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5 Tips for Writing Christian Fiction Without Being Preachy
There’s nothing wrong with preachy Christian fiction. There’s certainly a market for it and I know some lovely readers who devour it as well as some talented authors who write it.
If your target audience isn’t people who have attended church for decades, making your Christian fiction preachy will drop your sales number faster than a lead balloon. My target audience is millennials and as a whole they never even flip the cover of Christian fiction. By using the strategies I’ve outlined below, I hope to change that.
1. Show Don’t Tell Your Faith
Show don’t tell, it’s a classic writer admonition. Normally this admonition refers to using body language rather than telling the reader what the protagonist is feeling or other similar situations. The same caution applies though to the faith element of your stories. When your hero makes an ungodly choice, don’t let him monologue for a paragraph about his sins. Even better, allow your heroine to go for chapters on end without feeling repentant at all. Instead, use the progression of the chapters to show how that sinful choice didn’t work out so great for her. After all, isn’t that how things happen in real life? If I instantly felt repentant for every sinful choice I made, I’d be fully sanctified by now. Newsflash, I’m not.
2. Make Prayers Poignant
I’ve read a lot of preachy Christian fiction and thoroughly enjoyed quite a few of those novels. A recurring theme in preachy Christian fiction is prayer. A lot of prayer. Often times the heroine spends more time talking to God than to the hero.
Prayer is a crucial part of the Christian life since it is how we communicate with God. I certainly believe in the power of prayer, and every year I age, my prayer list expands. But there’s nothing to turn a novel preachy faster than page after page of prayers. I include prayer in all my Christian fiction, but I usually stick to one, maybe two in the entire novel. The prayer often isn’t longer than a sentence. Perhaps two sentences max. But I place that one short prayer in an epic moment where the reader will never forget it.
If you want to write non-preachy fiction that still contains a powerful Christian message, don’t make prayer the filler material in the dialogue of your book. Make prayer the climax, something that happens at a pivotal moment in your book. Your reader might not even believe in prayer, but they’re going to pay attention to that prayer.
3. Let Your Characters Sin
A lot. Don’t write an Elsie Dinsmore style heroine who’s worst failing is, just once, considering speaking in a curt voice to her friend. To avoid a preachy novel, let your characters manifest all the attitude, anger, jealousy and bad decision-making that fallen people do. No one can argue that protagonists sinning isn’t realistic. We all sin every day. Another advantage of heeding this advice is it leaves a lot of room for character growth. Letting your protagonist change throughout the novel rather than starting out in starched-white splendor, allows you to subtly show a lot of inspiring messages.
4. Make Your Protagonists’ View of God Change Throughout the Story.
Perhaps your heroine doesn’t believe in God, hates the idea of a Divine Being, or is a Wiccan? Maybe your hero thinks he doesn’t have time for God? The most natural way to introduce spiritual themes is by having your characters’ espouse beliefs contrary to Christianity. You can’t be considered preachy if your hero launches into an intellectual debate on why he’s a Buddhist. You can bring up some fascinating Christian points though as the hero struggles to defend that decision in his own mind. Using this technique also forces you as an author to defend why you believe what you believe and gives you the opportunity to read some awesome apologetics books.
5. Don’t Give Cookie Cutter Answers
Make the reader think. Don’t let your hero fix everything with a Sunday School answer such as “be more generous”, “don’t yell at people”, or “be more forgiving.” Let your heroine struggle and sweat through her decisions. Give him and her time to agonize over their decisions and show just how high the personal cost will be if they do choose to embrace change.
Even in the ending, don’t make your protagonists do the absolute perfect thing. Allow their weaknesses to shine through. Don’t make your protagonists angels just because they converted or had an encounter with God. Not only is such a radical flip of personality preachy, it’s not true to life. We all bring our own quirks, flaws, and failures into daily life.
On the other hand, don’t take this technique too far. The movie version of My Fair Lady is an example of taking this technique way too far. In the movie, Henry Higgins, a rich professor, is trying to teach Eliza Doolittle how to speak English like an elite lady rather than using the accent of the poorer classes. Throughout the movie, Professor Higgins is misogynistic and rude to Eliza. The ending suggests that Eliza and Professor Higgins marry. Yet, in the last line of the movie, Professor Higgins is still unbearably rude to Eliza.
Don’t end a novel like that. Rather, allow one of your protagonist’s more endearing weaknesses to shine through. Perhaps a character who overcame a social phobia in the climax of the novel, could still allow their introverted side to show in the ending. Or perhaps a crotchety protagonist who learns to love others throughout the novel could end the book with a self-deprecating joke that shows he still does have a snarky side.
Readers, what situations or scenarios make you think a novel has turned too preachy for your tastes? Authors, what do you do to ensure you are making readers think about spiritual concepts rather than handing them cookie cutter solutions?
About the Author
Anne Garboczi Evans is a mental health counselor, military spouse, author, and mama to an opinionated little preschooler named “Joe-Joe.”
Find out more about Anne and her writing on her blog.