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?