How do we, as authors, manage to write good, appealing Christian fiction in the onslaught of secularism without creating characters that seem to be fake, or even caricatures? In today’s world such a thing is no easy task. In fact, it’s much more difficult than simply writing FOR a secular audience.
This question has been asked recently in numerous forums. How do we manage to write realistic characters who act like everyday sinners if we must sanitize the manuscript? I grappled with this question for months while writing my first two novels.
I wanted the characters to seem like real Americans, just average, small town blue-collar people, living their lives while dealing with encroaching government interference. Writing a sanitized version of my books, try as I might, simply wasn’t possible. The characters seemed fake. There is a lot of “me” in my characters. I am no saint, and need to ask for forgiveness daily and sometimes hourly. I spent a lot of time praying the rosary, reading scripture and just asking, asking, asking: “Should I remove the foul language? Should the characters have sex? Should they break the speed limit, or smoke cigarettes, or buy guns off the street?”
At one point I myself was so depressed about America that as a result my characters cussed every other word. They were crude and nasty in their language, because I was thinking (and sometimes even saying) the F-bomb every other minute of each day, despite my prayers. I eventually removed most of the gratuitous language because it didn’t add to the story, and in fact detracted from the quality. Still though…If I was in such a state and thinking such thoughts about what was in store for America, how could my characters not be thinking and speaking similarly when actually dealing with what I envisioned?
I prayed daily for guidance in this matter, and I ended up writing my characters to be flawed sinners, just trying to do their best to live their faith. Unfortunately, for the male characters at least, this included writing dialogue containing references to fornication, foul language, and other such un-sanitized elements. My first book, Tears Of Paradox, takes readers through protagonist Jason’s courtship and marriage to the girl next door, (Michelle) who also happens to be his best friend Brad’s baby sister. In the opening chapters of the book, Brad is a wild college student and Jason has just returned from four years in the U.S. Military. How could such characters have been portrayed realistically if I had written their dialogue in a sanitized fashion? Or if I had pretended that such men were choir boys? The answer is, simply, that it couldn’t be done. Believe me, I tried.
Following are two examples from chapter 3 of Tears. In the first, we see Jason (Wallace) speaking to Brad on the phone, and gearing up to break the news that he, Jason, and Brad’s sister Michelle are now an item. Michelle, age 17, has just left for her first year of college, and Jason is five years older. This is written in first person from Jason’s POV. (Please forgive my excessive use of adverbs. This was my first book, and I hadn’t yet heard of the no adverb rule when I decided to go ahead and publish it. I had been working on it for 5 years already).
“Well, you’re making it sound like a sorority house is nothing but a whorehouse, and I just wondered what your thoughts might be, now that your sister left home.”
“Wallace, what the hell are you talking about?”
I changed the subject. “I ate at the house earlier. Your mom made lasagna.”
“You bastard,” he answered darkly. “I wish I could have had some. The sum total of supplies in my house right now is a fridge full of beer and half a bag of pretzels. Nobody ever restocks. We were out of TP the other day, and I didn’t know it until it was too late. Nobody else was around, so I had to use my damn boxers and then toss them.”
I howled with laughter at his statement. Even though I was nervous about him finding out, I couldn’t let such an admission pass without ragging him a little.
“Damn, Brad,” I laughed. “Were they the Calvin Klein ones?”
We’d been having a running disagreement about that very subject for the past five years. Brad tended to enjoy wearing clothing with labels, even when it came to boxer shorts. I, on the other hand, may have liked a label or two, and once in a while I’d pay extra for a shirt, or some shoes or maybe a pair of jeans, (unless they were work jeans). In my opinion it was a waste of good money to buy designer boxers, though. And lucky for me, I hadn’t needed too many clothes anyway, not for the previous four years at least. That’ll have to change though. And I hate shopping. Maybe Michelle will help me pick out some stuff.
“No Wallace,” Brad retorted in an aggravated tone. “They weren’t the Calvin Klein ones. They were Tommy Hilfiger. They were an old pair, but I was still pissed off about it.”
I continued to howl at the image of Brad, stuck on the can without toilet paper and being forced to wipe his ass with his high end boxers.
“Shut the hell up,” Brad snapped, irritably. “I had to do it. There was nothing else in there except Doyle’s towel. It was on the floor, and he’d already used the damn thing, and I’d have wiped my ass with brand new boxers before I’d ever wipe with anything that touched Doyle. So shut up.” Doyle was one of the guys who lived in Brad’s dump of a house. I’d never met him, but I’d heard a lot about him, and judging from what I had heard I agreed with Brad.
“All right, Brad. But answer me this. Have you bought any underwear since?”
“No, Wallace,” he snapped. “I haven’t.”
“Well, the next time you do are they gonna be Tommy Hilfiger, or are you gonna do what I do? Nobody sees the damn things anyway.”
“Maybe nobody sees yours, Wallace, but they sure as hell see mine every once in a while,” he retorted. “And the next time some chick does see them, I’d prefer it if the label wasn’t decorated with pictures of fruit.”
“Yeah Brad? Well I don’t give a damn who sees what. And I still think it’s a waste of good money. What good did it do you? They’re in the dumpster now, aren’t they?”
Silence on his end, except for a little sputtering. I continued laughing. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that it wasn’t the damn boxer shorts anyway, but the equipment underneath that mattered, and that I’d never had any complaints when it came to that. But I stopped myself.
Can’t say that. Not anymore. Especially to him. And I had a feeling no one but me would have any idea about what kind of boxers I wore, for a very long time. But that’s a price I’m willing to pay. What do I care? Michelle means way more than that to me. And she did. It was a lesson I’d learned during my time away from her. A hard lesson. I changed the subject then.
So, we learned from the excerpt above these things:
- Jason is very nervous about telling Brad he is dating Michelle.
- Brad is a player and a sharp dresser.
- Brad and Jason are close enough to speak freely about sexual matters and bathroom issues, indicating to readers that they have a pretty deep relationship, one which Jason is worried might suffer with his news.
- Jason, though formerly a player himself, has vowed to change his ways.
Here is the next excerpt, from a little further on in the same conversation. Jason has tried to break the news to Brad by joking and references to Michelle’s upcoming 18th birthday, but Brad simply doesn’t get it:
Brad was getting annoyed again. “Wallace, what the hell is this? Why would you care whether or not I got something for Michelle? And why would you be buying her a birthday gift?”
I smoked and kept quiet.
“Wallace, are you there?”
“Well, answer my question,” he said, impatiently.
“I bought her a bracelet,” I stated. Brad finally snapped.
“Damn it Wallace!” he exploded. “I don’t give a flying crap on a magic carpet what you bought her! I just want to know why.”
I took a deep breath then. It was obvious he wasn’t going catch on, so I opened my mouth and just told him. “Okay Brad,” I replied evenly. “I thought you might have been able to figure it out with a couple of hints, the way Johnny did earlier, but apparently your one-track mind isn’t going to allow that, so I’ll just tell you straight up. Michelle and I are seeing each other.”
Complete silence. Then I heard the click of his lighter, as he lit a cigarette. I lit another one with the remainder of my first, and thought I could hear what was running through his mind. Brad and I had been friends for so long that sometimes we knew what the other was thinking. Well I’ll be damned. My little sister. Wallace, you son of a bitch…what the hell are you trying to pull?
I could hear him dragging on his cigarette. By that time I was on the edge of town, driving down Main Street, at the point where it turned back into Route 24, headed toward my mother’s place.
“Did you hear me, Brad?”
“You’re joking. Right?” He sounded incredulous.
“No Brad. I’m not.”
“Wallace, come on. You can’t be serious.”
“Your parents don’t seem to have a problem with it.”
“Wallace, come on,” he repeated. “Is this some set up? I don’t see any cameras around here, but whatever. Did Doyle put you up to this? That son of a bitch…April Fool’s day is six months away.”
“Brad,” I said, slowly and patiently. “Listen to me. I am seeing your sister. We talk every night on the phone. I will be taking her out on the weekends when she comes home. This is a fact. Can you understand me?”
“Wallace, you better watch it.” Brad’s voice was a little wary. Maybe even warning. “You know you don’t have girlfriends. When’s the last time you were ever serious about a girl?”
“I understand your misgivings Brad,” I stated quietly. “I admit I don’t have the best track record with women, but Michelle is different.”
“Well, if that isn’t the all-time understatement of the year,” he retorted sarcastically. “She’s different. Wallace, I don’t even know what the hell you’ve been doing for the past four years. You never say anything. How the hell do I know what you’ve been doing? You could have been hopping from whore to whore in every country you called me from, for all I know. I know how you are.”
I was determined to keep my temper. I put myself in his shoes for a minute. “You don’t know as much as you think you know, if you think I’d be whore hopping.”
“I didn’t mean you were paying for it, Wallace. I know you’d never pay for it. I’d never pay for it. But that’s not the point.”
That’s what he knows.
He was right, except for one time. It had happened on Michelle’s birthday, the October following my departure for basic training. It was a weak moment on my part; she’d been blonde haired and blue-eyed, and I was drunk that night. I was wasted as a matter of fact; regretting my decision to leave home. A guy I was stationed with, Lawson his name was, had driven a bunch of us into town for a night out. On our way back to the base, we saw her in the headlights. She was slim with long hair, wearing a short skirt and a tank top, walking along the highway about a mile from the base, almost in the middle of nowhere. Just her and the deserted two lane road; little lights twinkling off in the distance from the Interstate on our right, the base on our left.
I could only remember a little. More lights, hanging in the sky; a cargo plane coming in for a landing. I remember clouds scudding across the face of the moon, sending shadows traveling. The clouds seemed to stretch far away in the sky down in Texas, not like home.
No. Not like home.
The moon was far away.
She looked sweet to me; young and innocent.
Like I said, I was drunk. When I woke up the next morning, in her room in the cheap motel next to the truck stop right off the Interstate, everything looked different. Her, especially. The whole episode was a mistake. I found out I’d gotten more than I paid for a few days later, when I woke up crawling. It was the worst money I ever spent, and from that time on I stayed away from hookers, no matter how young and sweet their eyes were.
Brad’s voice brought me back to the present.
“Wallace!” He snapped loudly. “Will you listen to me?”
“I am listening,” I retorted. “But you shouldn’t be mentioning your sister in the same breath as you mention whores, Brad. And how do I know you haven’t? Paid for it, I mean. How the hell do I know what you’ve been doing with yourself, Brad?”
“Well, whatever, Wallace,” he blew by me. “Makes no difference whether the two of us paid for it once or twice or not; that’s not the point. The point is that I know damn well you go after a piece every once in a while, whether you pay for it or not. And I know the type you go after, too.”
“Well Brad,” I answered, “since you know all that, I guess you also know I like to keep a few things to myself from time to time.” Brad had a tendency to give me too much information about his sexual escapades sometimes, but that didn’t mean I had to reciprocate.
“Well, if you’re gonna be seeing my sister, there better be more than one thing you’re keeping to yourself.”
So, from the above excerpt we learned quite a bit more about both men.
- Brad had no idea of Jason’s feelings for his sister, even though Jason had been in love with Michelle since they were kids.
- Brad and Jason are so close that sometimes they know what the other is thinking.
- Brad, though a player and a bit of a cad, is very protective of his own sister, and does not trust his friend to do right by her.
- Jason had an encounter with a prostitute, which he keeps secret from Brad, along with other aspects of his private life.
- Brad admits by inference that he himself has slept with prostitutes.
Now, all of this was shown for a reason. These two men are products of their environment. (This scene takes place around 2007). I could not write realistic, entertaining characters who by the end of the book are completely different than they were during the above dialogue if I had written a sanitized book. What would I have written if I had left out the foul language? (Which, in fact isn’t actually that bad, IMO–it’s just the way men speak to each other, and could have been much, much worse). These are American men, speaking to each other in a private conversation. They are flawed human beings in need of God and they are not perfect.
By the same token, what would have been lost if I had left out the encounter with the prostitute? For one thing, readers wouldn’t have seen that there are consequences. Jason only went to a prostitute one time, because of the consequence a few days later, and he admitted the episode was a mistake. In a few short paragraphs readers could see that getting drunk out of your head and losing control doesn’t always end well. Showing the consequences for such behavior is sorely lacking in many secular books, even books in school libraries. (See my posts on the book Nineteen Minutes).
My books are written for adults, yet they are better suited for older teens than many books in schools and libraries because they show real consequences. (I won’t mention the unfortunate state of publishing at this time. I will simply say that my books would not and do not pass the ideological litmus test demanded by mainstream publishers today. For evidence of this litmus test in action one merely needs to investigate the contretemps surrounding the recent Hugo awards, where authors I respect and admire from afar were treated like trash by certain segments of the Sci-Fi community simply for being what the elites might consider “uppity.” Their work did not pass the litmus test, they persisted in their quest for inclusion and deserved recognition, and they were smacked down and humiliated at the recent awards ceremony. For more information on this debacle please see the series of blog posts entitled Sad Puppies, by Declann Finn, or simply google the name Larry Correia).
But back to the question at hand. Should we or shouldn’t we write characters who actually do and say the things we ourselves do and say? My answer is: How could we not? After all, we are following Christ for a reason. We are all sinners. If we weren’t we wouldn’t need Christ. What good would it be to write characters who don’t sin and struggle? After all, if they were perfect they would have much less need of Christ’s light. I’m sure some folks would disagree with me, and of course that is their prerogative, but I must admit that I like a certain amount of true to life grittiness in the fictional books I read. This includes books with Catholic or Christian themes, precisely because such works show the world realistically.
IMO writing realistic characters can actually be a boon. If Jason had been a choirboy while getting ready to begin serving overseas during the Global War On Terror, it would have seemed fake, fake, fake. He had just left the girl he loved behind and his future was uncertain. Such a man, though a believer and even a sporadic churchgoer, simply wouldn’t have not gotten drunk at least once, and probably many more times. The same goes for Brad, a student of pharmacology in Memphis TN. A product of the times, living in an old dump of a house with a bunch of roommates. Of course Brad sowed wild oats.
However, during the course of the book, times begin to change. It is made clear in early chapters of Tears Of Paradox that both Brad and Jason were given a moral upbringing in the Catholic Church. Though they did drift away for a time, they found the “world” to be not of their liking. This makes their ultimate return to the Faith and Jason’s treatment of Michelle all the more satisfying. When Brad finally marries he too becomes a changed man, in part because of his faith, even though he doesn’t see it at the time.
By the middle of the book both men are married to women they love and treasure, and Jason, due to his struggle to cope with circumstances beyond his control, is spending time in Adoration of The Blessed Sacrament.
Such a transformation — from lady killer to a man relying solely on Christ — would have meant much less if Jason hadn’t been portrayed as a sinner. And in fact, he continues to fall and fail and ask for forgiveness throughout the series. I use the word transformation deliberately. Tears of Paradox and The Notice are part of The Storms of Transformation Series. As usual there is irony, or perhaps paradox, because not only is America being transformed, but the characters are as well.
There is a great deal of human suffering in my series. Some might find the books dark, depressing and scary. However, they are true to life. The suffering endured by Michelle, Jason and Brad is pretty much ripped from the headlines, or will be shortly if America continues on its present course.
Such suffering is explained by the cross. That is the only way I–and by extension my characters–can deal with what is happening. The cross is the answer to everything that means anything in this earthly life. How else can we cope with all of the change and transformation? Without the cross we wouldn’t have the strength, or perhaps even the inclination to stand and struggle upstream as the waters of the world attempt to drag us down. We might not speak up for the unborn who are targeted for death without the knowledge that we must help Christ carry His cross. We might lose hope, and begin to believe we are just animals, here for no reason, meaning nothing. And then we would be swept away. We would just float downstream along with the refuse and wreckage of a Godless society.
No matter how hard it seems, we just wouldn’t be His if we didn’t allow ourselves to be transformed. This is what I’m attempting to portray in my books, even if I’m doing it in a fashion that some might term rather un-Christlike.
This is the answer I received. We are all sinners, we need Christ, and we should use the gifts given us to show Him to others, even in unconventional ways.