Get a Free Ebook

Five Inspirational Truths for Authors

Try our Video Classes

Downloadable in-depth learning, with pdf slides

Find out more about My Book Therapy

We want to help you up your writing game. If you are stuck, or just want a boost, please check us out!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Truth in Fiction

How does our Christianity come into play when we write for middle grade or young adult readers?

We can give several answers to that question. Christians should produce work that is:
  • Excellent
  • Helpful
  • Thought provoking
  • True
I could go on, but I'd like to stop right there and argue that in order to write a book that is excellent, helpful, thought provoking, and true, we need to preach.

The best books have messages.

I would like to relieve Christians of the guilt they feel when they set out to write books that teach children. I would like to convince you that passing your wisdom to future generations is a great thing to do in the novels you write. It's not wrong to create stories for the purpose of encouraging children to be moral and kind and obedient, or even to trust and obey Jesus Christ.

If we can't preach, why bother writing? Entertainment is fine, but if entertainment is all that matters then why shouldn't I give my arthritic fingers a break? There are plenty of entertaining writers around already.

I don’t want to merely entertain, though, and I don't think I'm so different from most writers. Most of us, Christians or not, are writing because we have a desire to communicate truth as we see it. Christians are not the only ones preaching. I don't even know how many children's books are pushing for environmental conservation. I'm not saying we shouldn't take care of the earth—I'm saying that the green message is a darling in the children's market now, so people don't holler about preachiness when they read it. They applaud it, even when it's slopped across non-biodegradable paper in thick coats of lead-based paint. 

Another pet message? Affirmation (which is packaged as tolerance). Children are often encouraged through books to be affirming of people of different races, religions, and sexual preferences. This message is welcomed in the children's lit community. And, again, my point isn't that we shouldn't affirm people. I'm just saying that most folks don't mind if you preach as long as you tickle their ears in the process.

All kinds of ideologies and religious beliefs are preached in children's books--feminism, humanism, pantheism, materialism, pacifism, and atheism—but children's writers like to pretend they aren't preaching. Philip Pullman, the atheist author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, says on the one hand that he's not in the message business; he's in the "Once upon a time," business. But he also says: 
 "I dislike his [CS Lewis's] Narnia books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life: is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn't touch it at all.

"The Lord of the Rings' is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don't like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all [in the His Dark Materials trilogy], I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with."
What is arguing, if not pushing one message over another? Pullman's arrogance aside (did he really say The Lord of the Rings was trivial?), for all his "once upon a time-ing" he really thinks preaching is a good thing to do in fiction. The New Yorker quotes him as saying: 
“We learn from Macbeth’s fate that killing is horrible for the killer as well as victim,” he [Pullman] said, before reading a passage from “Emma,” by Jane Austen, in which the heroine is mortified when Mr. Knightley reproaches her for mocking poor, garrulous Miss Bates. The scene, Pullman said, shows that, "we can learn what’s good and what’s bad, what’s generous and unselfish, what’s cruel and mean, from fiction”; there is no need to consult scripture. As Pullman once put it in a newspaper column, “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.”
I agree with Philip Pullman. Story is a great way to reach the heart.

I think Christian children's writers should be writing stories that aim to move their readers to believe (in their hearts) the biblical answers to those questions that Pullman calls the "great questions of human life."

I understand frustrated novel readers who don't want message thick as sugar in a glass in sweet tea. I usually nod when they say, "If you want to preach you should write nonfiction. When people read fiction they just want a good story." And yet, I still think the authors writing the best stories, preach. They use a teaspoon rather than a measuring cup, maybe, but they mix their message in and their stories are better for it.  

Which way do you lean? Do you tend to put too much preaching into your novels or not enough? I was saved while I read a novel. King David was moved to repent because of Nathan's story. What about you? Have you ever been changed from reading truth in fiction?

 is represented by Reclaim ManagementHer short works have been published in various magazines, including Highlights for ChildrenShe blogs about young adult novels at



  1. Sally: right on, Sister. Preaching is everywhere. Message is sovereign. Authors who think they don't preach miss their own point in telling a story. It's a case of doing it well or doing it poorly. Perfect illustration(s), Sally. Well done.

  2. Great article. The question I feel many authors struggle with is this: How much can I preach without losing readers? Many avoid the question and shun preaching, resulting in a lot of Christian fiction lacking any spiritual depth. We need readers to plunk down their cash for our books. For this reason, the pressure is to water down the message to be less offensive and expand our readership. But then when does the message become so watered down that the novel is of no heavenly good? It's a tough dilemma. Say something important that may impact readers or sell lots of books? Can we have it both ways?

    Adam Blumer
    Freelance Editor and Novelist
    Novels: Fatal Illusions (Kregel), The Tenth Plague (Kirkdale: coming soon!)
    Blog: Meaningful Suspense
    (920) 412-7015

    1. I think we can have it both ways.I think the best books all have it both ways. Think of the really great novels that have stood the test of time. They all have something weighty to say. We may not agree with all the messages, but the point is that if you don't say something that makes people think, as soon as readers put your book down, they'll forget it.

      But here's something to think about when preaching. People learn best when they discover truth for themselves. Good teachers will tell you that they ask a lot of questions. They direct discussion, but they allow their students to participate and to tease out the truth.

      Some writers who preach, Christians and nonChristians, put their message into a character's mouth and the reader can tell it's the author preaching, because the character would never pause in the middle of an action scene to opine for three pages on the attributes of God or the benefits of recycling.

      There are other bad ways to preach, too. But there is a good way. There is a way to allow the reader to discover truth alongside your characters, so they don't feel preached at, but they feel like they've discovered an exciting new truth.

  3. Worldview comes out in WHATever we write, whether we're Christians or not (I am, though!). Every story has a worldview, whether life-stinks and then we die, or there is a God and a heaven/hell. The best stories are those that use characters/situations to illustrate a greater Biblical truth, without beating people over the head w/it. Nice post!

  4. This was so inspiring, thank you. I've heard many Christians brag "I never read Christian fiction" but then devour the world's garbage. I've also been encouraged as a writer to NOT preach in fiction, but that always bothered my soul.

    I believe there is power in well-written, convicting Christian fiction to change lives. Your contrast of "thou shalt not" and "once upon a time" was perfect. I appreciate your wisdom and clarity of thought.

  5. Thanks for commenting Nicole, Heather, and Mindy.

    Yes, the thing we want is to preach well, without beating people over the head. Easier said than done, but I think it can be learned.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Sally. They're meaningful to me because even though I don't like "preachy" novels where everything comes out exactly right, I find that when story ideas come to me, the protagonist is usually Christian, in some kind of struggle. I hope I don't preach. The stories are meant to entertain, because I like stories that are fun to read. They happen to be written from a Christian worldview.
    Ann Gaylia O'Barr

    1. Thanks, Ann. Exactly what we need--more books written from a Christian worldview!

  7. Amen! I am in total agreement. However, it is easy to second guess myself, so thank you for the encouragement.

  8. Well said, Sally. The best story not only entertains but has a message. It is engaging, didactic without being a lecture, and moves the reader to think. It should also make the reader believe he/she is wiser for having read it. And finally, the reader should have a sense of hope, that things can be better, and that the pursuit of that hope is a good thing--especially finding the Source. Many thanks for a well-written article.

    Jim Hamlett
    Author of Moe -- "...woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!" Eccl. 4:10

  9. Outstanding post, Sally! Thank you! We all "preach" every day and in every way. All of our words, spoken or written, and all of our actions reflect a particular worldview, whether Biblical or not. Jesus taught through stories, aka parables. He planted His message within the framework of story. We should do likewise and not apologize for it.

    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA

  10. By the way, my registered tagline for my own fiction is "Truth through Fiction."


    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA

  11. Thanks for commenting, everyone. I'm finding some new blogs to follow here. Good deal.

    MaryAnn, fiction is an amazingly capable vehicle for transporting truth, isn't it?


Don't be shy. Share what's on your mind.