Spiritual Character Development & Avoiding the ‘Testimony Fiction’ Trap

A while back, I wrote an article on writing believable characters. Characters that are true to life have problems, real problems that Christ can solve. They might cuss, drink, have extramarital sex, do drugs or be consummate jerks, but much as the Bible gives us our heroes warts and all (King David’s life alone should underscore this point), they show that Christ is relevant to the real world and that God can and does meet us where we are.

Recently, I read an article by author Donovan M. Neal, called Why Tolkien might not get published by Christians today. He lamented that “Current books seem designed to make sure that no offense is given to its audience, nor gives rise to vicarious experiences that might lead to sinful thoughts and feelings.” Basically, he suggested that books are filtered according to a 5-point CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) – inspired criteria (and I don’t think he’s far off). These five CBA “must-haves” are:

  1. A protagonist who is either Christian, or comes to faith as a result of their experiences in the book.
  2. A strand of spiritual development that has greater or equal weight to the other plot developments.
  3. The primary conflict in the book is resolved by spiritual, not earthly power.
  4. There is an bar on bad language, out-of-marriage sexual situations, the consumption of alcohol and other recreational drugs.
  5. Violence must be treated very carefully – they would rather it happens off-page than on.”

I write action-packed sci-fi, so I fail the fifth criterion by virtue of my genre. My commitment to crafting believable characters has thus far put me in violation of the 1st and 4th criterion as well. I’m not objected to having  my protagonist or other major character be a Christian. In fact, several of my characters are Christians. I just think that there has to be more to Christian fiction than a conversion story. Repeat after me: There is no Testimony Fiction genre. More on that in a moment.

The closest I’ve come to fulfilling the third item on that list of “must-haves” is a scene in Luckbane involving the Sword of Necessity – and anyone who understands that scene knows that it fails as a proper Deus ex machina. I firmly believe that in the exception of true miracle, God’s method is men. I write accordingly.

The second criterion got me thinking. If I’m trying to write realistic characters, there’s going to be a spiritual aspect to their character… but does that necessarily mean there will be an entire spiritual character  developed in the story? I think that’s unrealistic.

Take my first book as an example. The entire plot of Johnny Came Home takes place over the course of a day. It’s an extraordinary day, but that’s not a whole lot of time [and considering the pacing of the action, it’s also not a lot of breathing space] for personal development, much less spiritual reflection. Some measure of soul-searching was possible given the constraints of the story. For example, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on “Freight Train” Farley’s spiritual journey from white supremacist to tolerance in Johnny Came Home, but I gave hints that Brad Farley was in the latter changes of that internal conflict and there was a BIG catalyst that pushed him into a decision. Change in a character’s perspective, whether from emotional or spiritual growth, takes time and sufficient cause.

Luckbane takes place over a much longer period of time, but the protagonist is a comfortably nominal Christian. I only mention his faith a few times because it will become important in a later book and I didn’t want anyone protesting that it was a new addition to his character that utterly changed him.

Obviously I’m not objected to a conversion at or re-dedication to Christ in a novel, if the story calls for it. I just don’t think that we should make that the end-all and be-all of Christian fiction. In fact, one of the things I get the most commentary over is a scene in Johnny Came Home in which a minor character actually ends up rejecting the Gospel. It’s poignant. It’s reflective of a reality that Christians have to face, that not everyone accepts the free gift of salvation, though we would obviously prefer otherwise. And the scene works, adding a spiritual level to the super-powered warfare that is taking place in the city of Midwich, WV.

While I don’t think every Christian book needs a Christian protagonist [or at least one who is a believer by the end of the book], I think it is absolutely imperative that we know where our characters stand spiritually and where they are going. We are, after all, Christian authors and we know that people are spiritual beings. Everyone is on a spiritual journey. Not everyone is in the same place (and this is a good thing to keep in mind when dealing with each other in general): some of us are newborns in Christ, some of us are backsliding or nominal or hurt or recently called into ministry. Some of us are burning bright while others are burning out. Some of us have lost our way to sin, complacent routine or legalism. Others are grappling with temptations, questions or the cares of this world. Some of us were born into other religions, cults or atheism. Some of us have ideas about Christianity that are informed only by what we see in the media. You get the idea.

Our characters are just like that, beginning the story at various stages in their overall spiritual journey. Whatever happens in the story will change them by degrees. Big changes require sufficient catalysts and, again, adequate time for said changes to take place.

Fortunately, it’s simply not necessary for your character to undergo a full spiritual transformation during your story. Maybe your protagonist is an anti-hero who is on the road to hell, but in this story he saves a jungle mission from an alien threat. Maybe his experiences harden his heart to God. Maybe this is his last hope of redemption, one that he ultimately rejects. Or it could be that his heart is already hardened and he is where he is because God can use him [and his violent skill set] anyway. Maybe one of the missionaries sees Providence in our anti-hero’s actions, a reminder that God calls warriors as well as priests, and that He also creates the waster to destroy. God used the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar and his armies for His own prophetic purposes; we tend to only think of believers as vessels of His will.

The important part is that we know where they are, where they came from and where they’re going spiritually – even if our story only intersects with a small slice of that spiritual development. The spiritual aspect of our character’s development is just as important to a well-rounded fully fleshed character as any other part of their background or their individual idiosyncrasies. Yet in the end, we need to remember that these details are meant to serve the story, to give it added texture and depth, but not to supplant it.

Unless of course it’s your actual goal to write Testimony Fiction for a specifically Christian market.

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