Life Without Plastic: Writing Believable Christian Characters

I’m one of those authors who loves creating characters. If you’ve read my books, you know I’m not kidding. If anything, I have a tendency toward having perhaps too many characters! The problem is that, while I’m essentially transcribing the movies that play in my head, much of my writing is drawn from real life – and there are a lot of characters that populate our real lives.

Now I’ve read a lot of good books and web articles on writing different kinds of characters, but I want to add my two cents anyway. ;] Specifically, I want to talk about writing believable Christian characters.

You usually see Christian characters portrayed two different ways. On the one hand, secular authors have a tendency to make them hypocrites and villains. If someone’s going to be intolerant or holier-than-thou, it’s going to be a Christian character. And don’t forget to watch your back around those fundamentalists – their scarred childhoods can only lead to a future as a twisted serial killer! Christian authors have the opposite tendency, writing super-believers, if you will: paragons of who embody how Christians ought to act. I think this latter trend comes from the well-intentioned idea that we ought to write Christians the way Christians ought to be, because we know the real McCoy falls far short of the ideal.

I’m not sure this is the best approach in most cases. Sure, if you’re writing the next In His Steps [that lovely novel by Charles Sheldon whose rediscovery launched the WWJD? fad] and your aim is to intentionally show what Christians acting as they should would look like so as to inspire real-world Christians to get off their complacent, self-righteous cans and DO what we’re called to do… then by all means, write paragon Christians. Even then, if not done properly, you could just end up writing plastic Christians that real Christians full-well realize could never exist in real life, defeating the entire premise of your book!

In most cases, you’re going to want to write something a little more down-to-earth, because, while we know that a lot of Christians try to act perfect in church, we know from personal experience that people are just messed up behind closed doors.

So we tend to write a few well-meaning tropes that I think give readers a false impression of Christian perfection. I call this the Super Christian trope, and it has many forms. For example, while researching this post, I ran across this list of Christian book tropes and the following caught my eye:

Christian Community. Run by wise, sincere male elders (the wise sincere females are allowed to counsel younger women). They are 100% sure of every doctrine. This usually includes :
– Pacifism, they won’t fight the Anti-Christ’s forces with a weapon, although they may sometimes knock a baddie out, provided they are suitably sorry for it afterward.
– Guidance, they know exactly how God will guide Hero 4 chapters later.
– End Times, they know exactly what God has planned, even better than Jesus did in the Gospels.”

How does this compare with the Christian Community in your neck of the woods? Do they always get it right? Are they always sincere for that matter? I’ve got news for you, Christian or otherwise, if your reader has ANY experience with the Church, they’re going to know something is off when you use this trope. In fact, it was one of the biggest flaws in the Left Behind series. Who are these flawless, all-wise, omnipotent humans?? Why isn’t God using them instead of the flawed, yet willing folks in my church?

Here’s another one:

The Pure Girl. This girl is the Right Choice for the Chosen One. She’s kind, helpful, supportive, and never thinks about sex. She is the Proverbs 31 Woman. If the hero is not saved, the Pure Girl will show him the error of his sinful ways and guide him to repentance.”

First of all, there should warning signs around Proverbs 31 plainly stating that this is an ideal and that forcing a woman to jump through these hoops is unrealistic. For example, note that the passage reflects a past reality where everyone had to produce something to sell, make everything they wore and folks had to get up early in the morning to make breakfast because they didn’t have boxes of cereal, refrigerators or microwaves.

The real problem with Pure Girl is that she herself is a plastic expectation. She almost never says or does the wrong thing. She almost never over reacts, or gets angry, spiteful and/or apparently horny. She is essentially Christ in a skirt, whose miracles come in the form of perfect speech, action, thought and attitude. She’s as plastic as Barbie. Now would I want my daughter to be Pure Girl? Yeah. Absolutely. I just don’t think it’s realistic.

The Apostle Paul described the reality of the Christian life:

15For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. 17Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 18For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. 19For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 21I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” [Romans 7:15-24]

We know what we should do, but that’s not what we often do, is it? We’re not perfect. Only God is perfect. So the correct starting point is to write characters as we truly exist in real life and then show God’s transformative power as it actually happens. We show our Christian characters with their unresolved sins, incomplete knowledge and questionable decisions… and we show how God works even through all that, because that’s the way it works in real life.
 
You see, there is one trope that isn’t mentioned on that list. The list mentions the Altar Call Ending, but it’s also common for Christian books to utilize what I call Altar Call Perfection, or Frog Prince Christianity. This is where the Christian becomes suddenly perfect upon uttering the equivalent of the Sinner’s Prayer. He or she suddenly doesn’t cuss, drink, smoke, use foul language, react poorly or get horny. If they backslide, it’s once and they are even more perfect afterwards.
 
Speaking of Ken and Barbie… ;]

It reminds me of Joel Osteen. He once came out with a book called Become A Better You. It was the follow up to a book called Your Best Life Now. I remember thinking, ‘Joel, how you gonna tell anybody how to get better when you supposedly done told them how to be at their best? What’s better than best?’ It sounds like a scam. It sounds just as fishy when we write Frog Prince Christianity into our books.

 
Look, people have flaws. How are we going to show folks that God can overcome those flaws – the ones we know we struggle with every single day! – if we never write Christian characters who have them?
 
I’ve written a wide range of Christian characters in my books, representing different stages of my own walk and the Christian experience of those around me. Jarrod, the protagonist of Luckbane, is a nominal Christian, the sort of Christian who believes and occasionally prays, but is basically too busy to live out his faith as he should [but I still have hope for him]. Copper Gallows is a wounded believer who has left the fold for the time being. You’ll find out more about that in the Luckbane sequel, Soulbright. In Johnny Came Home, the protagonist’s parents were Christians, so John Lazarus’ worldview is basically Christian even if he’s not saved. Mike Trager is a Christian whose job requires him to lie and kill on occasion [think: Can Christians be spies or special forces?]. What he does is a necessary evil, one he struggles with from time to time. Of course, Dr. Ed Blyth, pastor of Soul’s Harbor, is a bit more what we would expect of a Christian, but he admits he once believed things as a Christian that he now knows are false; he’s grown as a believer and trusts God and His Word more as a result. There’s even a televangelist thrown in there somewhere.

I paint them warts and all because that’s the way people are portrayed in the Bible. We read of David’s adultery and Noah’s post-Flood drunkenness, because the Bible portrays people as they are: made in the image of God in a fallen world, capable of both great good and evil. And all of us need the grace of God. Some of my characters happen to be Christians with super powers, but none of them are “Super Christians,” which is to say, none of them are perfect. Only one Person was ever Perfect and our writing should reflect that reality. It should also portray Christians realistically, because where else can we expect to read the truth about God and Christianity, if not in Christian novels? And face it: NOBODY likes fake people. Am I right?

By writing realistic Christian characters, we can show our readers how God works in and through such flawed creatures for His glory and purposes. The Christian walk is transformation, and transformation is often a stepwise process. We learn, we make mistakes, we grow. We don’t always know what we’re supposed to say or do. I’ll be honest: I usually think of just the right thing to say about an hour after the conversation is over. If I manage to say the right thing at the right time to touch someone, it’s just gotta be God!

Consider the testimony of Paul:

“And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

We might be a mess right now, but we’re in Good Hands. The Christian story isn’t a story about perfect Christians getting right. It’s a story about God getting it right through imperfect Christians. It’s OK that we’re messed up, because it’s not about us – it’s about Him! It’s HIS STORY. In fact YOU are His Story:

Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.
2 Corinthians 3:3

So let’s write realistic characters that give folks a picture of real grace and real hope. ;]

More food for thought:

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

“For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Philippians 2:13

“Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” Philippians 1:6

“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith…” Hebrews 12:2a

“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

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5 thoughts on “Life Without Plastic: Writing Believable Christian Characters

  1. I thought I was doing pretty well when I started to read your article. After all, my book, “Martyr” has a major character (“hero”) who doesn't even seem to come to faith by the end of book 1. But then I got to the part about the “Pure Girl”. And I realized that I have a character like that. Apparently. I just have to hope that my reader can see the cracks that begin to form well before the pearly-white armor falls away in discolored chunks. See, when I say “trilogy”, that means the story isn't told until it is all told. Here's my promise to my readers: nobody will be sanctified overnight, and no human character, not even the Purest Girl, is incorruptible. I expect some Christian readers will find some of my choices, and some of my characters' choices, distasteful, and will depart for greener pastures. I wrote Martyr for the ones who will stay, and savor the withered, yellow grasses of the world I've created.

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  2. Don't feel bad. Pure Girl is a pretty common trope. Once I started thinking about it, I started seeing where it'd been used in tons of Christian books, many of which I still love. The love interest in my debut novel, Johnny Came Home, was originally designed as Pure Girl, but then Emily became something more like Emo Girl ;]

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  3. A friend sent me this, and I'm THRILLED to read it. I now want to read your books because as a writer myself, the imperfect character is who I've felt called to write. You hit the nail on the head about why growing up I never read Christian Fiction and why in writing it I want to change people's perceptions. God bless.

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  4. Thanks for the encouragement, sir! If you'd like a free copy of one of my books in exchange for a fair and honest review, just send me an email at anthony[dot]breeden[at]yahoo]dot]com. You know what to do with the brackets. ;]

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