While Annie and I are newer friends, I continue to be amazed at the depth of talent and knowledge of story craft she continues to show me. Author of a HUGE and stunning debut novel, So Sang the Dawn, she has a bunch of tips that will be helpful for Christian authors that don’t want to write Christian Fiction.
To Christian Authors Who Don’t Write Christian Literature
If there’s one thing Christian authors aren’t known for, it’s being boundary-pushers.
Our writing tends to be safe, muted, and a lot of times, not near as rich or near as deep as other writers. We tend to stay nice and cozy inside our chalk lines, because it’s what we know.
But what if we weren’t like that? What if we could change what we’re known for as authors? What if we pushed all the boundaries and challenged all the lines, until we, as Christian authors, were known for writing brave, edgy stories outside of Christian literature that could easily contend with the best of them?
Some of you might feel like you’re not bold enough to be a line-challenger kind of writer, or some of you might be asking why would someone ever want to write Christian-but-not-Christian writing in the first place. Or maybe some of you have actually attempted this in the past, but it’s your family members or those judgey ladies in the women’s Bible study group at church who have cornered you about it and sent you right back inside those chalk lines. You know the ladies I mean. The ones who always wear floral-print skirts and way too much makeup for their age. “Oh but dear, if you’re not writing for Jesus, you’re hiding your light under a bushel,” they say.
But you know what? You’re really not hiding it, not at all. And I would know. I’ve been a Christian for a lot of years and my love for Jesus is very deep, something I wouldn’t trade for anything. However, my debut novel, So Sang The Dawn, is a 750 page Christian-but-not-Christian high fantasy, and I’ve got a massive series of sequels to follow. I chose to color wildly outside the lines with my writing, and I’m not the only other author out there who’s done it.
If this sounds intriguing to you, you might be one of the ones God has called to be a line-challenger. There might still be fear there, but if it comes with a quiet stirring, a whisper from your inner self that says “I wish I could do something like that,” then get into the stillness and listen closely. God just might be calling to you, nudging you to take the gift He’s given you and do something groundbreaking with it.
If the answer to this question is a possible yes, then how do you actually go about challenging those lines? How do you go about writing a story with Christian themes that reflect the depth of your faith in God, without coming off as strictly homeschooler? (It’s okay, I grew up homeschooled. I can say that.) How do you write something that shatters all the expectations of what Christian authors are supposed to be?
First, let’s cover the question of why. To be a Christian who’s writing outside the genre of Christian literature, we first have to understand why we’re doing it, and “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15, in case you’re wondering.)
If you’re going to go against those cookie-platter-arranging women at church, then you need a concrete reason for why you’re stepping outside the boundaries with your writing, and you need to be able to explain why stepping outside the boundaries is actually incredibly important in this generation.
Honestly, there are a lot of reasons to write a novel like this, but let me give you the main one, the one you can use to shoot down just about any argument against your “dabbling in the secular world of artistry.”
Jesus came to heal the sick, not the well.
When you write Christian literature, who are you writing it for? Other Christians. Which is great. But here’s the thing. If Christians want to be encouraged, we know where to go for that encouragement. The lost don’t.
When we’re struggling, we get with our Christian friends, we get involved in a small group, we connect with older, mature Christians who can counsel us through rough spots on the road, heck, we can even Google “dealing with depression from a Christian perspective” and know that the book results that pop up are going to be pretty solid if they’re from a Biblical point of view. And in fact, there are whole entire book stores just for Christian literature.
So yes, we have plenty of remedies out there.
The “sick”? They haven’t the first idea how to find what they’re looking for. Maybe the idea of searching for answers amongst the millions of opinions and belief systems out there is really daunting, so they don’t try at all. Maybe they have tried some, and it left them feeling empty and confused. Or maybe they don’t even know they’re hurting in the first place.
That’s where Christian-but-not-Christian writing comes in.
“Nonbelievers can read the book too,” you say. Yeah, but think about it for a minute. If you’re someone who’s not too sure about this Jesus thing (or are a hardcore atheist struggling with the idea of a loving God in the midst of so much raw pain), are you going to pick up a quaint little prairie story about a girl who has to sell her violin to make payments for her family’s homestead and hopefully strengthen her trust in God in the process, or are you going to deviate towards something gritty and adventurous with broken arrows and swords on the cover?
Everyone loves an epic, gritty story, whether they’re a Christian or not; solid fantasy or fiction with great plots, amazing characters, epic conflict, and gorgeous worldbuilding. You put a book like that in someone’s hands that also happens to be threaded together with beautiful themes of love and light and redemption, and it’s going to leave a lasting impression on their soul. Isn’t that what writing is all about?
And at the end of the day, if you only shine your light in a closed-off room full of other lights, the ones who are lost out there in the darkness will never find it. Not unless you carry it out there for them to see. That’s what Jesus meant when He said to be a light-bearer, a city on a hill.
Now you know the reason why writing Christian-but-not-Christian literature is so very important. But how do you actually go about doing it?
I’ll start off by giving you a little glimpse into my own writing journey and why I chose to build my writing career specifically outside the world of Christian literature.
I’ve seen a lot of really dark, hard things in my short twenty-eight years, and my faith is what brought me — very literally carried me — through it all. That said, when I set out to write my first novel at twenty-one years old, I decided very near the beginning that I wanted it to be strictly non-Christian. And I struggled with that decision big time.
The thing was, I was writing a story set deep into a fantasy world, a massive land of ice and snow, with magic and gladiators and viking-esque cultures and mythological creatures. In my first few scenes, I kept trying to write God into the setting, I really did. At first, my main character believed in God and He was going to be the thing that got her through being a captive in this harsh fantasy land. It didn’t work. So I tried it the other way around, with her having some semblance of an understanding of God, but not really knowing Him. That didn’t work either. I kept trying so hard to cram God into the story and I came to a terrible conclusion.
He just didn’t fit.
That messed me up in my spirit for a good long while. At the time, I wasn’t telling anyone that I was writing, it was just something I was playing with as a form of self-therapy to help me understand my own pain, so I didn’t have anyone to ask for advice. I remember going to God Himself and telling Him with a broken heart that He was everything to me, and He was the thing that pulled me through my darkest hours, but that I was slowly realizing that the concept of God as we know Him in mainstream Christianity just really didn’t fit with the world I had built. I knew in my heart it was the story I was meant to tell, and that the fantasy world I’d spent years crafting was God’s artistic gift to me, and if I deconstructed it to make God fit, it would be betraying the story inside me. But on the other hand, how could I possibly leave Him out of my story, out of my healing, when He meant so much to me?
I prayed this same prayer for days on end, maybe even weeks, still going back and forth with different ideas to make the story work while not shelving the God who gifted it to me. And I can still remember the day He answered me, because it changed my life. His reply was short, but those four little words set off my entire life as an author:
Make it an allegory.
Suddenly I was ripped back in time to 2005 when the first Chronicles of Narnia movie came out. I remember sitting wide-eyed in the theater at fifteen, and feeling this sense of something welling up inside me when the movie finished. It was a beautiful, nameless something that I couldn’t describe, but I just remember thinking in my head “I want that.” What “that” was, I wouldn’t understand until a lot later in life, but it was powerful enough to sink deep, deep inside me, and stay with me for years.
“That” was the feeling of being immersed in a beautiful fantasy world with magic and battles and fantasy creatures and amazing characters who I would follow until the very end, and Aslan. Aslan was the best part of it for me. Feeling as though I understood God in an entirely new way, and leaving the theater feeling sad that it was over, but also renewed and charged up, and thinking “I want my God to be like that.”
So when I began my writing journey years later, God encouraged me to take a page out of Lewis’ book and do the very same thing, but with my own creative twist on it. The Chronicles of Narnia is a series that’s been loved and cherished for decades by people from all walks of life, and whether you’re Christian or Atheist, you’re going to find something brilliant and magical about a fantasy world of talking animals and a gentle lion who loves the broken ones even when they least deserve it.
And that was the key that unlocked the gate my story was hiding behind. An allegory. I could have my God, and I didn’t have to lose the fantasy to keep Him.
So how do you actually pull off something like this?
How do you actually go about writing an allegory if you’ve never attempted it before? Let me give you a few really important tips that can be the difference between an amazing novel whose themes sing themselves off the pages and something that should never be seen outside a Christian book store.
1. Study other allegories.
This might take a bit of work. First, you have to take off those Sunday school glasses and really start looking for God — in everything. Look for Him in allegories, but also look for Him outside of them.
Get your hands on some books and movies that are known allegories, and study how the author pulled it off. Look for the tiny themes that were sprinkled in, leading you to a better understanding of God, and look for Jesus and His love in the characters, in the way they treat one another, in the way they handle life.
Then, start looking for God outside allegories. There’s so much God in this world, so much more than you know. I like to think that God reaches down and paints Himself into all kinds of stories that were never meant to be Biblical, just to show us He’s very much here and very much present, even in a world that wants to forget Him. Think about some of your favorite books or movies or TV shows, and think about why they’re your favorite. Are there pieces in them that portray God, or some of His beautiful attributes? Can you grab those and put your own creative twist on them and thread them into your own story?
I still do both of these things to this day. I look for God everywhere, and let me tell you, when you look for Him, you will always find Him. Sometimes in the most unexpected and obscure places. To quote Nichole Nordeman:
“You cannot imagine all the places you’ll see Jesus — but you’ll find Him everywhere you thought He wasn’t supposed to go.”
2. Choose a theme. Or a bunch of themes.
Whatever you do, don’t go in there using the gospel as your plot. That will start pulling you back to homeschooler writing again.
If you’re going to write an allegory, one that stands out, set the gospel aside, and choose other themes, something that’s important to you, something you’ve struggled with, something you’ve been through, something amazing God has shown you — unconditional love, finding light in darkness, forgiveness, redemption, etc. — and build your story around that. If those Godly themes are your cornerstones, then the gospel (or at least the hope of a better life with a loving God) will come through the pages naturally.
3. Go deep.
Fair warning, writing deep can be painful, and sometimes it will bring up things you don’t want to face. I would know. But when you close all the doors and get into that sacred space that’s just you and God, that’s when the true story will come. I wrote miles of pages that was just me exploring my past and my pain, with God sitting on the couch beside me, and I had no idea until years later that what I had written out of the broken spaces in my heart was actually a beautiful, redemptive story that entirely reflected the light and the love of Jesus. Looking back, I can see the places where God’s hand came over mine and held the pen with me, and used what broken little bits I had to give to craft an even more beautiful story than what I had initially set out to create — and in the moment, I had no idea He was writing His own story between the lines of mine.
If you’re a really good reader, you can always tell when someone is writing from personal experience versus picking an interesting plot and writing how they imagine it would feel. It’s hard to pull apart the tiny nuances that make a story feel more alive, but you know what I’m talking about.
So when you sit down to write, write with your heart, first and foremost, and forget writing about those cookie-cutter life lessons engrained in you since your Awana days.
4. Be vague.
No one ever tells writers to be vague in their writing, but let me be the first.
If you’re going to write characters who resemble the beautiful story of God and humanity, don’t make them Pilgrim’s-Progress obvious. You’re not trying to hide your faith of course, but don’t just stamp it all over the pages either.
Instead of a selfless — and very obvious — prince charming sacrificing himself to a fiery dragon, take the beautiful sacrificial redemptive qualities of Jesus and use them in other ways. Let it be a best friend who sacrifices herself for her friend and redeems her from some form of darkness. Let a king choose forgiveness for the traitor protagonist and welcome him home instead of condemning him. Let the barren couple in the story adopt the orphaned main character, even when she has nothing to give and may have even betrayed them at some point. Let the villain have a personality outside of raw “evil,” and let us see that his life was just as harsh as the protagonist’s, and that it was simply his reaction to the childhood pain that shaped him. Get creative. Think outside the box.
5. Try not putting an outright God or a deity in your story.
I know, I know, this sounds like pure and awful sacrilege, but Lewis didn’t do it with Narnia, and there are a lot of other authors who have been successful in that same decision.
As an example, think about the Star Wars series for a minute. Now I can’t actually tag Star Wars as an official allegory; there’s a lot of debate on what George Lucas actually meant for the story to convey on that level. But whether or not it was his intent, the images of God and the Biblical themes are really beautiful, if you know where to look for them.
(This is what I meant up there in point number one, about looking for God everywhere, not just in stories that are strictly allegories.)
But just think about the movies for a minute, and imagine that an allegory was Lucas’ intention. Imagine trying to cram a Biblical God into a story that takes place in a galaxy far, far away with space aliens and ewoks and wookiees and droids and whatever the heck Jabba the Hutt was? It just wouldn’t fit, right?
But if you watch the movies, you’ll see how beautifully real God can be throughout the storyworld, when you look for Him in the war between light and dark, good and evil, and more specifically, the Force. As explained in the movies by Obi-Wan to Luke, “The Force is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”
And in the later movies, we see it again, when an older Luke tries to deny the Force inside him, to shut it out, to push it away, and Rey, so new in her “faith,” sets out to bring him back to the belief that the Force is still good and still something to put trust in. And we see it further develop in her own arc, as she struggles to make her own connection to the Force, and find out what it means to her personally. I can hardly imagine a more pure and allegorical picture of God than that.
Another really beautiful example of this, one that actually did incorporate a deity, comes from the movie Avatar. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it, which you absolutely should.) In the movie, Jake, the outsider to the Na’vi people, learns of Eywa, their goddess, who acts as a very Mother-Earth-esque character. According to the movie, Eywa is an energy present inside all living things, inside all the wildly stunning plants and animals, breathing with them, existing with them, and it’s also said that this energy “is only borrowed, and one day, you have to give it back.” (At the time of death.)
Now we know that God is so much bigger than any version of Mother Earth, but can He still be found in that concept? The concept of a rich, beautiful energy that lives and moves and breathes within every living thing, gifting life and taking life away within an intricate, delicate balance? I definitely think so.
What I personally loved about Eywa, she wasn’t just a passive element of the culture that Jake came to know and love, she was an active part of the plot. Before the final battle, Jake goes to a sacred place to pray to Eywa, and he’s an outsider, a betrayer at that, the one who brought the war to the peaceful Na’vi in the first place. Eywa is silent, making it seem like she’s rejected Jake’s request for help because of who he is. He doesn’t deserve any such help, right?
The battle comes, and just when the enemy army is overrunning the Na’vi warriors, the ground starts to shake and a massive horde of animals flood the forest, stampeding through the trees, obliterating huge numbers of the enemy fighters, and turning the tide of the battle. Jake’s friend Neytiri laughs in disbelief and shouts “Eywa has heard you! Eywa has heard you!”
What a beautiful representation of God, from a story that’s not even meant to be allegorical in any way. Do you see what I mean when I say God can be found in literally everything?
In my own storyworld, the God-like figure is an elusive spirit bear named Asbjorn, who carries all the characteristics of God, but acts more like the Holy Spirit, like a mysterious and etherial wind, breathing whispers of hope and light when the main character is in her darkest moments. It’s something for her to cling to, for her to believe in, but similar to Eywa or the Force, it’s a version of God that actually fits the fantasy world I’ve placed Him in.
When you’re attempting this in your own writing, don’t just take the God of the Bible and change His name to a fantasy name and make Him a deity worshiped by an underground group of people amidst a bunch of pagan-god worshippers. Give us something new, a different view of God we’ve never seen before, something that holds up entirely to Biblical truths, but is unique and brings us to God in a different way.
(Disclaimer: some of my favorite novels have portrayed God in this way, as a deity served by a remnant of believers, while worship of other gods and goddesses are the mainstream. It’s an amazing way to write God when the story calls for it, but talking in strictly allegorical terms here, be creative with the spiritual side of things.)
6. Lastly, get an imaginative reader in your head.
As you write your allegory, don’t think about the Christian audience so much. As I said before, they don’t need the words near as much as the unbelievers do, and if you hide easter eggs of God and faith all throughout the story, your fellow Christians are bound to like it regardless. (Or, they might not like it at all because of the boundaries you’ve pushed, but that’s okay too. They’re not the ones you wrote the story for.) So put yourselves in the shoes of the orphaned ones instead, the ones with no immediate idea of God or faith to call their own, and imagine what would catch your attention and draw you in.
Imagine you’d lived a really messed up life and had good reason to loathe God and Christianity. Imagine you were terrified of walking into a church, but that someone randomly put this book into your hands. Would you be receptive to what you were reading? Would it comfort you and draw you in while also keeping you interested enough in an epic story and gritty characters? Would it give you just enough light to believe in something good, and go searching for more? Because that’s the true core of writing an allegory right there.
Writing an allegory can be amazing and exciting, and it will always bring you closer to the God you serve, because you’re searching for Him in entirely new and different ways. I think we need more of that in this world.
On the other side of that, writing an allegory can also be a hard road. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of severe judgement between Christians in this day and age, and when you attempt to step outside of those lines and climb outside of that box you grew up in, you will face backlash, sometimes from the people you were sure would have your back. I’ve definitely faced judgement for my writing from fellow Christians I thought would really love the story, and it always hurts. It can be really disappointing, and sometimes it even makes you question whether you’re doing the right thing at all. But you have to remember that when you take on a challenge like this, and you’re leaving that room of light to carry your flame into the darkness, the people still hiding in the closed room behind you aren’t the mediators between you and God anymore. And in fact, they never were.
Your writing, your artistry, your life, they’re choices you make between you and God, and no one can tell you that it’s something you don’t get to have. Not the cookie ladies at church, not your pastor, not your friends, not even your family. Your relationship with God is just that — yours — and the way you choose to express that and display it in your art and writing is a choice made between you and God, not between you and God and the church congregation.
So get out there and start your stories, fellow writers. Create something that makes us laugh, makes us cry, makes us question who we are and who our God is to us. Create something that makes us see God in an entirely new way, such as we’ve never seen Him before, so that when we come to the end of the story, we leave saying “I want my God to be like that.”
AnnMarie Pavese lives in the mountains of Arizona, which were a huge inspiration in the creation of Frostholm. A former waitress and web designer, she unashamedly skipped college in order to pursue writing full-time. She spends her days writing, dog-momming, and mentoring other girls as they pursue their own writing dreams. She is obsessed with the woods and the cold and always writes best when it’s raining or snowing.
Website – http://annmariepavese.com/