A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Friday, June 28, 2019

Writing for Christ: The Content Question

I’ve got to admit it. I really just write what I want to write. There’s a lot of discussion out there about exactly where Christian authors should draw the line in content. There’s a lot of disagreement. I’m not going to give you a do/don’t list for this. Instead, I wanted to focus on the attitudes and reasons we include some things and omit others.

I don’t think there’s a clear-cut universal answer to this question. So much depends on presentation and context and how well the author can pull it off. But most of all, your reasons for writing certain things into your story is what makes the difference. Here’s where I try not to call it on other authors I read, but sometimes, as a reader, it feels distinctly like the author is just trying to shock, or imitate some popular author’s style, or make their writing “more relevant.”

I think most authors, even non-Christian authors, agree that when it comes to content, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. A lot of readers don’t appreciate graphic gore and gratuitous slashing throughout their reading material. Most humans have a certain threshold for witnessing violence, which is a good thing and should be respected. Pushing this threshold too much is just going to contribute to the amount of trauma and desensitization in the world, which I don’t think is something authors should be doing.

Apparently, a lot of authors, even YA authors, have a little trouble knowing when to stop on sexual content. This is something I don’t expect to see at all in Christian fiction—but it still happens. Why, people? There are certain things that basically never contribute anything to the story, and nobody should ever have to watch. So, can we not? (This is part of the reason I don’t read romance. The other reason is because I find them exceedingly boring and predictable.)
Swearing is one of the items on my personal Rather Long List of Things That Are Stupid and Unnecessary. It isn’t that I haven’t heard every possible variation of the F word in real life. I have. And I still think it’s obnoxious and rude. And I tend to expect a certain amount of swearing from secular media. But I have slightly higher standards for Christian writing. Use profanity in your Christian novel and you’ll earn an instant eye-roll from me. Why? Because you don’t need it and you know it. It is not hard to exclude, and contrary to what some might try to tell you, you will never hurt your art by leaving it out. Do it right, and nobody will ever miss it.

But I’ve ranted enough. Let’s get to the bullet-points.

·         Let’s face it, it’s your story, you alone control the content. Don’t let yourself make the excuse that you story, your characters, or your genre force you to write certain things. You literally have control over every letter that goes into your book. It’s a whole universe at your command. You can manipulate every detail to your liking. You never have to write anything that goes against your conscience. You’re a creative genius, you can find a skillful way to avoid it, and make your book even better by doing so.  
·         You have your own mission. Imitating some other author will never win readers’ favor. If you think you need to include certain things in order to write a masterpiece “in the tradition of” some big-name author, you’re missing the point. God made you unique, and your writing should reflect that. Be true to yourself in your art.
·         You are not restricted by the same constraints as a non-Christian author. Something that I think we de-emphasize too often is that Christians are actually freer than the average Joe. We get to write clean fiction. We are not under the pressure that mainstream authors are. No Christian should ever have to write profanity compulsively. You do what you want. Your audience is going to root for you. He’s not going to one-star your efforts to do what’s right. He’s cool like that.
·         Here’s a mental trick: Think about this. For every gross detail you choose to include in your fiction, there is some better author writing deeper, cooler, more popular books who didn’t include that. Clean content is an advantage. If you forgo it, you’re denying yourself that advantage. Do you really want to do that?
The fact is, your book will never please everybody. There will be people getting offended by the tiniest thing on one hand and people calling you cheesy for not including offensive content on the other. That’s how people are. So, don’t focus on pleasing people. That will be depressing. Focus on pleasing God. If you wouldn’t write it with Jesus looking over your shoulder, don’t write it.
Because, don’t look now, but he’s watching.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Writing for Christ: Writing a Variety of Christian Characters

I won’t judge people who accidentally make their Christian characters too homogenous too harshly. I see why it happens. But because of my upbringing and experience, I wouldn’t excuse myself so quickly. I spent the first 20 years of my life attending a Presbyterian church—but before you assume anything, know that the pastor is markedly conservative and has heavy Lutheran influence. But you should also know that my grandpa was a Pentecostal preacher at a “non-denominational” church down the road. He was descended from a line of tent-revivalists but also differed from some Pentecostals on some points.

What’s more, my family is musical, so we’ve crashed church services all around the area to give musical programs and lead worship. My sister has worked for Methodist and Baptist churches as a pianist. I’ve been to Catholic masses at monasteries and to quiet Lutheran Christmas services and Loud Mega-Churches with lightshows. I’ve even been to a Seventh Day Adventist church where the potlucks are especially special. There was also a church where people uh…fell over randomly. Yeah.

For a while my family regularly attended a tiny Methodist church in the middle of nowhere with a woman pastor. Now we attend a Missionary church, but I don’t really consider myself any particular denomination. I have my intricacies, of course, but I prefer “Christian.”

Even within a single unified congregation, people vary spiritually. They vary doctrinally. They have different priorities in their relationship with God. Don’t forget this when you create Christian characters for your stories.

Here are some helps to add variety:

·         Think about your friends. Oops. Authors don’t have friends. I mean, think about your casual acquaintances and the people you hide from when you see them in the grocery store. You can’t go wrong basing the attitudes and beliefs of your characters on those of real people. Does everyone you know agree with every detail of your own faith? Do they have the same standards? I bet they don’t. The people I hide from in the grocery store certainly don’t.

·         Visit other churches. I don’t know how normal it is to have been to so many different churches. I’ve had some unique opportunities. But I advise you to visit some other churches near you and get a feel for the kind of variety that exists even within denominations. Did you know some Catholics raise their hands and sing contemporary praise songs? It’s true. You’ll find there are churches with huge youth programs and others just miles away that apparently have no members under 50. Different churches attract different types. Size also has a major effect on the character of an individual church and the people you find there. (Or is it the other way around?) Ironically, as an introvert, I prefer larger churches. I’m not sure if this is universal or not.

·         Research denominations. If you’re going to place a character within a specific denomination, definitely research that denomination. You should research denominations anyway, just so you know. Denomination is going to affect your character’s views on how churches should be organized, evangelism style, predestination and freewill, end times, how they pray, and sometimes even how they dress or wear their hair.

·         Consider regional differences. Honestly, I don’t even know as much about this as I probably should. I know churches in the southern US are different than they tend to be in the north. Differences are sure to be even bigger when you start crossing national borders. Some Catholics in Mexico are…really different. Your characters are going to be influenced by their culture and location as well as the specifics of their denomination and their individual church.


·         Consider outside factors of culture and upbringing. Christian characters are going to be partly formed by their family life and education. Was your character raised Christian? Did their parents help or hinder their spiritual growth? Did they go to a Christian school? Public school? Were they homeschooled? Were their experiences positive or negative? How well do they know the Bible? Christian history? How informed are they on current events? Was their faith always affirmed or respected, or were they bullied or persecuted for it? All these things can affect your character’s worldview.

·         Don’t forget time-period. If you’re writing historical fiction, make sure you study out your time-period. Check your bible-translations to avoid anachronisms. Find out how Christians responded to the culture and current-events of the time, and decide where your specific characters stand on different issues. And when your 1834 character begins to pray, don’t, under any circumstances, allow them to start out like, “Lord, we just….” Try something along the lines of “Gracious and eternal God….” There’s no “just.”

Quick rabbit-trail: The profuse overuse of the word “just” while praying out loud is a very contemporary idiosyncrasy. It’s a vocalized pause akin to saying “like.” In fact, you can swap “just” out with “like” and you’ll find it serves the exact same function. That is, adding nothing.

Also, if you’re writing futuristic fiction, realize that while some odd individuals may still insist on using ye olde King James Version, you’re probably going to have most of your characters reading translations that don’t exist yet. Have fun.

·         Avoid focusing on divisive issues. You might be very passionate about infant baptism or Calvinism or head-coverings. You might be able to write a whole persuasive essay on your views on these things, but think twice before you give them the spotlight in your novel. Not only are you guaranteed to alienate a large percentage of your readers, but you’re also cheapening your story and turning it into an excuse to make a point about an issue. These things might be linked to deeper issues, but in themselves, they are pretty shallow. Give yourself some strong themes and explore them instead. Your readers will like you better, and you’ll probably like yourself better in the end, too.

·         Use differences to highlight Jesus and who we know he is. Rather than staging battles between different minor Christian beliefs, Christian fiction gives you the opportunity to show God’s goodness through the eyes of different characters in different situations who probably don’t agree on every point. Admittedly, some beliefs are wrong. Nobody is going to have it all figured out. But you as a Christian author have the opportunity to reconcile your characters’ differences and point to the deeper truth that we share.

Not all of your characters should be carbon copies of you as far as their outlook and world view. Variation will make them more believable and more interesting. You’ll find it isn’t actually that hard to incorporate more variety if you simply take the time to stop and give it some thought. (And you’re probably already addicted to obsessing over character details anyway, so might as well.)

Have you ever noticed the “just” thing?

Coming up next, my two cents on the content controversy. What should we write in? What should we leave out?

Friday, June 7, 2019

Writing for Christ: Writing Non-Christian Characters

My series on writing Christian fiction continues today with a very important and too often neglected subject. We’re here to discuss the non-Christian characters that appear in the stories we write. If you write enough books and stories, some time or anther you’re going to want to include a character who is a non-believer. You should, actually. It will grow you as a writer and as a Christian.
Something extremely important to remember is that you absolutely must respect you character. This can be hard with a character that disagrees with the most important thing in your life, I know. But I can tell when an author, screenplay-writer, or even an actor doesn’t respect their character. The result is painful. The character becomes a flat, burlesqued caricature devoid of life and dignity that only exists so to be a scapegoat for all the artist’s bile against certain viewpoints, characteristics, and ideas. They are never fully realized as a character.
No matter how much you disagree with a character’s religious views, you have to find some way to respect them in spite of it. Think about real people in your life. You probably know some real people who are strongly non-Christian. Maybe some of those people are actually pretty awful and you can’t find it in you to respect them. (Actually, you’re called to take it a step further and love them, but that’s another discussion.)
We’ll set those really nasty people aside for a second and consider the nice atheist next door that cuts tulips from her garden for you every April or May. What about your hilarious uncle who quit going to church before you were born? The genius doctor who’s looking for answers in all the wrong places? You do respect these people, don’t you?
Yeah, you do. You probably even love them. That’s because they’re real to you. They’re not just a set of beliefs you disagree with. They’re unique humans that God created. To create truly powerful fiction, all your characters need to be this real. It’s only fair.
So here are my tips for respecting your non-Christian characters.
Things to avoid:
  • Not giving them a conscience. God instilled a sense of right and wrong even in those who don’t know where it came from. Atheism does not automatically make you a psychopath. If you let your non-Christian character kill anybody they don’t like just because they don’t believe in God, you’re creating a strawman and sapping the credibility from your whole story. There are ways that Christianity clarifies morality where common-sense—or what society thinks is common-sense—can’t so well. I found this out in a secular ethics class during college. But nobody is going to go around killing people simply because they aren’t Christian enough to feel bad about it. Don’t be ridiculous.

  • Letting them be too easily challenged. Other points of view also have very strong faith in what they think is true. And there is a ton of authority behind the atheist POV. I’ve read a lot of atheist writers and they are very convinced of what they believe. Please, please don’t let some scrub-faced Bob-Joneser freshman stand up in Philosophy 101 and launch into a debate with his nine-PhD-toting atheist professor and stun him to silence with challenging questions. That’s not going to happen. You’re not going to argue the average atheist on the street into questioning their faith in one encounter. Don’t let anything crazier happen in your fiction.  

  • Having another character preach at them. Similarly, this is going to be ineffective and painful to read. You might have a truly watertight argument for a point you would love to make to an atheist, but I would highly recommend that you don’t use it. Okay, do what you want at Thanksgiving, but don’t use your fiction as wish-fulfilment. It’s going to seem fake, and your atheist character probably isn’t going to listen. (Neither is your hilarious uncle, but that’s none of my business.)

Things to remember:
  • You’re not required to convert every non-believing character. I know this is hard. Particularly if you actually ended up really liking said character. (In which case, congratulations. You’re doing great.) But if you can’t fit it into your plot, don’t force it. You could add something to suggest there is hope for this character in the future, if you want to send that message, but you don’t have to cram a whole conversion process into a story that isn’t built for it. 

  • Find a way to identify with them. If you can find a way to identify with a character, you’re well on your way to creating a character you can respect. Anytime you have a character that is different from you in some drastic way, try to find one thing about them that you understand. You can use it as a key to open up all the inner workings of their character, and it’s sure to add a note of realism.

  • They might wish there was no religion to separate them from their Christian friends. Many atheists see religion as something that divides humanity and turns it against itself. Sometimes they’re not going to feel like arguing. Chances are, they have some Christian friends that they really like and wish there wasn’t tension between them.  

  • They’re going to need a substitute for God. Bob Dylan was right about having to serve somebody. Or something. People have to have something to live for, or at least be in search of something to live for. Without God, people will build idols. Money, success, security, entertainment, the “good life.” It can even be something positive like family, or justice, or love. It’s not the thing itself that is the problem so much as the positioning of it. Sooner or later, all idols disappoint.

I hope this gets you brainstorming on how to craft believable non-Christian characters that will strengthen your story. Maybe all this was obvious to you, but maybe not. Just remember, all your characters need to be depicted as real people. All your characters need to be given a fair chance and to operate by a logic that is internally consistent. All your characters will benefit from you viewing them compassionately and respectfully. It might not be easy with some, but it will pay off.

Your thoughts? Have you written any non-Christian characters? Have you ever stood up in Philosophy 101 and stunned your professor to silence with challenging questions?

Stay tuned for the next post in which we’ll talk about how to add variety to the types of Christian characters in your book. After all, not all Christians are the same.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Writing for Christ: Including the Gospel

We now continue with our series on writing Christian fiction. Welcome back. I hope you got something out of the first post. This post is about how and when to insert the whole Gospel into a story. As we’ll see, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it, and there are times when it isn’t even the best thing for your book.

I think there’s some debate about the role of Christian authors. Actually, there’s some debate about the role of Christians, period. There’s a camp that seems to assume that the singular goal of everything a Christian does is to win souls. Evangelism is the ultimate calling for everyone. I don’t want to stomp on anyone’s toes but I would like to suggest that this might not actually be the case.

Hear me out. Evangelism is extremely important and I do believe everyone should live a life that points to God and be ready to evangelize should the opportunity arise, but that isn’t our only calling as Christians and certainly not as Christian authors. I think our calling can be identified more accurately than that, with more general and less constricting terms.

I think we’re called to glorify God through our art.

This can manifest itself in different ways. Sometimes we are simply called to create beauty and wonder in a world that abhors beauty. Sometimes we’re called to encourage and empower fellow believers. Sometimes we’re called to challenge and expose lies that have crept in amongst us. And, yes, sometimes we’re called to evangelize.

But how be we do this without turning a story and a work of nuanced art into a cheap throwaway tract, boring to Christians and meaningless to non-Christians? It’s all about putting the story first.

·         Have a character demonstrate the love of God. God is love. Honestly, one of the best ways to have Christ show up in your story is to let him shine through a character’s actions. Rather than forcing a character to tell another character that God loves them, have that character, driven by the love of God inside them, actively demonstrate that love to them. (Preferably in a way that moves the story.) Remember, action speaks a lot louder than dialogue, particularly in fiction.

·         Have a character do something that makes no sense without the hope of the Gospel. People who have the Gospel written on their souls are going to behave differently. They are willing to sacrifice in order to let God’s truth show through them. You can use a character’s decisions as an illustration of the Gospel message. But resist the urge to spend much time preaching about it after the fact. Your readers aren’t stupid. They can piece it together themselves. Trust them to see if they have eyes to see.

·         Have a character tell their own story as a testimony. Okay, Bad Kid is doing Bad Things and is headed down a Bad Road. Enter Wise Older Fellow Who’s Been There stage right. Wise Older Fellow Who’s Been There grabs Bad Kid’s collar. “Now, Sonny, let me tell you a little story about me when I was your age.” Okay, STOP. Not that way. It’s cliché and painful to read. You’re preaching directly at the reader at this point, whether you mean to or not. Instead, incorporate the other character’s past, not as a sermonette, but a bit at a time, illustrating your theme and developing this Wise Older Fellow at the same time. Let the testimony come as a biproduct.

·         Use the suffering of one character to bring light to the other. Don’t be afraid to let a character represent Christ in a way that’s this explicit. They don’t have to be Aslan or any literal Christ figure to do it. Sacrifice for love and truth is a very compelling plot device and can tell the Gospel story in a much more memorable and high-impact way than some character sitting down with another character over coffee and spelling the whole thing out in words.

·         Use the plan of salvation, but have the character only come to accept it gradually. If you really feel led to do the whole Romans Road thing word-for-word in the middle of your story somewhere, okay. But realize that you have effectively stopped the action and are interrupting the flow of your story with what could amount to a commercial break trying to sell the reader Christianity. But maybe you have a character who would probably do it that way, and they are in a situation where they likely would. Alright then, but beware the flash conversion. Most people need a lot more than just hearing it said to turn their whole life around and start believing it.

Another ugly truth you might want to keep in mind while writing evangelistic fiction is this: honestly, non-Christian readers aren’t likely to give Christian fiction the time of day. There’s a good chance that if you write Christian fiction, the vast majority of your audience is already Christian.

This does not mean that your art can’t potentially change your reader’s life. If you dedicate your work to him, God will use it. And even if your novel isn’t what ultimately turns a non-believer into a believer, it still is a powerful thing. The world is full of Christians who feel alone, unseen, and discouraged. Writing Christian fiction is a great way to reach out to them and lift their spirits. Novel-writing might not be the best tool for evangelism, but it can be exactly the right one for many other things equally valuable to God’s work in the world.

So, I would ultimately advise you not to try to make your novel a 113,000-word evangelism tract. Don’t feel pressured to spell everything out word-for-word. Let the Bible do that. Instead, find ways to artistically deliver the Truth and tell a great story.

Think of some novels that really spoke to you, as a Christian. Why did you appreciate them so much? Did they present the whole Gospel? How?

Coming up next, we’ll talk about writing non-Christian characters. I think it’s easy to put too little thought into these characters, and damage our stories by botching them. So, keep your eyes open for the next post.