A writer’s struggle: exploring spirituality in characters without boring the reader to tears

One of my biggest struggles as a fiction writer is that I want to explore spirituality and religion with my characters, but I absolutely do not want to write Inspirational or Christian fiction.  Why? Well…

I’m a romance novel junkie.  Seriously. There is nothing I love more than reading, and writing, romance.  I love experiencing those emotions, the excitement and the pain and the fear and the lust and, ultimately, the love. I’m a fan of such writers as Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Victoria Dahl, Kristan Higgins, Sarah Mayberry, and Colleen Hoover, as well as about two dozen other authors.  I love their writing because their characters are interesting, quirky and flawed.  The ways they fall in love are messy, sloppy, and sometimes it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to work out because the baggage from the past is too much. And that leads me to problem with Christian/Inspirational fiction.  (I’ve previously ranted about this subject at length here.) I’ve tried to read Christian fiction over and over again, and every single time, I’m bored within 20 pages.  The characters have very little personality, they’re chaste, they control all their urges, they never swear, there is hardly a hair out of place. They are simply perfect and I don’t buy that.

I recently checked a historical romance out at the library that I knew was Christian-themed, but I decided to challenge my prejudice and see if maybe, just maybe, I was being too hasty. Within three pages, I could tell that the author’s heroine was a simpering, spoiled little flake of a woman.  Ugh.  By page 24, I had decided that I couldn’t do it. The characters weren’t real. The hero was as wooden as one of the fence posts he was fixing on his sprawling ranch.  The book was straight-up BORING. (The author had indicated that the novel was previously published under a different title, but that she had “reworked it” to fit into the Inspirational genre.  I have a feeling that the original version would’ve been more my speed.) I returned it to the library (via Kindle) and moved back to the genre I can trust – contemporary fiction. Once again, Christian fiction had let me down.

And here I am, on vacation from work this week and about to dedicate a lot of time to working on the novel idea that I can’t get out of my head.  This is where my struggle with spirituality in contemporary romance comes full circle, because I have a character who won’t leave my brain, and he’s a pastor.  More specifically, he’s a mega-church associate pastor turned Army Chaplain who experienced three hellish tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. When he gets back to the States and leaves the Army for good, he’s at a crossroads. He’s seen too much to easily forget, and he’s not about to pick up his life where he left it before he joined up. Frankly, he’s a big damn mess. His faith is in shambles and he’s on a mission to find himself again.  He meets up with a younger woman with a past of her own and their journeys take them to the crossroads of past and future, all set in an unlikely place and supported by some pretty quirky characters.

This is Nick Bateman. He's the model for my character. (He's also about to star in the film adaptation of Colleen Hoover's novel Ugly Love. Am I excited about him playing Miles Archer?  Hooooooo-boy am I!!!!)

This is Nick Bateman. He’s the model for my character. (He’s also about to star in the film adaptation of Colleen Hoover’s novel Ugly Love. Am I excited about him playing Miles Archer? Hooooooo-boy am I!!!!)

This won’t be Christian fiction. There won’t be a preachy message, and there won’t be the magical prayer cure they use in those books so that everything perfectly falls into place. There will be sexual tension and smut because, let’s face it, that’s what happens in real life. And there will be tears because I love angst. Angst is passion and emotion and it’s where the characters are tested. (I am an angst-aholic.  If a book makes me cry, I go nuts for it!)

My hope is to be able to explore some spiritual themes that are true to the character without turning this into a sanitized novel like you’d find in the Inspiration genre. (Seriously, who cares about a character who is already perfect at the outset of the story anyway?) Stories of redemption and faith are found in real people – real, flawed, damaged, broken people – and I think they can be explored in the Contemporary genre without having to pigeon-holed into the shelves at the bookstore full of novels about Amish women in prayer kapps. That’s my goal, anyway!

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3 thoughts on “A writer’s struggle: exploring spirituality in characters without boring the reader to tears

  1. The thing that gets me is that much of the Bible are stories of people who struggled and sinned and took a winding road. Why then can Christian novels not do the same thing? I really doubt Christianity would’ve endured for as long as it has if the Bible was written similarly to the Christian novels of today. A pastor/blogger posted 2 blogs about a similar issue in Christian movies. I think he touched on a great point. Christians often settle for a lot less in quality when a film, book, music, etc. has the Christian label attached to that, and that is not productive at all.

    Here are the links to the blog posts (they’re really short!) if you’re interested.
    http://www.craiggross.com/post/103024347356/an-open-letter-to-christian-film-makers
    http://www.craiggross.com/post/104741250791/were-on-the-same-team

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