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On Behalf Of Young Christian Readers Who Don’t Want Clean, Unrealistic Stories

Young Christian readers want fantastical stories that transport us to other lands, where darkness lurks, yes, but where the light ultimately shines bright as a thousand stars.
| Aug 8, 2017 | 16 comments |

I’m a millennial, and a Christian, one of those younger generation people that seem to garner such attention in Christian circles. And I love reading weird stories about magical lands, terrible beasts, cunning villains, and flawed characters.


To some, that might sound perfectly natural. To others, however, the mere use of words such as “magic” or “flawed character” would be enough to lock me out of the library and bookstore henceforth until I regain my senses.

It gets better (worse?). I happen to enjoy Harry Potter (still on book four), have a strong distaste for squeaky clean main characters, and rather detest stories that preach at me.

The thing is, I’m not alone. I have friends my age and younger, and friends of friends, and writer friends and reader friends. Christians. Solid, grounded young people.

And we’re tired of the same-old, same-old. Tired of the constant pressure to conform to rigid Christian dogmas, legalistic mindsets, and narrow views of the world when it comes to reading. Tired of stories that are blander than yesterday’s oatmeal. Tired of stories about people whose lives seem so out of touch with reality that it either makes us shake our heads or laugh at the spectacle.

We’d rather have fantastical stories that transport us to other lands, where darkness lurks, yes, but where the light ultimately shines bright as a thousand stars.

We want what I call “dark fiction.

Relatable Stories

Sometimes its edgy. The hero isn’t a compliant teenager who memorizes Bible verses for a living and has a crush on the pastor’s daughter (which we never really see develop because appropriate boundaries).

A lot of the time it digs into the nitty-gritty, dirty topics of life. Topics that might be risky or refuse to fit into the “good little Christian” box.

It is, however, relatable. That’s what we crave. Don’t give us stories filled with characters peering down from their ivory towers, removed from the struggle and mess and brokenness of living in a fallen world.

Rather, give us stories with real, raw, vulnerable people. Who deal with hard situations. Who live in realities where life beats them down and doesn’t always work out as planned. Stories that aren’t afraid to use fantastical elements.

Those are the types of stories that let our imaginations soar, flood our minds, and drill into our hearts. We can spot the difference a mile away.

I lived for a number of years in an oppressive Christian homeschooling environment, and it wasn’t fun. Many of the approved stories were as exciting as a breakfast of corkboard. The good behavior of the main characters buried me beneath a load of guilt. The stories seemed written to trumpet Christian morals and agendas. The books generally lacked anything inspiring or invigorating to stir my excitement.

Compare that to a series like Hunger Games, fraught with danger, bubbling with action. Were the characters perfect? Um…nope. Were the themes always beneficial? Nada. Were the story’s conclusions always flawless. Sorry, no luck there.

But it’s easy to forget that the chief job of a story isn’t to preach (though a truly powerful story manages to weave profound themes into a terrific narrative).

And that’s exactly where stories by Christians enter the picture. If they can stop the obsession with making sure nothing offensive, scandalous, or challenging gets within 100 feet of the storyline, they can offer hope.

They don’t live in a timid, perfect world that can’t emphasize the brilliant light of Truth because it refuses to acknowledge the darkness plaguing the world and the characters themselves. They live in stories where rough things happen. Where characters make big mistakes and there isn’t always a clear right answer.

Just like us, our lives, our stories.

Like I said, relatable.

Redemptive Stories

What makes a story resonate, beyond the mechanics and techniques, is that it reminds us of our stories. It’s as if we’re looking into a mirror, and suddenly, we care what happens. We want to follow these characters through the highs and lows. We want to know how it can possibly work out and why there’s any reason to hope.

And the breathtaking beauty lies in those glimpses of hope scattered throughout the pages. It lies in the themes that bring chills because we know them. We’re living them.

Most of all, it lies in the stories whose roots reach down into the rich soil of Truth, to grow and flourish in ways that excite, delight, and cause the soul to sing.

Yes, these are stories of broken people who live messy lives. What makes them truly valuable is when they part the shroud to reveal the piercing light of redemption, sacrifice, love.

These are the stories we want.

What types of stories resonate most deeply with you? Why do you think having “dark fiction” is a good or bad idea?

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.

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Tamra Wilson
Tamra Wilson

This. This is what I wanted. My parents weren’t against these types of stories, but they were hard to find, especially in the Christian market. It was so unfair! I don’t want to read about those goody two shoes Spartans or listen to some woman with a fake Southern accent wail about her dead husband! Give me some dragons and princesses! Thank you for this.

Jason Brown

I grew up with a devout Baptist mother who, very strangely, raised my brother and me on horror and sci-fi movies. Also a few indie Christian films sprinkled in. Growing up, understandably, I thought Christian films were either biopics about Jesus or End Times schlock.
Today, my mother gets easily offended by swearing despite raising me on seriously dark movies (original RoboCop, Dracula, Alien, Aliens, The Terminator 1+2, etc.). I’m not *as easily* offended, I’m more focused on story elements than on moral standards. The only films that I can’t stand watching due to swearing are Layer Cake (over 300 f-bombs), Reservoir Dogs (can’t get past the prologue scene with all those constant vulgarities), and any given episode of Deadwood. In other words, I have a high tolerance, but I still have a limit.
Nonetheless, I do believe “dark fiction” does have a place.


I think we do need to have stories with messy and broken characters, because those people are real — and stories can help us learn how to understand them, just as they can help us with other parts of reality. However, while “squeaky clean” stories shouldn’t be the only thing in the library, I don’t think we should go the other way and make messy, broken stories the only thing in the library, either.

I would caution against thinking that only characters with serious flaws can be realistic. Everybody sins in some way, but people who manage to live fairly clean lives and not wreck themselves DO exist. And we should celebrate them. Going beyond that, I even like stories that feature paragons of virtue. They don’t make me feel guilty — they inspire me. Whom would I look up to, and whom would I strive to emulate, if every fictional character were down on my own level? And if we can fantasize about strange creatures and magical lands, why can’t we fantasize about idealized people? I suppose one’s reaction to such characters is a question of how secure one is in grace … if we know that God has accepted us, we can read about a paragon without sweating about the fact that we don’t measure up to him.

C.L. Dyck

So hi, Zachary. I’ve known E. Stephen B. for a number of years, and I’m delighted to “meet” you here and find your modern-meets-fantasy blog posts as well. 🙂 I just finished laughing really hard at modern people meeting fantasy villains. 🙂

Why is so-called “dark” fiction a good idea… I think sanitized fiction (as opposed to thoughtfully-written fiction that makes choices about impact for powerful reasons) expresses a lack of trust, more than anything. Its very existence sends a message that the reader ought not think too much. That’s the opposite of the purpose of literature, in my opinion.

But also, when we structure our communities that way–here’s the library with the “approved” books, don’t talk about the ones you read that don’t fit these categories–we’re creating a community that’s intellectually and morally hampered in its ability to walk through the world. Fiction is the laboratory of philosophy and morality. Really good YA is possibly heavier on that than a lot of “adult” fiction. If I had to choose between Harry Potter or Hunger Games, and a headily-phrased postmodern literary work with no ultimate philosophical development, I’d take the adventure. What resonates for me is reflection on and connection with the world we actually live in, not just the one someone’s invented.

Literature isn’t for navel-gazing, whether religious or or more broadly cultural. It’s for introspection and critique–including of religious and other cultural conditions. Censoring that is a signpost of a power structure that doesn’t want to be challenged, not a sign of virtue. Everyone in our society is caught up in one in some form. The challenge is to transform what we can with love and grace… and probably with writing. 🙂

Christopher D. Schmitz

so much lack of trust!you’re right Mr. Dyck–I talk about this with indie writers all the time… at some point you have to trust that they will draw out the right conclusions from the story rather than guide with a heavy hand (in descriptions AND conclusions at times)

Rebecca LuElla Miller

I actually don’t think you’re describing “dark fiction,” Zac. Sounds like “good fiction” to me. I mean, where’s the conflict, where’s the struggle, where’s the story, if the character doesn’t have some need, some way in which he must grow?

I was wondering why you think Christian stories are even like your description until I reached the part about a restrictive homeschooling environment. I suppose there might be books written just for such a venue that would fall into the mode you described. But honestly, read speculative books by Jill Williamson or Patrick Carr, put out by Bethany House. Or read any of the books that Enclave has put out, and you’ll see they aren’t what you’re describing.

I could name others out of the speculative genre, too. I just think Christian writers today know much more about what makes a good story and the books are not like the ones you’re describing.


C.L. Dyck

And also… it pays to remember there are plenty of writers working from a Judeo-Christian worldview within general publishing. For instance, the slush editor for Baen Books is a devout Catholic who’s helped organize interdenominational Christian worship services at at least one major con, as I recall. Part of the restriction problem exists in the overly narrow definition of “Christian stories” within more restrictive circles.

Beyond those restrictions, we have all kinds of choices on how and where to interact with stories, readers and writers.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Oh, I forgot to add, I find this line ironic:

If they can stop the obsession with making sure nothing offensive, scandalous, or challenging gets within 100 feet of the storyline, they can offer hope.

Why? Because in the general market, publishers are hiring readers to watch for “offensive” subject matter that might be a triggering issue. I mean, those books are getting farther and farther from what we think of as reality. I can only hope that the Christian market doesn’t follow suit.


Julie Hahn

I’m older, but couldn’t agree with you more. Reading pious stories that bring Christians up in hot-house environments does not equip Christians to live ‘in the world’ – though from a parent’s perspective, I also wanted to protect my kids. Finding a balance is very difficult, but we don’t do anyone any favours by restricting reading to wishy-washy, sterile stories.

I assume you’ve read Madeleine L’Engle’s works. There are some brilliant Christian authors, some recent. I recommend Paula Vince (Australian author).


I can totally relate. Another angle to this topic is the “feedback” we authors get for not writing pristine stories. It’s important to know who you are called to reach and trust that the inspiration we receive will reach our targeted audience. It is those same narrowminded attitudes that run people away from church, as well as making others not want to deal with Christians. In our limited thinking it’s like we completely miss the Jesus we claim to serve. Each person must be true to their unique gift and write the stories He gives us to share. I dare say we’d be a much more impactful people if we stopped trying to feign a perfection that doesn’t exist. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Appreciated!