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The Inspirational Element–When Good Characters Make Bad Choices

Thursday, January 31, 2008

I hope you all were as encouraged as I was by Shelley’s column yesterday. It’s always good to see how we can write stories that “stealthily” glorify God and may lead our readers to a better understanding of Him, or even to a first-time relationship with Him.

On Tuesday, Lori Benton posted:

I had originally seen my male MC, Ian, reaching the point where things have gang sae agley that he finally gives up, and puts his life in God’s hands. Circumstances still gang agley for quite some time after that point, but he’s no longer making them worse by trying in his own fleshly wisdom to make them better.

The book now ends far short of that point, so when I begin editing next week (I took January away from the novel, the cooling off period), one of my main concerns will be to strengthen the spiritual arc. If there is one. Oh boy.

No, I’m sure there is. But what if it’s a downward arc? What if it ends with the MC making a life-altering choice in a moment of spiritual and emotional crisis? A choice that I expect the reader will be not at all pleased about. Does that work in the first book of a series? Is it a reasonable hook for the sequel?

This is a hard set of questions to answer. Most editors will tell you that when they look at a book proposal, even if it’s a sequel/trilogy/series, they want the first book of the set to be plotted in such a way that it could be a stand-alone story. The book publishing business is, first and foremost, a business. For a first-time, unproven author, they’re going to be so much less likely to sign the author to a multi-book contract until they know that the first book is going to sell well, though this is not quite as true in the realm of historical fiction as it is contemporary. Readers almost expect a new historical novel to be the first in a series.

Also, what I have found in a lot of historicals I’ve read is that the spiritual message may be much less obvious than in a contemporary—in other words, they fall more into the Inspirational category.

That said, I would have to tell you that I think it’s okay to end the first book at a point when the main character has been faced with making a choice and doesn’t choose the spiritual route, so long as you give the reader an otherwise satisfying ending. You can’t just leave them completely hanging. And even if the character makes this “wrong” choice, you need to show that there is reason for significant hope that the character will turn around and make the “right” choice in the second book.

In a similar vein, Austin Field asked:
My main character starts out as a Christian & I know what lesson he has to learn by the end of the story. But he has a best friend, a close confidante and advisor, who is a good person but not a Christian…also a point of view character. The best friend is very opposed to the main character’s attempts at witnessing (he’s seen some of the things the Christian character has done in his life and thinks he’s somewhat hypocritical calling himself a Christian). In the action scene at the climax, the best friend dies. A few people who’ve read it have told me that if I want to market it to Christian publishing houses, I need to have him make a dying profession of faith. I don’t want to because it wouldn’t be right for the character or for the continuing story of the main character. Plus I think stories that do that are cop-outs. In real life, people die every day without making that death-bed confession. Have I ruined my chances of selling this book in the Christian market?

After many long years when every character in a CBA-published novel had to be completely redeemed and on the path of sanctification/righteousness by the end of the book, we are finally starting to see fiction reflect real life—not everyone gets saved in Christian Fiction anymore. It is harder when it’s a point-of-view character, but I think it can be done with great success—especially if you find a way to contrast the internal conflicts of the two characters. You have the chance to show hope-in-crisis in the life of the Christian character while the non-Christian character has none. When fear overwhelms, contrast how the two characters deal with it differently. And when you pitch it, make sure to highlight how the loss of his friend, knowing he wasn’t saved, greatly affects your hero’s own spiritual journey (and the guilt that drives him on the revenge-quest) through the rest of the series.

It may come as a surprise, but there are a vast number of books on the market—secular books—that deal with this very theme: one character makes a good, or redemptive, choice while another character makes a bad, or destructive, choice. A lot of YA literature deals with this. The main character sees a childhood friend begin to hang out with the wrong group, making destructive choices, and must decide if they want to go the same route or if they want to make better choices, be a “good” person.

I don’t know if that has sufficiently answered those questions, and I hope my readers will pipe in with their words of wisdom as well. What do the rest of you do when characters in your novels make bad choices or refuse to obey God and make the right choice?

One Comment
  1. Thursday, January 31, 2008 12:54 pm

    Kaye,

    Thank you for addressing my questions! I wish I could better explain the story situation, but I don’t want to publicly post so many spoilers. I think the key here is, and you touched on it, is making sure the reader is left with some sense of satisfaction and hope at the end of the book. Like the Miss Potter movie. Even without the scrolling text at the end I would have been reassured on Beatrix’s behalf.

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