Fantasy fiction has enjoyed an uptick in the mainstream media lately because of the successful transition from page to screen of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, the uber-popular Game of Thrones on HBO. However, it’s also brought up a fair bit of controversy in evangelical circles about the suitability of the show’s content for Christian viewers. I was privy to one particular Facebook thread in which a bestselling author posted something tangentially related to Game of Thrones. Many fans immediately jumped on the author for watching “such filth” and called into question this person’s faith and integrity. Some went as far to say they would be boycotting that author’s work in the future because they couldn’t in good conscience support it any longer. Clearly, feelings run high on the subject.
But it brought up the question, why exactly is this show singled out by Christians for such hatred? Is it because of the explicit way the less savory plot details are handled? Or is it the fact that those plot details were included in the first place? The question is important for Christian writers of fantasy (notice I did not say “writers of Christian fantasy”) because it brings up the question, “How realistic can I get when writing fantasy?”
The thing that I personally like about reading and writing fantasy is its visceral nature, its ability to get you wrapped up breathlessly in a story. And yes, I like the violence. Not for violence’s sake, but because having characters in peril has a way of investing you in their story in a way that other conflicts might not. (My contemporary character doesn’t get the job? Bummer. My fantasy hero is about to be tortured by the sadistic villain? I’m chewing my nails.) The fact is, peril described in general terms is not nearly as gripping as having seen exactly what is at stake should the characters fail. Just telling me that the villain is a bad guy doesn’t make me fear for my protagonist in the same way as having seen him destroy a village of innocents. Distasteful, yes. But an effective way of getting readers invested in the hero’s success.
The argument that’s brought up most often at this point is Philippians 4:8 (NIV): “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” This is often used in the sense that it is our responsibility as Christians to shield ourselves from anything evil or unpleasant. And I agree, to a point. Where this argument breaks down is when you get to those Christians working in downright unpleasant situations: first responders, trauma counselors, relief workers. Would we say that their work is un-Christian because they are exposed to all sorts of evil and depravity in the course of their everyday work? Of course not. In fact, most of us would consider that work to be holy and Christlike.
The difference of course is that the focus in those situations is not the crime or the trauma, but the redemption. The work of helping victims always trumps the fact the helpers must immerse themselves in the dirty and the wretched. This is the key to writing fantasy as Christians, whether or not we’re writing for the Christian market.
What makes the work Christian is not the bad that happens, but the good that comes out of it.
This is actually my one criticism of the Game of Thrones storylines. Not the horrible acts that characters commit or the explicit nature of the filming (though I could do with less of that), but the fact that there is no discernible redemption in the future. In fact, if you’ve kept up with the books or the show, most of the honorable characters meet a painful and untimely end. In that world, nice guys definitely finish last.
I purposely kept the graphic details to a minimum in my Song of Seare series because I was aware that I would have younger and more sensitive readers. (It was originally marketed as YA but has expanded to include a wider adult readership.) That doesn’t mean, however, that I saved my characters from trouble. There’s imprisonment and torture. Heroes do some very unheroic things. Beloved characters die. What keeps it from being depressing or nihilistic is the understanding that they are fighting for a cause greater than themselves. Although that’s tied to religion and a recognizably Christian faith in my books, it doesn’t have to be. Writers creating work for a general market audience can just as easily create a Christian story by pulling out themes of honor, justice, love, redemption, and self-sacrifice. When someone acts for the greater good against his self-interest, that’s Christ-like behavior, without the name of God ever being uttered. It’s the literary equivalent of witnessing by example.
About the Author
C.E. Laureano is the RITA® award-winning author of both Celtic fantasy and contemporary romance (as Carla Laureano). A graduate of Pepperdine University, she worked as a sales and marketing executive for nearly a decade before leaving corporate life behind to write fiction full-time. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and two sons.