I read an interesting article recently that talked about the sale of Marcher Lord Press, a successful publisher of Christian speculative fiction, to Steve Laube back in January. The publishing house has recently been renamed “Enclave Publishing”, but its purpose remains the same. The author of this article was talking less about the acquisition itself, though, than the non-transfer of MLP’s imprint, Hinterlands. Created in 2012, Hinterlands was also designed to publish Christian spec-fic, but it deviates from MLP (now Enclave) in that its purpose is specifically to publish fiction with more mature (PG-13 or R-rated) content.
My hackles were already raised at that definition, but that’s perhaps unfair. The rest of the article confirmed my uneasy feeling, though. The author was disappointed that Laube chose not to buy Hinterlands along with MLP, and he’s afraid that the decision signals an end to Christian fiction’s tentative first steps into grittier territory. Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. I really have no idea. I can see where he’s coming from, to some degree, so today I’d like to look at the reasons for more “mature content” in Christian fiction. Next week I’ll lay out some of my concerns with this thinking.
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Much of Christian fiction is, unfortunately, unrealistic and unappealing. Like most people, I’m not impressed by perfect characters, sermons on every other page, and unbelievably squeaky-clean situations. Books that contain those things don’t feel real or compelling, and they tend to brand Christians as overly-naïve, with no conception of real-world situations. How can we possibly reach humanity if our stories don’t accurately portray the world humanity inhabits?
- Villains: It is generally understood that villains aren’t good people. Or, at least, their moral lines are more blurred than most people’s. Yet many Christian books won’t show their villain doing anything offensive. He’s there to oppose the hero and/or to stand between love interests, but he does it all in a suspiciously clean manner. It’s difficult to believe in the stakes of a story if the villain doesn’t feel scary. To demonstrate your villain’s scariness, you need to demonstrate some aspect of his or her nastiness.
- Heroes: Another fault in Christian fiction is making our heroes and heroines too perfect. I struggle with this, because I always want my characters to make the right decisions. But humans don’t always choose the right path. Even with Divine Guidance, we still go our own way sometimes, leading to trouble. No hero except Christ is perfect, so we must show their imperfections along with their good traits. Is your hero a sailor? Then he probably swears (I might be pointing a finger at myself right now…) A prizefighter? Then he knows how to hurt someone and may be inclined to do it easily. Was she once a prostitute? Maybe she still is. She understands men and their appetites. Take into account your protagonist’s background and profession when showing their weaknesses. But remember that, even if they have a pretty clean life, they’ll still make mistakes. And mistakes can sometimes be graphic.
- Setting: Like with your protagonist’s background, your story’s setting will affect the content. If it’s a war story, you must necessarily show violence. Stories about the Old West or police officers would also include violence. Sailing stories may include violence, profanity, and debauchery. One reason for including “mature content” is to establish realism in your setting.
Life is messy. We live in a fallen world where people make mistakes. We speak without thinking; we get ourselves into situations we shouldn’t be in. All of this is true, and it shouldn’t be ignored in our stories. Authors shouldn’t avoid the story of a girl who’s pregnant before she gets married just because it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it’s wrong, but it happens, and there are people out there who need to hear that story. What about the young man who murders someone and is haunted by that for the rest of his life? These things happen in real life, and to ignore them is to lose a large amount of our ability to relate. God works in amazing ways through the stories of broken people; how better to glorify Him than to show Him at work?
Next week I’ll discuss some of the concerns I have with pushing the limits of Christian fiction, but for now, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the industry. Have you found Christian books to be unrealistic because of a lack of graphic, or at least gritty, details? Let me know in the comments!