The character of characters

Spec Faith had a really interesting article over the past week: Characters matter, and their characters matter.

The gist of it is about how we fall in love with characters and want to spend hours and days and weeks with them. But that’s not generally the case with Christian books.

One of the things I’ve noticed lately about a lot of the Christian speculative fiction I read, is that the main character isn’t all that likable. In an effort to show the reality of sin in a person’s life, a good number of authors are depicting flawed characters who aren’t very nice. Some are whiny, others are too caught up with their own interests to care about other people. Some are lazy or disinterested or foolish.

In other words, it’s hard to imagine readers saying, I want to live with these people.

I commented,

Wow, that’s something I’d never thought of before. And you’re exactly right. The Christian novels that push the “u need to get saved lolz” message are the ones with the most unlikeable main character. The girl who was raped and never got over it (save it for Wattpad), the guy with the drinking problem (join the other 98% of the population), the kid with the abusive parents (yawn), the guy estranged from his teenaged daughter (how many times has this been done? Left Behind was only one in a long string of them).

Characters who I want to see get saved aren’t like that. It’s characters I root for, who start to wonder about supernatural things–and maybe encounter them–and their lives are empowered as a result. They don’t start with a crappy personality or I wouldn’t stick with them.

Look at how Madeline L’Engle did it. Meg is very likeable before she encounters anything supernatural. Or the hero in Grisham’s Testament–he has problems, but we root for him because he’s trying to do the right thing in spite of his own weaknesses. His conversion is a very quiet, off-camera affair, but it helps him start to get a handle on his alcoholism.

Can you imagine if Harry Potter or the rabbits in Watership Down were forced into a conversion experience? Harry actually kind of has one in book 7 (if you consider the implications of his experience at King’s Cross–play on words, anyone?). Even the Watership Down rabbits had a rabbit-god they worship and it makes sense. But there’s no conversion scene or preaching heavy-handed redemption. And the characters are likeable long before that comes along anyway.

After much thought, I can only recall a few overtly Christian books that I read over and over. Like Father Tim and the rest of the Mitford folks in Jan Karon’s books. And the heroes and heroines of Lee Roddy’s YA books. (His book the Mad Dog of Lobo Mountain is more or less Kujo for kids. It terrified me and I read it over and over.) Or Frank Peretti’s characters, whose faith and lives mingle believably. Of authors I’ve read more recently, Anne Elizabeth Stengl and Megan Whalen Turner are the only Christian authors who I’ve loved their characters.

So, what say you? Do you know of any Christian books with characters you love, or are they rare?

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3 thoughts on “The character of characters

  1. Hands down, I love the kids from the Chronicles of Narnia. The books are a lot deeper and richer than most people realize (Lewis took a lot of idea for say, The Silver Chair from ancient and beautiful English literature). Also, these kids really represent a more realistic side for those who need converting. Lucy learns of the wonders of Narnia and shares with her family. Her family is reluctant at first, but they eventually “join.” Edmund is a horrible kid at first, but he grows and becomes one of my fave characters. In turn, he teaches Eustace and Eustace teaches Jill, and all of it trickles down like that.

    And we also have examples of those who have left the faith. Susan decides at one point that Narnia was just a game they used to play as a child and that it wasn’t really real. She lived it and that’s how she feels. How much easier is it for us, who rely on faith and personal experience to get to know our God, to leave the faith?

    But I know what you mean about characters. If they aren’t likeable, why do I care what happens to them?

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  2. I kind of wonder if such themes are just an extension of their writers’ beliefs and perspective in real life. I’ve known kids (and some adults) who grew up sheltered from the secular world, and I could easily see them writing that way if they had become authors. Someone whose friends were all Christians might lack the perspective to not overstate a character’s flaws; they won’t necessarily understand that a non-Christian isn’t automatically a train wreck 100% of the time, and that some can actually be nice people on occasion. Or they can’t accurately judge the severity of their characters’ problems, because most kinds of hardship are so much worse than the environment they grew up in.

    As for authors who “get it right”: Frank Peretti definitely stands out, as does a certain author I know who writes Sonic fanfiction, but other than that I’m not too familiar with current Christian writers. I feel like there are one or two more that I’ll probably think of as soon as I hit the “submit” button, but can’t remember who they are just now. Does Narnia count?

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  3. Gwen: If you’d like to check out the current Christian offerings, head over to speculativefaith.com and poke around their library. They have a vast index of Christian fantasy and sci fi, and you can kind of tell from the summaries if these are characters you want to hang out with.

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