Welcome to the first post of this series on writing Christian fiction. Brew a cup of tea, open the window to hear the birds outside, and we can get started on today’s subject: how to avoid forcing a character to go from nonbeliever to believer in some abrupt unnatural way. If you’re like me, you want to make a conversion into a strong satisfying character arc, not a quick fix that no one will believe.
Compared to real life, novels are highly concentrated. Characters are expected to change somehow over the course of the story. We love character arcs. In Christian fiction, character change is often even more emphasized. Back in the day, Christian novels almost always had a conversion scene. It was about as expected as the kiss on the last page of a romance novel. (Do you ever just start flipping to the last pages of a bunch of romance novels in succession? So gross.)
Coming to Christ is a lot like falling in love. We all hate the insta-love trope. We hate it because it feels rushed and fake. Because it basically never happens that way in real life. Falling in love is a massively life-changing process, coming to Christ, even more so.
What are some ways to make the transition realistic and satisfying in fiction?
· Character was raised Christian, but drifted. In this case, the character actually already has some foundation on which to build their relationship. Admittedly, something was a bit off about the relationship in the past. The character probably let a lie come between them and Christ. They need to overcome that lie over the course of the story to come back to him. And look! You’re already getting set up with a character arc.
· Character is a seeker who’s been on the edge of Christianity for a long time. Once again, in this case, your character is at a starting point. They’ve already started learning the truth, whether or not the accept it yet. They might not realize it, but a character in this position is already in the process of reevaluating their world-view and is ready for a paradigm-shift.
· Character becomes desperate for divine intervention. This makes for a much more dramatic story than the first two and should be handled carefully to keep it from being too melodramatic. Under these circumstances, your character is in dire straits and they’re hoping for a miracle. This miracle can come in many forms, according to the theme of your story and the specifics of the situation, but in any case, God shows up in an intense and earth-shattering way. Beware that there’s probably going to be a lot of moral and emotional mopping-up to do in this wake of this, and don’t end the book too fast with “happily ever after.”
· Character has some ulterior motive, but later realizes it’s real. I don’t know why I keep having to equate this topic with romance, but this is basically the fake boyfriend trope. For whatever reason, your character is going along with a religious façade, trying to look like a good person, please somebody, whatever. Maybe they’re an organ virtuoso down on their luck. But they find themselves drawn to Christ in ways they don’t want to acknowledge at first. Eventually they find themselves in a situation where they have to ask themselves if it’s real.
· Series! Obviously, if there’s the danger of rushing a character arc, considering stretching it out over a series is always an option. This opens up plenty of opportunity to get into the details of a complete change of world-view. Now you have time to explore the struggles of being a new Christian. That’s an important topic that the world needs to see, so if you feel called this way, go for it. Writing a series can be great fun. You’ll learn so much about your characters that you never would have known otherwise.
You may or may not want to include a conversion in you book. Think about the story you want to tell, and the theme you want to highlight. We live in a different age of Christian art—one with more freedom to think outside the box and tackle new issues. If your story feels too rushed or unrealistic, try experimenting with the above variations. If your story feels stale and predictable, maybe God wants you to tell a different one. There are many deep and thematically rich events in the Christian life besides conversion. Don’t feel pressured to build your story around that if your creative energy doesn’t naturally take you there.
Coming up next, in a similar vein, we’ll be talking about how and whether to lay out the whole plan of salvation in your novel. Stay tuned.