There’s a story that’s been stuck in my head for over a year now, waiting to get onto the page. From the moment it made its appearance, I knew it was going to be one of those stories: the kind of stories I treasure, the ones where I develop a deeper-than-normal connection to the characters and their situations. I’ve been waiting for this story for a while now.
And yet, I haven’t written anything more than a few paragraphs, which I’ve edited repeatedly.
Because another defining factor for one of those stories is that they always terrify me. They become so special that I convince myself I can’t do them justice; that I’ll get the words wrong and ruin everything; that I just need a little more time to make sure I have the story plotted out well enough that I don’t get lost half-way through.
What makes this story particularly special (and thus considerably more terrifying than normal) is that it is the type of story I’ve been trying to write pretty much my entire life. If I manage to muscle my way through the first draft and don’t hate it after that, this story is one I will attempt to publish under my real name.
What makes this story so special? It’s a Christian fantasy.
I’ve written fantasy almost exclusively since I started seriously writing at age 12. Some of my earlier stories’ main characters believed in a Creator God, but it always felt forced, like God was just a token to get my story on that shelf alongside Dragons in Our Midst. I’ve always wanted to use this gift to honor God, but it’s been a constant struggle. In recent years, I’ve stuck to writing clean fiction with little religion tending either toward truth or fiction.
For the most part, I’ve made a habit of reading the same kinds of stories. Yes, whenever I come across a narrative preaching about how humanity has ruined the world, or pushing a false religion agenda, I cringe. I immediately feel disconnected to the narrator. If they take it a step further and throw in a token religious character, that character always adheres one or another of certain stereotypes: the raving zealot, the disillusioned recluse, the sweet but misguided mentor, or something else. That rankled me just as much.
But despite this, I have a hard time enjoying Christian fiction which is marketed as such. I avoid historical Christian fiction altogether because it’s always romance and I tend to gag on the fluff. I cannot take historical Christian romance seriously.* Meanwhile, I’ve tried to make an effort with other sub-genres of Christian fiction, like fantasy.
When I was younger, this worked out well enough. I devoured a lot of Ted Dekker back then, among other series. But the list of Christian fiction I could tolerate was short. Most of the Christian books I come across are either ridiculously preachy, doctrinally inaccurate, or shallow. It sometimes feels like the author assumed writing for God gave them license to write poorly.
Or perhaps, as I’ve often wondered lately, there’s nothing at all wrong with these books, but rather I’ve spent too much time consuming the world’s alternatives and it’s my own vision which is impaired.
At this point, I’m having trouble making that call.
So here I am: longing to both read and to write fiction which honors God and doesn’t look foolish at the same time. I don’t mean foolish by the world’s standards; pretty much everything we do already qualifies as such to them. I mean foolish in our own circles: half-baked, poorly-executed, uninspired, artless, emotionless, and impossible to pick out when lined up on a shelf with its peers. That or unrealistic in its happy endings and its sunshine and its neat resolutions of every struggle.
Am I being proud in my aspirations to break the boundaries of traditional Christian fiction? Am I wrong to have such an approach to what is already available? Am I a snob?
Maybe. But I still feel a desire to write decent Christian fiction which the kids in my own youth group can enjoy and fan-kid over and talk about with their friends. I want them to get excited about seeing God in a story. I want them to expand their thought horizons, to explore new ideas and approaches.
Thus, this story. It’s decidedly an experiment by this point. It centers around a young woman in a nation divided into two groups: those who worship many gods, and those who worship One. The setting, at present, is closest to the American Southwest (because I’m obsessed with Utah right now). Some of the story elements take inspiration from Bible stories like Esther and the Hebrews in Egypt.
The main character (we’ll call her “D”), a common household servant surrounded by a supportive family who gives her courage as their world starts to crumble, is a storyteller, like me. She is the oldest sister, though the rest of the family structure varies from my own. She has few close friends but a lot of casual ones. She loves to read, longs to travel, and isn’t good at dancing. She likes horses and going barefoot. She loves sunlight. She tends to sit in the background and observe. She believes in God, and she tries to trust Him, but she struggles to understand Him.
D has started to become more like me than any character I have ever written. Even without a single completed chapter of her story set to page yet, I have learned so much about myself by developing her.
D’s story was going to be written to a younger audience, but she refused to remain 12 years old. The themes got a little more serious, the stakes higher, the questions deeper. Now it’s become a story for my peers: one of defining yourself as you enter adulthood, one of finding your purpose, of finding meaning.
Yes, it has strong fantasy elements. The antagonist is a priest to a pantheon of false gods, and I’ve not be slack in developing their false religion. After all, they can’t be deathly committed to something vague. Their motivation is very real to them. I’ve considered throwing in revolvers to stick with my Southwest theme, but at present the characters wield more traditional swords and spears and bows. There may be camels, or at least llamas, and there’s a good chance there will be fire lizards.
But at its center, this story is about God: His truth, His wisdom, and His unfailing faithfulness. My only debate is what He will be called in the book.
D is also like me in that she hates to be still. She gets satisfaction in working. She has a hard time being inactive. When things start to go wrong, she looks for external solutions, and she has a hard time giving over her struggles to God.
Another character who is very much like his real-world counterpart is D’s father. He’s hardworking, fiercely protective of his family, and intuitive. And one of my dad’s real-world lessons has recently become a key theme in the story: if you want people to listen to what you’re saying, just whisper.
D’s turning point is when she learns to be still and to listen to God’s quiet voice. She comes to accept the fact that not everything will turn out perfectly; that the world can’t go back to the way it once was (hello, Frodo Baggins). In growing up, D discovers the reality of the darkness, but she also draws closer to the Light.
It’s so easy to write (or rather plan to write) because it’s something with which I associate right now. Like my parents, I wear myself out with work; my whole family is a family of givers, and we give and give until we’re all out. I don’t like being vulnerable, and I don’t have any sympathy to spare for people who refuse to help themselves.
Then I came across this line from a post on a different blog, and it immediately brought D – and thus myself – to mind.
Sometimes people who have spent their lives managing their own health issues can get a little defensive when someone else comes along and wants to help – “I can do this myself!” “I’m independent!” “I don’t need to be taken care of.” Remember, there is a difference between allowing yourself to be cared about and becoming helpless.**
This is why this book is one of those stories: in seeking to write a wholesome story centered around the truth of God’s being, I threw myself onto a path chock-full of self-discovery epiphanies. Now I’m even more terrified to write this book, because of how real it has become.
But that’s just the writer’s life, isn’t it?
*This is not to say I think there is anything truly wrong with Christian historical romances. They just aren’t my style any more. I used to love Lori Wick and several other authors like her.
**Here’s the link: http://themighty.com/2016/05/dating-with-a-chronic-illness-or-disability/