I have to admit, I sort of cringed when I read the question. Not because it’s a bad question, but because the author had already come to her story with an agenda.
Demonstrate how a godly man lives. Or should live.
There’s no story in watching a perfect man … be perfect. There’s no story reading about Christian characters who never lie, never cheat, never lust, never steal, never get angry, but, if they do, they immediately repent. I mean, in the very next line.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t really take the trash out.” I’m such a sinner. Oh God, help me to live right before you.
You may be laughing here. But I’ve read published books with just that kind of tone and pacing.
Having been in ministry of some sort for 21 years, I can tell you shame keeps many yearning believers from coming to God in repentance. It’s not natural or realistic to read on the page about characters who are ever-prescient, ever-aware of their sin.
Oh, that it would be that way in reality. That we would be conscious of His presence and have the tongue of a ready writer. “Forgive me, Lord.”
Christian fiction is about real, everyday, imperfect people who mess up majorly, but along the way find a bit of spiritual truth and redemption. Christian fiction is not a stage to show how Christian people should live.
So how do we write books with flawed characters who also happen to be Christians?
Look in the mirror.
Are you not a flawed character saved by grace? Do you know flawed characters? Aren’t there people in your life, family, circle of friends, church, who are at different stages of spiritual maturity?
Read about David. Flawed! Yet he responded with a right heart. David didn’t repent for sleeping with Bathsheba and killing Uriah until Nathan confronted him!
We all have the Holy Spirit in us. And at some level, we all ignore Him, whether we want to admit it or not.
So, why can’t our characters do the same?
Let’s talk about ways to develop flawed characters:
1. Develop the characters first.
At My Book Therapy (MBT), we develop several character aspects before building the whole story. What’s the protagonist’s greatest fear, secret desire, the lie he or she believes? What’s a wound of their past that shades their present? Answer these questions once, then go through them again asking “Why?” Keep digging until you get to some really good, juicy, rock-bottom character flaws and dreams!
2. Flaws are no good without a dream. Reward is a powerful motivator. We use fear a lot as a motivator, but reward far exceeds fear. Create a dream or goal that the protagonist cannot resist. That will motivate them through their flaws.
For example: Biff Vanmoney has finally secured a date with Mindy Vanhotmama. She’s ignored him most of their years at Ivy League college while he’s humiliated himself in front of all his frat bros trying to win her affections. When she finally, oh so finally, agrees to go on a date, he is bringing his A-game. But he has a flaw. He’s a Casanova, dated half the girls on campus, and dumped them. He’s arrogant and selfish. In order for Biff to win Mindy’s heart, he’s going to have to change!
What is his motivation to change? He’s truly in love with her. In the deep raw part of his heart, he knows he will be a better man with her by his side. He wants her! Motivation City.
3. Fit your characters into the story first, then figure out how you can demonstrate character and spiritual motivation.
Recently Susie wrote a book using Jacob and Esau as her pallet for her characters’ journey. This model proved helpful for the plot as well as the character arc, but it was only a high-level road map. She had to dig in and figure out how the characters she was creating responded to the situations and disasters in their lives.
But her end result was redemption and resolution like Jacob and Esau had with one another.
She had to figure out her characters’ journey and story before she could really decide the spiritual thread — even when using biblical characters as a guide.
4. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we know all the answers, nor do we see the right thing to do in the midst of trial by fire. My guess is if you’re trying to create a character who responds in a godly way and demonstrates godliness at all turns, you’ve not put him near enough to the test. Daggum it, throw him in the lions’ den!
In Softly and Tenderly, Jade Benson is a young Christian when she finds out her husband had an affair a week before their wedding. This affair produced a child. Sorrow upon sorrows! What was her response going to be?
Did she weep, then pray with her pastor, and after some time of counseling and being hurt, forgive Max and return home to pick up the pieces?
No way! Boring. You or I might do that if we were in her shoes. Or think that’s what we’d do (a-hem), but Jade is not spiritually mature like we are and she bolted! Out of there! And she runs into her own temptation back in her hometown.
See, that’s story! That’s how we demonstrate God’s love and mercy toward us. While we were yet sinners, Christ died and poured out His love. He woos us with His character. We don’t woo Him with ours.
Don’t show the protagonist’s godliness, or good Christian character, show God’s!
5. Once all the character and story pieces are in place, begin to think of the spiritual epiphany. This epiphany should bring truth to the “lie” the protagonist believes about himself, about God, about life.
In my current story about a wedding dress and four women, I wasn’t sure of the spiritual journey until I started writing. I had an idea, but nothing solid.
The dress has become a symbol for the timeless beauty of the Gospel. Wow! How very cool.
I’m not spending a lot of time trying to figure out how my characters can talk “Christian” to one another, or how to make them demonstrate godly character, or show them in church. I’m figuring out how the dress itself represents the Gospel without spending a lot of time preaching.
Let’s see, what does the Gospel do? Brings truth and hope. Shows love. Redeems. Fits perfectly everyone who tries it on. Is freely given. Is found among hidden treasure. Is sought after. Often misunderstood and rejected.
This is the journey and impact of the dress on the story and my characters.
So you see, there are many ways to bring God into our books without weighing down our characters to constantly have a righteous, holy response to tough situations.
It’s the same battle we have in life. We end up so concerned about demonstrating our own godly character that we draw more attention to us than Him.
Final thought: We seem to have a “disease” in Christian fiction where the go-to spiritual thread/journey is the protagonist being mad at God. I think it reflects a core issue with the Church. We have a mad, sad God image when, in fact, He delights in us. In His presence is fullness of joy!
So, dig deeper. Turn the spiritual journey upside down. How can you make the Jesus of your story be ingrained in every word, every character without having to spell it out? How can you show Him by the way you present your plot and characters? That, in and of itself, can be a Gospel truth.
What other issues can your characters have with God other than being mad? Or hurt? Or, this is another one I see a lot, thinking He doesn’t love them? Immaturity is demonstrated in a lot of our books. But what about a mature Christian who stumbles in an area of faith? What if a doctrine he or she was taught their whole life is challenged and found to be in error? Wow. That’ll knock your protag into a different realm.
Last but not least, ask God to teach you. Don’t settle for the first layer of your story. Rewrite it again and again, digging deeper and deeper.
Rachel Hauck is an award-winning, bestselling author. A graduate of Ohio State, she spent 17 years in the corporate software world before leaving to write full-time. She is the past president of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and now serves as an advisor. She’s married and lives in central Florida.