Most people know that I started out in Christian publishing. What they don’t know is that I was introduced to Christian novels by my resolutely non-Christian sister. A doctor with limited time or patience, through her, I discovered authors like Francine Rivers and Frank Peretti, still my top two novelists.
It’s all about storytelling
I mentioned my sister, because when it comes to writing novels, the most important thing is your craft, especially if you’re writing faith fiction, because you have to work a lot harder to convince the industry and potential readers that you’re not just a misguided Pollyanna with a fancy Mac and poor writing skills to match.
Know your craft, master your craft
Talking about writing skills… the reason Francine Rivers and Frank Peretti have a wide readership is because they know their craft.
They write Christian fiction, but they’re also master storytellers and this has enabled them to broaden their appeal beyond the Christian community.
I’ll say this: I have yet to read a well-written sermon masquerading as a novel. So if your intention is to preach to people, while cloaking it as a novel, don’t.
Readers don’t like being cheated. They paid money for a good read. If they wanted a sermon, they would’ve gone to church – Abidemi Sanusi
The takeaway: if you would like to add Christian themes to your novel, concentrate on telling a good story with strong, believable characters first – everything else is secondary.
Great storytelling from the master – John le Carre
John le Carre is a master storyteller. His novel, the Constant Gardener clearly has a message about Africa and the powers that be that exploit its people and resources.
The book did not preach at its readers, it told a story (or a morality tale, depending on your view). By the time the readers get to the last page, they are left with a profound message about Africa, its exploitation and what happens when we ignore the evil happening right at our doorstep.
This masterful storytelling is what Christian fiction writers should aim for in their books.
Use universal themes in your novel that readers can identify with
The Constant Gardener is about a man, his wife and the opposing forces against him who are represented in many forms. The lead character is a human being, someone with flaws. He has been betrayed. He’s running scared. He doesn’t know who to trust.
We’ve all been there.
These issues are ones that every human being can identify with. This is because they are universal. We all know what it’s like to be betrayed or even scared. And that is what it boils down to. When someone buys a fiction novel, they are looking for a diversion, something to transport them away from their current environment. They want a book they can sink their teeth into. They want characters and a story line that they can identify with and say, ‘So I’m not the only one!’
Of course this depends on the genre. A contemporary novel is more character-led while thrillers tend to be plot-led.
If you’re writing a character-led book, don’t just give us something about ‘a woman who’s just trying to live her life.’ Sorry, not good enough. If I wanted boring, I wouldn’t have spent £6.99 on a book. I want more – Abidemi Sanusi
Tackle themes sensitively, not sensationally
Frank Peretti’s book, The Visitation is about Travis Jordan, a washed out and jaded former pastor.
I guess you could say that he was just a man trying to ‘live his life.’ But Peretti didn’t leave it at that. No. He’s too much of a master storyteller.
One day, a man strolls into Travis’s town claiming to be Jesus. He has the holes in his wrists to prove it and the miracles to match. And best of all, he wouldn’t leave our washed out and jaded former pastor alone. But the former pastor is not interested. He’s had enough of religion, of people, of church and of the whole Jesus business. He wants to walk away, but he can’t. The whole town has fallen under the Jesus look-alike spell.
What’s a washed out and jaded former pastor to do?
Yes, our character started out being a character trying to live his life, nursing his pain and his disappointment with God and church in his pokey apartment. We’ve all done that, but Peretti doesn’t allow his book to be another sermon about jaded pastors and the inadequacies of the church. Rather, it’s an expose of church life and one man’s journey of healing and redemption in the midst of immense deception.
Choosing your themes
How did Peretti choose his themes? Well, he started with a character. He’s admitted in interviews that the framework for the main character in the Visitation was based on himself. He’d reached a pivotal point in his Christian life when he was sick of ‘church.’
I don’t blame him. We’ve all been there. Then, he goes deeper. The character used to be a pastor. He was a widow. Together with his wife, they’d pastored churches and got burned more times than they care to admit.
The moral of the story? You may wish to serve God with all your heart but you serve God by serving human beings, Christians, whoever, and in the process, you get burned and learn about grace.
In the Visitation, we didn’t hear God’s voice in a thunderstorm, but we see him at work in all the characters’ lives, and for Travis, redemption comes through the most unlikeliest of places. Even better, the reader gets to the last page with a huge sigh of satisfaction that their hard-earned cash has been a worthwhile investment.
If you would like to write a novel with Christian themes, do some reverse engineering. Start with telling a great story first, then add those themes as your story and characters develop. Do this and you’ll find that you have a much better novel and better engaged readers as the end result.
Ultimately, isn’t that what all authors regardless of their genre should aim for?
Also published on Medium.