisions. Why? Because it is freeing. The author faced her darkness, and that calls me to face mine, and overcome it just like her characters did. That is redemption. That is Christ. And that is what speaks to me.
This is hard. There is always the danger that your loved ones might judge your darkness. If they are too afraid to face their own deepest failures and instead must judge yours, that is their problem, and their loss. In reality, they are only deceiving themselves because no one is perfect. But your vulnerability might also touch them in ways you never thought possible. God uses our weakness to show His strength, and our mistakes to show His truth.
“But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).
Also, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Luke 5:31)
The power of the Gospel lies in what great sacrifice God made in order to redeem sinners. Why shouldn’t we convey that message in our fiction?
Recently, I have been listening to “Stained Glass Masquerade,” a song by Casting Crowns. I think it conveys this message so well.
But would it set me free
If I dared to let you see
The truth behind the person
That you imagine me to be?
Would your arms be open?
Or would you walk away?
Would the love of Jesus
Be enough to make you stay?
Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain?
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade
Let’s close that curtain, stop hiding behind what is comfortable, and be real. When you are not afraid to be vulnerable, you are free. And when you are free, you can touch others and help them see the light as well. Isn’t that what writing is all about?
BrennaOctober 28, 2016 - 2:24 pm ·
This is a wonderful post on a very challenging topic. My WIP has a couple descriptions of violence that may be a little on the graphic side, but I felt I had to describe them in that way to show my protagonist’s utter horror of the ugliness and pain in the fallen world. Most of us are so desensitized to the things that she finds shocking, such as when she first sees an animal dead, killed by another animal.
However, what I most worry about is that people I know will think the family in my WIP is supposed to represent my own family, which is not true at all. Similarly, in the novel I am planning for NaNo, there is a character who absolutely *despises* her father. Hopefully no one will think that relationship is supposed to say something about my relationship with my dad… but if people do think these things, what can I do about it? Probably nothing. I think it’s best to not let the worries hinder my writing.
HannahOctober 31, 2016 - 3:02 pm ·
I can completely understand, Brenna. Like I mentioned above, I have been having a lot of trouble deciding exactly how graphic it should be. It is young adult fantasy, after all, but I don’t want to push it or make it inappropriate for younger readers. I started reading YA when I was ten, so I know there will be very young kids reading my book. (Including my brother.)
It sounds like you have handled it well. It is necessary for the book, and coveys and important reality. I don’t think you will have a problem with it.
I have also struggled with wondering if people will think Nathala’s family will represent mine, especially since she is so similar to me. Unfortunately, people will always make unfounded assumptions about your writing. The best thing you can do is make sure the assumptions really are unfounded.
HannahOctober 31, 2016 - 3:03 pm ·
Thank you so much for having me here, Liz! Your blog is fantastic and I am happy to get to contribute. 😀