On the other side of the spectrum you might hear that Christian fiction which ignores the “real world” is simply, well... not good. Therefore, you should make sure your characters speak with realistic language including expletives when necessary, and you should not dance around the issues of graphic violence or sex.
So which is it?
I have major problems with both of these extremes. I suppose if these were my only two options, I would be forced to lean a little more toward the squeaky-clean camp. I take issue with the use of the phrase “real life” in describing sinful behavior as opposed to righteous living. Are we saying that the righteous man isn’t real? Isn’t Christ’s transforming power just as real as the sorry state of the sinner apart from Him? Neither camp suits me, so I will attempt to lay out for you the guidelines I follow.
What are our goals as Christian writers?
- To uplift
We never want to drag someone down. We want to inspire and encourage them in their walk with God. Our readers struggle with sin just like we do, we don’t want to make it harder for them to keep their minds pure!
- To reflect the heart of God
God wants to meet you where you’re at but He doesn’t want to leave you there. Like the saying goes “Come just as you are, but don’t leave that way!”
- To draw people out of darkness.
We don't want someone to finish reading our work and be more entrenched in the world than before! We have been called out of darkness; we do not want to embrace it, nor be comfortable living in it. We shouldn’t ignore the darkness, but we should depict it as a negative place to be. Christ told “gritty stories” himself. But always the message was- “Go, and sin no more.” (see above.)
Also, remember your audience. Christians don’t often want to look down at their book and see a curse word spelled out in black and white. And don’t use asterisks in its place! It’s just tacky. Not to mention that effective writing should not need to rely on blatant curse words to convey the mood of the scene. Remember the Golden Rule of writing fiction: “Show don’t Tell”. This rule very much applies in situations like these.
What does this look like in action? Example is the best teacher here. I will share two passages that I feel express touchy subjects without crossing the line. The first is from Sherri Lewis’ My Soul Cries Out. One of the grittiest scenes I could imagine. Monica has just caught her husband in bed- with another man. She’s been throwing books and hangars at the men just before we jump in:
I stomped out of the room and disappeared down the steps. They probably thought I had gotten tired or come to my senses. I wasn’t anywhere near coming to my senses. I just remembered Kevin’s golf clubs in the front closet.
When I came back, the look in Kevin’s eyes said he regretted the day he ever became obsessed with being the next Tiger Woods. Trey screamed like a girl and ran out of the room when he saw the driving iron in my hand.
I made a wild swing at Kevin and hit the wall instead. Paint and drywall crumbled to the floor. While I was prying the club out of the wall, Kevin grabbed my arm and wrestled me to the floor. “Monica, calm down. Please, calm down and let’s talk about this like rational adults.”
“Calm down? Rational adults?” I unleashed a spray of curse words – strung them together like a pro. Kevin’s eyes widened. He had never heard me curse before. By the time he met me, I’d gotten delivered of the cussing demon I picked up my freshman year of college.
I twisted a hand free and slapped his face. Hard. Twice.
He grabbed my hand again and tried to pin me down. He was forceful enough to stop my assault against him, but gentle enough not to hurt me.
“Monnie, please.” His eyes begged me. Those big, beautiful eyes I had fallen so deeply in love with. Seeing the tears forming in the corners of them took some of the fire out of me. I stopped struggling for a minute.
Kevin looked like he was trying to decide if I was faking him out or if he could trust me enough to loosen his grip. He stared, obviously not knowing what to say. What could he say?
I realized my dream life, my fantasy, had just come undone. I let out a wail. “Oh my Gaaaaaawwwwwddddd…”
“Monnie, I’m sorry. I –”
“You’re sorry all right. You sorry son of a…son of a... You mother-lovin’…” Forget it. It was too hard. I unleashed another spray of foul language, knowing no matter how much I cursed or how many times I hit him, I’d never be able to make him hurt as much as he just made me hurt.
I sure could try, though.
Wow, can you feel her pain? We don’t need to know precisely what Monica said, because the exact words aren’t important. The emotion is. And the emotion of the scene comes through loud and clear. The author has done a good job of SHOWING, rather than TELLING what Monica is feeling. This might be a little closer to the line than even I would be comfortable at, but it doesn’t quite cross it and it doesn’t need to. In fact, I think the scene would lose some power if Monica’s tirade were documented for us word-by-word.
The second example is from my book, BEAUTY FOR ASHES. April’s drunk boyfriend has lost his temper and shoved her against the wall.
Uncertainty played across my fluttering heart. What was he doing? I glanced around the room searching for help. There was a vase on the other side of the room if I could get to it. But my wrists were pinned against the wall above my head and he was squeezing hard. I winced as he brought his face down to mine.
“Don’t you know that you can’t do anything to me?” He moved his head and whispered in my ear, “You’re powerless, April. You’re nothing. I only keep you around for one reason.” He brought his lips to the nape of my neck.
Instinct took over then, and I used my knee to hit him as hard I could. He let go and stumbled back a few steps.
“You’re a jerk, Robert.” I said, glad the whole thing was over. His experiment in physical intimidation was ended.
He was dumbfounded for a moment- a deer caught in the headlights. But then he erupted, like a volcano. He spewed the most vile names at me, the most hideous hurtful things. He grabbed his plate from the table and threw it, cursing. I ducked to avoid it and it crashed into the wall behind me. Then he flew at me, with complete and total rage in his eyes. And for the first time, I was truly terrified.
He rammed me and shoved me to the ground. He kicked me in the stomach and I curled around myself. I couldn’t suck in enough air. I gasped and tried to pull myself up but then he was on top of me. He used his fists on my face and I raised my arms as cover. We struggled on the floor as I tried to get away but it was no use. I was crying now, certain that he meant to actually kill me.
“Robert, please!” I screamed. “Stop! Don’t do this!” but he wouldn’t listen. He was hitting me upside the head with his fists while I tried in vain to find shelter behind my arms. He grew frustrated with my flailing and grabbed my wrists pinning them down above me. At least it kept his hands busy so he couldn’t hit me anymore. He squeezed my wrists so tight that my hands started to tingle. I was helpless there. He didn’t mind my crying.
He was breathing hard, staring down at me. Then something changed in his expression and he got off of me abruptly.
“Get up” he said.
On shaky limbs I scrambled to my feet, feeling every bruise. I tasted blood in my mouth, and I was sure I had a cracked rib. Robert was still agitated but I kept silent.
“Come on.” He said, pulling me toward the bedroom. “Sit.” He thrust me onto the bed. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. My heart was beating out an unfamiliar rhythm but I sat stone-still, staring down at my hands. He sat down next to me on the edge of the bed and roughly tilted my chin up to study my face. Then he pressed his lips into mine and kissed me hard. When I tried to resist, he pulled me closer and kissed me even more intently. “Knock it off, April. Don’t fight me.” He said. So I didn’t.
This scene could have been written using a lot of dialogue with plenty of cursing and name calling, as well as more explicit descriptions of what was done to April. But the scene is effective without it. We know what happened, we know it was evil. No need to roll around in the graphic details.
The character’s personal story is part of her spiritual journey and that is the main goal here- to put the reader into her life where it hurts, so they might later follow her to where there is comfort in Christ.
It’s a balancing act to be sure. There have been many scenes that caused me to pause and think hard about how best to construct them. But it’s so very important to get it right that it’s worth the time to find that balance. My best advice on the subject? Pray! Pray before every project, but especially those difficult passages. When it comes to pleasing God, the Holy Spirit is our best mentor, the ultimate guru.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you agree or disagree? Please share!