Realism In Fiction

Don Quixote de la Mancha started out being a realist, but in the end he lost what was most true.

Today much discussion in the Christian writing community focuses on realism, or telling the truth in fiction.

Some authors have banded together to support their “edgier” brand of fiction — by which they apparently mean stories that don’t hesitate to include sexual passion without actually showing sex. (The only novel I read from these particular authors included lots of desire and passionate kissing but no nudity or copulation).

Others push to do away with sanitized language. Sinners should talk like sinners, the reasoning goes. Anything less isn’t realistic.

Some complaints claim erroneously that certain topics are off limits in Christian fiction — prostitution or sex trafficking, for example. These are real issues, these critics say, and the topics should be dealt with in story, and they should be handled in a realistic way.

Still others falsely believe that a certain conservative value set must be adhered to in Christian fiction — no dancing, drinking, or smoking for instance. Those who push for realism say that stories should show these human activities in a realistic way without making value judgments.

I understand these arguments which often come from other writers wishing to see Christians create stories of high caliber. Realistic stories are the present gold standard, not morality tales. Consequently, these writers are making a plea, in their minds, for the best kind of writing.

What I have asked more than once, however, is why these writers who want realism in fiction don’t demand as much realism in the depiction of God as they do of human behavior.

Why are we not up in arms about how shallow or weak or absent God comes off in novel after novel bearing the Christian label? We complain about humans appearing out of touch with the world or behaving in ways that are not consistent with reality, but we are silent about God appearing as out of touch with His creation or inconsistent with His self-revelation.

God might be incidental to a story, an add-on “faith element,” and no one is complaining. No one is standing up and saying how such stories aren’t real.

Why is it OK to do a poor job of showing God in a real way, but it is not OK to show humans in a real way? And if it’s not, why aren’t we saying so with the same frequency we decry the absence of realism in human behavior?

Is it because we think humans are more real than God? Is it because we don’t believe God plays a part in the gritty details of life we want to show in our novels?

I’m grasping for ideas here.

As I see it, pushing for realism ought to start with showing God as He is. How can anything else, then, come off as better than it is? Man next to a pure and holy God isn’t going to look sanitized or righteous.

The best way to paint a realistic picture of Man is to first paint a realistic picture of God. Without showing God as He really is, stories will never be realistic. They might be partially real, but they will never be telling the whole truth.

Having said that, I think it’s important to add, stories don’t show all truth. I don’t think that’s possible.

However, stories should show truth about whatever subject they cover. Since Christian fiction is often about God, doesn’t it seem logical, then, that the most important truth Christian fiction tells is about God?

Who cares if the characters swear or don’t swear if God comes off looking incidental? Who cares if a character drinks or doesn’t drink if God is absent in a “Christian” novel?

The one thing that is the distinctive of Christian fiction is the one thing that only Christian fiction can do — tell the truth about God.

Some fiction might be moral. Some might focus on psychological or physical aspects of humanity rather than spiritual. Stories dealing in those realms should be realistic.

But how can we be outraged that a foul-mouthed character doesn’t speak in four-letter words when we aren’t outraged that our sovereign God isn’t depicted as just and powerful and righteous?

In our quest for realism in fiction, it seems to me, we’re aiming our lances at windmills.

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For further discussion, see also “When God Shows Up In Fiction”

Published in: on July 11, 2011 at 8:07 pm  Comments (19)  
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