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.