Many years ago, I was discussing with a Christian friend the Tom Cruise movie The Firm, based on John Grisham’s legal thriller.
Grisham is reputed to be a Christian, and my friend was disappointed by an episode of adultery in the storyline.
I said, “Yes, but there were consequences to the adultery. It damaged the character’s relationship with his wife. She suffered, and he suffered too because of what he’d done.”
By comparison, in a lot of popular culture the narrative would encourage the audience to hope the adulterous relationship would win. Perhaps the character would be presented as “escaping” a tired old marriage, or pursuing someone new who made them feel alive.
In the movie of The Firm, however, the adultery is quite definitely portrayed as a bad thing with terrible consequences, while the damaged marriage proves to be worth fighting for.
Is this a grace note?
Bad things happen in a fallen world – and in our stories – but to me it’s a grace note when they are seen for what God says they are, rather than celebrated.
What do you think? How do you see it?
Gracewriters are Christians who write to influence popular culture. Our fiction might include novels, plays and screenplays, short stories and flash fiction, opera or narrative songs or poems, among other forms.
These are some of my ideas for how to introduce grace notes to mainstream fiction. Please join the discussion, as I’m interested to hear your ideas.
Let’s learn from each other.
Grace notes via a redemption arc?
A redemption arc in fiction is generally seen as an evil character redeeming themselves. A bad guy turns from their evil ways, or feels regret, or recognises the damage caused.
- Since redemption is a solidly biblical theme, in Christian fiction the “bad guy” could actually come to faith.
- In mainstream fiction, could the bad guy still come to faith? I’d suggest that general readers are more able to cope with religious moments than we often give them credit for. If this happened, I’d be keen to see the writing convey it in ways that are meaningful to non-believers.
- A character could have a gentle “movement towards” faith, but not actually cross the line – an especially interesting idea to explore across a series.
- Alternatively, the character could have a different outcome where faith is not explicitly involved. Some other kind of redemption occurs.
I’d also like to suggest that perhaps a whole story – not just one character – can have a redemption arc. That might include:
- A good guy learns from and recovers from bad choices.
- Broken relationships are mended.
- Challenges or illnesses or disasters are overcome, or seen in a new way, or lead to unexpected growth for a character.
- Do you have other suggestions?
This whole-of-book type of redemption arc is not as simple as a happy ending. It could be much more subtle than that, and could also occur in a book with a less-than-happy ending.
Let me say, however, that I don’t despise happy endings or consider them shallow. I still recall the beautiful day my philosophy lecturer at Bible college said: “We like happy endings because it’s encoded into our souls. We were made for something better than this broken world. Our desire for happy endings is one of the symptoms of the image of God in us.”
That made me feel a lot better about liking happy endings in stories!
Grace notes via Christian characters?
Too often, Christians are portrayed in popular culture as serial killers, or oodly-doodly dingleberries (think of Ned Flanders in The Simpsons).
I know lots of Christians who are neither of those things.
And so I chose to write a Christian character into my mainstream crime series who is flawed, and makes poor decisions at times, but shows leadership ability, kindness and intelligence, and keeps on clinging to faith during terrible events.
He is set off against non-believing characters who challenge him from many angles, dispute his point of view, and call him to account.
I mentioned John Grisham, above. In The Last Juror I watched in curiosity as he used a character– a southern Baptist lady – to weave in pretty much an entire gospel presentation, one piece at a time, by the end of the book. She was constantly gospelling the main character, and it’s credible that such a person would do exactly that.
Potential opportunities with Christian characters:
- What are their flaws and how do they deal with them?
- How does their faith influence their actions and choices?
- How do they treat other people?
- What do they talk about?
May I suggest that if you add a Christian character to a mainstream work of fiction, you avoid making them a shining-eyed paragon who can do no wrong? Such an implausible character will rarely open any hearts to our world view.
Grace notes via dialogue?
I try to generate opportunities for Jack, my Christian character in my crime series, to talk bluntly about his faith from time to time. (It’s the sort of thing Jack would do.) My editor is also a Gracewriter, and she helps me avoid being unnatural about it, while also alerting me to opportunities I might have missed.
Sometimes I think we hold back when we don’t need to. Characters of other faiths are often talking about their beliefs in mainstream fiction.
- Avoiding “preachy” dialogue – unless it’s a flaw that the character is challenged on by other characters.
- Avoiding Christian jargon, unless other characters force them to explain it.
Do you have friends who don’t share your faith? Maybe spend time listening to how they respond to our faith-babble and notice the types of things they really don’t understand. It will help you explain it more realistically.
Grace notes via “gravity”?
No, not Newton’s theory!
- Sees big things as big things
- Takes serious things seriously
- Doesn’t sneer at good or holy things
- Doesn’t celebrate bad or destructive things.
It’s okay for individual characters to sneer or be destructive. Gravity can still influence the overall tone, message and purpose of the book. In fact, sometimes that message can be stronger if it’s set off against characters who oppose it.
Grace notes via theme?
Every cohesive story has a theme – that one big message that comes through from the work.
Sometimes we know the theme before we begin; other times it emerges during the writing process – possibly not till we’re near the end.
With my mainstream novel Poison Bay, I thought the theme might be greed, but it turned out to be: “the power of forgiveness, and what happens when it’s withheld”. I was delighted to realise this theme had developed – it wasn’t something I tried to impose on the narrative, but emerged organically from it.
Grace notes via what we omit?
Many Christian writers and readers have strong opinions on the Big 3: Swearing, Violence and Sex.
Some argue they should be omitted altogether from fiction written by Christians; others argue for a more nuanced approach.
I’m interested to hear what you think – what you’ve chosen to do so far and how your thinking is developing.
These have been my choices so far:
- Swearing: I don’t enjoy hearing or reading swearing myself and I know other readers who feel the same way (regardless of their religious beliefs). Therefore, I’ve chosen that though some of my characters swear, I don’t make the reader listen to the actual words. So I might write something like “he swore lavishly” and let the reader choose their own adventure, so to speak. Some of the crime shows that appear on television in prime time avoid swearing but still have exciting dialogue, and that also gives me ideas.
- Violence: I write crime and it’s not “cozy” so awful things do happen at times. However, I deliberately choose not to be gruesome by restricting the amount of detail I give. I also avoid treatments that I have found disturbing in other works, for example a murder scene written from inside the point of view of the victim as they die.
- Sex: Some of my characters do have sex, but I have made a choice not to make the reader watch it. It’s mentioned, because it happens in life, but I choose not to describe it.
What do you think about adding Christian grace notes to fiction? Please share the ways you yourself have done so – by what you’ve added or what you’ve chosen to leave out. Please share ideas you’ve gleaned from reading other writers.