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Characters Matter, And Their Character Matters

What we see in Christian novel after Christian novel is a flawed character in need of a Savior. The impression this gives is that people without Christ aren’t likable, that their flawed character means they won’t do heroic deeds or stand up for right.
| Jun 24, 2013 | No comments |

vagabondIn a Writer’s Digest interview about how to write fantasy, author Steven Harper Piziks named five books he would recommend to fantasy writers and why. One thing jumped out at me from his list–he repeatedly mention “character.”

First he referred to “an entirely empathetic, hugely likeable main character.” Later he identifies one of the books as “The best character novel I’ve ever read. It made me laugh and cry and ache and want to go into the book to live with these people” (emphasis mine). While I might or might not agree with Piziks about the characters in the particular books he mentioned, I think the point is clear: an engaging character is one readers are willing to spend time with.

312012_lazy_manOne of the things I’ve noticed lately about a lot of the Christian speculative fiction I read, is that the main character isn’t all that likable. In an effort to show the reality of sin in a person’s life, a good number of authors are depicting flawed characters who aren’t very nice. Some are whiny, others are too caught up with their own interests to care about other people. Some are lazy or disinterested or foolish.

In other words, it’s hard to imagine readers saying, I want to live with these people.

I’m wondering if we might be looking at a theological problem. Christians understand that sin mars human beings: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). What we tend to forget is that human beings are nonetheless the image bearers of our Creator: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our Image, according to Our likeness’ ” (Gen. 1:26a).

Consequently, what we see in Christian novel after Christian novel is a flawed character in need of a Savior. The impression this gives is that people without Christ aren’t likable, that their flawed character means they won’t do heroic deeds or stand up for right.

As I see it, we are turning our fiction characters into a “their side and our side” duality, and the goal is to win over as many as possible to our side. Perhaps this is the view a number of people have of the real world as well.

The problem with this approach is that Scripture is clear when it teaches the believer who our enemy is: “your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8b).

Our approach, then, ought to be that of rescuers, not that of conquerors, when we approach people without Christ. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves–Christians or not. When our neighbors are being stalked by a lion, we ought to be heading up the rescue team.

I’m wondering if the the characters in our novels ought not reflect these same truths. The character without Christ doesn’t have to come across as a hopeless case–the guy who has ruined his marriage, abandoned his kids, who lives one step this side of the gutter. The Christian character, on the other hand, doesn’t need to have all of life figured out, but shouldn’t he be on a rescue mission more than engaged in hand-to-hand combat against vile sinners?

So I’m wondering, what Christian speculative novels have you read in which a person on the wrong side of faith is portrayed in a positive light? Are too many of us Christian writers stereotyping non-Christians?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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E. Stephen Burnett

Becky, thanks much for this exploration.

Are too many of us Christian writers stereotyping non-Christians?

Many Christian authors, I fear, are neglecting the truth of common grace. Jesus Himself said that even people people know how to give good gifts to their children, and the rest of Scripture (such as Proverbs) is clear that the rich, wealthy, and godless, may be polite and decent people with extraordinary success, but who are evil. Methinks our stories’ neglect of this fact comes from poor theology that leads to a one-dimensional view of sin. Sin is primarily against God, not against others.

Brian Godawa

Excellent point, Stephen. I agree that HERE is where we as Christian storytellers have something truly unique to bring to the table in our stories. I have to quote you to reiterate the missing ingredient of ALL almost right secular stories: They do not understand that “Sin is primarily against God, not against others.” Their redemption is always just shy of the mark. Hey, isn’t that what “sin” means??!

E. Stephen Burnett

I’m not of a school of thought that refers to “common grace” as you are. Rather, as I noted in the article, I view the issue as neglect of the fact that Humankind is made in God’s image.

Yet what you said is part of the typically accepted definition of common grace. (This is distinct from the specific grace that God only gives people He saves. It in no way echoes of universalism — but it does incidentally refute against an understanding of “total depravity” that holds that non-Christian people are not able to do any good thing at all.)

Someone managed to get this codified at the concept’s Wikipedia page:

It is of this providential common grace that Jesus reminds his hearers when he said God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). We also see evidence of God’s common grace in the establishment of various structures within human society. At a foundational level, God has ordained the family unit. Even pagan parents typically know that they should nurture their children (Matt. 7:9-10) and raise them to become responsible adults.

… which matches what I was trying to get after.

You went on to say this:

That we have been made in His likeness didn’t change when sin entered the world. In fact, it is this role as image-bearer that makes Humankind so valuable and serves as the impetus for a pro-life mentality.

… Which matches more of that contributor’s accurate definition for “common grace”:

By God’s common grace fallen mankind retains a conscience indicating the differences between right and wrong. This may be based on the fact that human beings, though fallen in sin, retain a semblance of the “image of God” with which they were originally created (Gen. 9:6: 1 Cor. 11:7).

Putting more “common grace” into our thinking, and thus also into a Christian’s story, would yield truly good characters who are flawed yet heroic, even if they are ultimately shown to need Christ because they may love people, but hate and/or ignore their Creator. It would also help correct for either extreme in character development: 1) nasty, flawed, unbeliever characters, or 2) jolly decent non-Christian characters who are perfectly fine and dandy, but just need a little Jesus to help them out the rest of the way. (I have seen this in other evangelical novels, usually of course as a way to go on and say, And now, dear reader, won’t you do the same?)

Brian Godawa

Rebecca, I think I understand your intent here in trying to avoid cliche Christian characters and the Us vs. Them trope, and I have sympathy for it. And I am finding myself that people have to love your characters or they won’t stay with your story.

But as a storyteller in the secular world and Christian world, I can say that all good characters even in secular stories are flawed and in need of redemption (or quite literally, a “savior”, Jesus or other). The notion of being empathetic and likeable AND having flaws is, in fact, a necessity for good storytelling (that good pagan Aristotle would say). And if these Christian characters you mention are flawed, then do they not fit your expectation to “not have all of life figured out?” Don’t rescue missions often include hand to hand combat against vile sinners (or villains) because after all villains most often resort to force or coercion to control the good? (In fact, I would pretty much say that all evil ends in violence of one form or another, that can only be stopped by force) I am not trying to attack you here with the contradictions, I honestly do not see these issues you point out as problems but rather marks of the best secular storytelling out there.

I still remember when Christian characters who were all great and without sin problems was the cliche we needed to avoid in order to be more honest storytellers and relate to “sinners.”

I admit, I may come from the darker side of the tracks, but I just don’t believe in heroes who are not flawed. That’s why I hate “invulnerable heroes” because they are boring and non-relatable.

Or it may just be a difference between male and female perspectives.

Disclaimer: I am working on my next novel about Joshua conquering the Promised Land. But in your defense, Rahab is an equally major character in it. Sorry, though, she does convert. I can’t change that fact 🙂

Jon R

How about writing Achan as a really nice guy.

Bethany J.
Bethany J.

This is something I’ve noticed that bothers me too! And it’s not just about non-Christian protagonists. Even Christian protagonists can be cast in an unpleasant light because they’re supposed to “learn something” over the course of the story and must therefore be less mature at the onset of the book. That is true, that they should learn and grow in their faith, but as a reader unlikeable characters don’t make me want to keep reading or learn more about them. One of my own books has this problem, with more than one main character being rather unpleasant, and this reminds me that I need to fix it.


Hmm…one of the things I’ve noticed in secular media is that the character’s flaws (unintentionally) point to the need for a Savior. For example, the Doctor’s great tragedy (in my opinion), is that he has nothing to trust when he comes to the end of himself. He tries to rely on his companions, but that often warps their lives as well as his own. If Christian works took a similar approach–showing the limits of human achievement, instead of just their faults, redemption would make more sense in context.

Jon R

Good post and discussion. Imo more important than a lovable character is a character with which the reader can empathize. Sure they have faults but if you can key into the ones the reader can identify with you can kill two birds with one stone. Stories are about conflict so the more you can pile on the better.

Paul Lee

I think the ability for the reader to empathize with the protagonist is the key quality that determines how “likeable” the character feels. At any rate, all these words we’re using in this discussion are subjective. “Nice”? “Likeable”? “Loveable”? Empathetic probably sums up all of the above.

Stories are about conflict so the more you can pile on the better.

Maybe, but too much character-driven drama can definitely detract from a story, driving it into soap opera territory.

Austin Gunderson

With any given character, an author has to strike a balance between “likable” and “realistic.” On one hand, no self-respecting reader wants to spend time with a character he doesn’t respect. But, on the other hand, no reader has ever met a perfect human being in real life. Character flaws are necessary not only for the formation of character arcs, but also for verisimilitude itself. What do we see in the real world? Character flaws and character strengths, regardless of whether or not a person is a Christian.

The key is, as you said, to make one’s characters empathic. No matter what the character does (at least if it’s a POV character) — whether good or bad, right or wrong, smart or stupid — the reader must understand why the character acted that way and feel that he could’ve made the exact same decision had it only been up to him. Not that he would’ve made that decision necessarily, just that he could’ve. A reader should never be able to mock a character out of hand unless that’s the author’s specific prompting. This level of empathy between reader and character is achieved when an author successfully enters a character’s headspace, which, after all, is the whole point of the novel as a storytelling medium.

Robert Mullin

I think, Becky, that you are dead-on when you talk about Christians being inclined to put people into an “us vs. them” category. My wife and I were just talking about that last night, ironically. The idea that you can have generally “good” people (i.e., likable, brave, giving, etc.) who are not Christians is alien to some writers. But I know some “lost souls” who are better at demonstrating love to their fellow man than many Christians. Whatever happened to “by a man’s fruit you shall know him”?

I don’t tend to write with the idea of “flawed” heroes or antiheroes. I just write People. When people interact, stories happen. People are inherently flawed, and thus a good character will be, as well. If conversion is a major part of your story, that’s great. If not, you can still tell a great story with a complete character arc and whatever Christian themes you care to put in. But not every Christian novel has to be about the saving of the Worthless Worm from Mortal Sin by the Redeeming Grace of Jesus. Paint-by-numbers gospel storytelling does not a classic make.

People identify with some unexpected things when they latch onto characters in a novel (certainly I’ve been surprised in my own experience). But very few identify with a sermon. So even if your novel doesn’t include the Sinner’s Prayer and a Born Again Moment, it can still come off as preachy if the proclivity to divide characters into pre/post Christ camps is indulged.

There is a difference between faceted, nuanced people and moral ambiguity. You can still have “heroes” that make some really dumb decisions and “villains” that show kindness to a friend, but you don’t need to have a novel wherein the line is blurred so much that you can’t tell one from the other.

Teddi Deppner

…but you don’t need to have a novel wherein the line is blurred so much that you can’t tell one from the other.

Great way of putting it, Robert!

Tony Breeden

In Johnny Came Home, I purposely wrote a collage of characters [it’s an Avengers or X-Men styled cast] who were, well, complicated. The main protagonist, John Lazarus, is an outsider, a non-Christian raised in a Christian home. One of the main villains is a charlatan posing as a faith healer. Another hero is a Christian who lies to his wife about what he does for a living. Another is a Christian pastor who is exactly what he claims to be. The majority of the rest of my cast of heroes – and villains, for that matter – are not Christian, but I wanted to build a world that was much like ours, where non-Christians can be heroes, people can claim to be Christians when they’re not, Christians can act hypocritically, and Christians can actually be what they were called to be. Because life is THAT complicated. I also avoided the obligate salvation of the protagonist, mostly because it would have felt forced.

Teddi Deppner

Cool, Tony! I’m doing something similar, trying to reflect real life in my story world. Not present pat answers or “life as we wished it were”.

Great to hear there are others out there doing this.