It has long been debated among Christian authors whether one ought to point explicitly to God through one’s writing. Personally, I have trouble keeping a direct connection to God out of my writing. Not to say that The Hobbit is poorly constructed because it does not directly reference the gospel (or use pointed phrases and images that are the allegorical equivalent to an obvious wink, as in The Chronicles of Narnia). I do not claim to make a qualitative judgment of one over the other. I simply cannot produce a story that leaves any uncertainty about who holds the true power over this world, the facts of Heaven and Hell, and what He did to save the lowest and worst of His creatures. I do try, but they feel bland and undimensional until I give the gospel center stage. How can I allow my characters a happily ever after because they are good people, and ignore all of the evil little quirks that the best of us have to offer?
It has a great deal to do with death in the story. Modern storytelling has so many anti-heros to offer. The friendly thief, the charming cavalier with his charitable moments, the teacher who crushes the souls of his students but has a reasonable excuse for his cruelty, the conflicted villain who turned to darkness because of daddy issues. Which do we allow to be good guys? If they die in a moment of uncharacteristic selflessness (and is it even selflessness if they die to protect the object of an obsession?), does that wipe away the lives they have ended, shattered, exploited, or violated? Do heroes go to literary Heaven because we find them amusing?
There is a small sample of my thought process as I again turn every fairy tale, high fantasy, and superhero story into an unapologetic Father, Son, and Holy Ghost fanfiction. Still, never saw it as being too preachy. I never have a Captain Virtue battling the dark demon of Selfish. I do not explicitly point out that every character with an unrepentant swearing habit will suffer in the afterlife. I do not even take the classy approach and tell children not to shut themselves up in wardrobes. All is well in my subtle, evangelistic whispers. That is until my deeply complex characters were shown up by talking fish and lions.
Do heroes go to literary Heaven because we find them amusing?
I assigned my students a story analysis worksheet in which they would identify the theme of a story through various stages of conflict, the repeating phrases, what characters win and lose, and how the hero finds redemption. Children’s movies are handy examples here, because they are told honestly and not without an excess of shock and awe plot twists. The two that stood out in the process of grading were The Lion King and Finding Nemo.
The Lion King communicates the dangers of irresponsibility through painted scenery and two arguments about a lack of food. Neither of them ever say that Scar is failing because he is irresponsible or too demanding. They simply say that he is not like Mufasa. When Simba learns the balance of forgiveness, self-worth, and responsibility with the help of some clouds and a mandrill who never states anything plainly, he returns home to protect his people and is immediately mistaken for Mufasa. The family resemblance is the primary reason, but the thematic reason is that he is emulating the same traits that made his father a great king. Only once does Nala use the word “responsibility” and it did not have a dramatic contextual framework to drive home the point. The actions of the film do that for us in such a way that we want to learn the lesson.
Finding Nemo had moments where it was more obvious. “Just keep swimming” is a metaphor to those of us who are not fish, but it is rather easy to tell what it means. Still, we are not told to judge a book by its cover, but are shown when we meet sharks, an angler fish, a trench, and Squishy. The more carefree fish is one of few who can read, and not all clownfish are funny (but they should let loose a little). “Just keep swimming” becomes more than a cheerful little ditty when it is adopted by a school of fish caught in a net rather than forgetful Dory. The seagulls scream “Mine!” and have nothing to show for it, while sea turtles live to be more than one hundred and fifty because they go with the flow.
I think nowadays, with so many people expecting a theme, we are more afraid of subtlety than we used to be. Look at how constantly Disney needed to mention that “you can’t marry a man you just met” with Frozen and have the themes explained and stated by the characters. Not that Frozen wasn’t good in its own right, but it did lose some of the charm of previous films because it stated everything so plainly. Think of how much people enjoy books such as Harry Potter because they can read through it again and again to find a new theme or a hidden wink to the dominant one. Think of how annoyingly predictable it was in The Hobbit films every time the shire music started playing and Biblo was obligated to state and restate the important lessons instead of grumbling about missing his tea kettle.
We all work in words. For me, that often makes me tempted to state myself plainly in dialogue because my themes excite me. Surely you want to find all the subtle intricacies of my work. Oh, here. Let me just show them to you.
A storyteller is in the unique position of having students who want to be taught if only you will whisper.
The first draft of my novel if fraught with pitfalls of moral ideals rather than images of contrasting environments. Sometimes my subtlety goes over my readers’ heads, and that can be a difficult thing for a writer to hear. The thing is not to stop weaving a tapestry and turn to painting a billboard. The excitement of being a reader is getting the chance to hug Edmund when he says that Aslan has saved traitors before. It is in feeling the depth of Boromir’s words “Our people”. A great deal of it is in the excitement of being able to share your adventures through a book with others who have tread the same inky paths.
Readers of fiction want to follow breadcrumbs rather than neon arrows that state the point. Readers of mysteries may prefer a more down-to-earth metaphor, but they still hate to have to culprit’s cover blown before all of the clues are collected. A storyteller is in the unique position of having students who want to be taught if only you will whisper. Both parties feel the loss when the enchanted wood is leveled to make way for a lecture hall. A writer is better served by his craft when he allows his lessons to come not from his own mouth, but desolate scrub lands or eager sea gulls.
Kitra is a guest poster for ItB. You can find her on the web at her author page. She’s currently writing a fairy tale anthology and a fantasy novel. Good to have you on ItB! If you enjoyed the post, drop us a comment below to let us know: