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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  1. It could be that the reason God is not explored, or added-on at the end, or not given more of His complexity and most importantly the Truth about Him–maybe because the author wants to stick to the “story about her characters” not what would reflect her Bible knowledge. But, that is just a guess from me.
    I believe that often in Christian fiction, the author wants a light read that resolves itself at the end. Meaning the story wrapped up positively.
    Life often does not wrap up positively, but many people don’t want to read a story that brings them down, they want an escape.
    For those of us wanting more, it is sometimes difficult to find those books in Christian fiction that is not wrapped up pretty like a Christmas package.
    Could it be that authors are struggling with how to depict their characters as real, meaning the publishers might not want their published books to be “too real.”
    The Christian community is a melting pot of opinions about morality. I think morality is the right word. For example, one Christian does not drink alcohol at all and does not have it in their home, where as another Christian has a glass of wine with their evening meal and does not think twice about it. And of course there are those more politicized issues that make many uncomfortable.
    I’m sorry but as long as Christians have variances of opinions about morality, we will not be able to come together for a more real balance of stories in Christian fiction.
    Thank you Rebecca.


  2. Interesting. I agree that most novels don’t depict God well. What I can’t quite grasp is how we can depict him. We use our poor tools and our limited understanding and there is no way we can do God justice.

    I wonder if Christian fiction, which is often slammed for having obligatory conversion scenes, isn’t trying to get one aspect of God down—mercy.

    I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction, but the novels that I like best are novels that use metaphors to show some aspect of God’s character. I don’t see how else we can show him. God is not an unjust judge, but Jesus used an unjust judge to show one thing about God. I think we can do the same in our novels.


  3. Excellent post Becky. I think one reason God is not more real in our stories is because He is not more real in our own lives. He lives too much in our heads and in our moral living and not enough in our hearts.

    It is only through the fire and darkness in my own life that I have come to see God more real and felt His hand on my life. Trials have worked like a vice on my head, squeezing all that knowledge I have until it dripped into my heart.

    I cannot portray God for all of who He is (after all, He is beyond all my understanding), but I hope I portray Him accurately and real in my own writing.


  4. Nicely done my sister…


  5. I have been reading a book of Swedish folk tales. In one, a girl needs to find her way to the end of the world. A very old woman makes a bargain with her: She will give the girl a woolen ball that always rolls in the right direction, and the girl will give the old woman her beauty. At the end of the story the girl returns the woolen ball, and receives back her beauty.

    There is little realism in this, but there is a certain logic.

    Logic is an inseparable part of every good story; “realism” is not. There are stories in which realism is a good and necessary element, but it always has to be kept in bounds. No one wants realism if it means being bored with countless real-life but mundane details. And I don’t want realism if it means I have to wade through profanity.

    One of my strongest beliefs, regarding fiction, is that it must be logical. But realism seems increasingly overrated. That it is used as a justification for Christians to write and read profanity is one of my reasons. Another is that – well, take these folk tales as an example. I’m enjoying them, with their trolls and tomtes and trading of beauty, tears, and shadows. Realism would wreck every one.


  6. I think there’s a difference between realism and stepping into darker realms just to sell books. Although, I don’t see anything wrong with mentioning cigerettes or drinking etc, and I do believe it does take more talent to show the voice of a coarse character without using the four letter words than it does to add it in. I won’t throw a fit over one or two used in a book, but when it’s in overabundance it’s distracting from the story line. I’m focusing more on the four letter words than I am on the plot, wincing at every one of them. It breaks up the flow.

    Although in every one of my stories I try to show realism without stepping over the line just to keep my stories true and the voices of my characters true.

    But you’re right. We get upset more over four letter words than in how God is depicted in our life or in the lives of others. We like portraying Him as a sort of hippie person passing out roses than in how the Bible portrays Him as an all powerful God.


  7. Perhaps it’s easier for some readers to accept the imperfect personalities of people than it is to accept the perfect personality of God (or characters representing God). Fiction is littered with supposedly perfect characters who come off as posers because they seem “too clean.” It is very difficult (though not impossible) to describe the perfect love of God (or a God-like character) in a way that feels real in an imperfect world.

    As far as God’s apparent absence in fictional stories: whether or not God’s involvement (or lack thereof) in a fictional story is seen as realistic really depends on how the reader perceives God’s involvement in their own life. And if a writer honestly doesn’t feel God working in their life then that will be reflected in the stories they write.


  8. Excellent discussion. I really appreciate all your thoughtful comments. In case you haven’t read further, I’ve written additional posts on this subject, in large part because of the thoughts your remarks engendered. Thanks so much.

    Benjamin, you said something similar to Morgan’s comment:

    whether or not God’s involvement (or lack thereof) in a fictional story is seen as realistic really depends on how the reader perceives God’s involvement in their own life

    I think that’s quite perceptive. All the more reason, though, for us to press for stories that show ultimate reality rather than get bogged down in squabbles over the petty display of sin in fiction as some who advocate for realism seem to do.



  9. Becky,

    You make some very good points in the post. However, I’m beginning to truly feel that we have compartmentalize God in Modern American Christianity.

    So maybe that’s why we want more realism in Christian Fiction. Since God has been reserved to one area in our lives and there’s no need to have go into any other part of our lives.

    So in reading a novel, we already have God in the box for church and nothing else. And God steps outside of that box…then the work is too preachy and will turn everybody off.

    Also, I wanted to post this quote I put on my blog from the study of Ecclesiastes that will go along with my point:

    Jesus is not simply the Savior of one’s individual soul. Even if you add your body to the mix and look for bodily transformation at the resurrection, that is not enough. He is not plucking us out of our material environment. Rather, he is the Savior and Reconciler of all creation.

    We need to stop compartmentalizing the world. God’s covenant with us is his covenant in Christ with all the creation. In this biblical context, one shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow that Solomon sings the praises of work, wife, feasting, and drinking wine. If that seems too physical, worldly, or unspiritual, maybe it is time for us to get a grip on what the Bible says is truly spiritual.

    The context for this is from Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 and the author was commenting about this from Solomon’s viewpoint.

    I believe until we truly see Christianity and the Bible that covers every area of our lives and not a certain part of our lives…we will always look at God in a box. And that will reflect itself in fiction as well.



  10. […] been thinking about a question raised by blogger Becky Miller a few weeks ago in a post entitled Realism in Fiction wherein she asks why those of us who pine for “realism” in Christian fiction (meaning […]


  11. […] “Realism In Fiction,” I pointed out that rarely, if ever, do writers advocating for realism in human characters […]


  12. […] earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction,” “When God Shows Up In Fiction,” and “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another […]


  13. I really appreciate your honesty in looking at this area of Christian fiction. My take on it is as follows: The Bible warns us about leading others into sin or doing things that temp others to sin.

    When I read a book that cusses, I can glance over it vs when in that same book I read our Lord’s name taken in vain (curses) then “I” myself am thinking it. When I read a book where someone is tempted by someone’s appearance, I can look past it vs. when I read a novel where the character is not only tempted, but checking out the sexual interest in detail in such a way that now “I” am checking out that other person in detail.

    There is a level of immersion into reality in which writers must be careful not to show the sin in such a way that the reader feels they are the perpetrator of that sin. You can show transparency in a character’s relationship with God (we all have one, believer or non believer) without delving into the dregs of society, or tempting someone to do something they shouldn’t. Honesty, integrity and empathy do just as good a job at that as shock and awe.


  14. Marion, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I’ve thought about what you said for a while. I was confused at first as to how you arrived at the conclusion that including God in fiction was compartmentalizing Him and putting Him in a box.

    I think I understand your point now — you’re saying that the whole world, not just what happens in a religious service, is spiritual.

    But I’m not talking about spiritual stuff. I’m talking about a real person who has emotions, a will, intellect — a person we can know because His Son and His Spirit show Him to us. And He gave us Scripture as His self-revelation.

    We’re not in the dark about God’s person or plan or work in the world. If our stories are to be truthful, it seems necessary to me that we include God. Of course, how well we show Him depends on how well we know Him, don’t you think?



  15. April, thanks so much for stopping by and taking time to read this article. I think it’s an important topic for Christian authors. We spend a lot of time working through how much realism we need to put in our stories. Some may tailor their stories to what they themselves are willing to read. Some may differ. I think we’ll always differ on this issue because we’re writing for different audiences and with different backgrounds.

    What I hope we can think about in more depth, however, is how realistic we portray God in our stories. If we only write about someone coming to Christ, for example, are we saying that God only involves Himself in our lives to bring us to Christ, then washes His hands of us? Of course we don’t believe that, but sometimes I wonder if that subtle message isn’t coming across in our stories.

    Anyway, I appreciate you dialoguing over these issues.



  16. Becky
    I see what you mean. It’s like how most romances in movies or books ends in the characters getting together and living…happily ever after. The characters I portray in my books are usually in the midst of searching for meaning in crisis, learning to rely on the Lord, and not just submitting to His purpose–but trusting in Him fully, especially in times that make absolute no sense to US. I think Christian writers have an opportunity to show what a maturing relationship with God our Father is like. The very best Christian fiction out there brings things subtly to the reader in such a way they go away wanting more from their own relationship with God, and wanting to go deeper with Him.


  17. April, the movie/book analogy says it well. I think more stories are doing what you spell out, and I think that’s so important. Not easy, but really necessary if we are to be truthful about who God is.



  18. I think the progressive or realistic Christian writers are talking about a deep and complex God. They’re talking about a God who can forgive us while we are yet in our sins.

    And many of the traditional Christian are also talking about a deep God, but not all. Some traditional writers are also more into the romance themes in the story. And some stories can be about romance. Christian writers don’t have to be clones.

    I appreciate the depth of this discussion and the perception of your article.


  19. Thanks for your comment, Nike. I agree that this discussion has been helpful.

    Interestingly, I’ve been doing a study of Colossians this past month, and am blown away by what the first couple chapters have to say about Christ. Now as I read your comment, I think, Why can’t our fiction reveal Christ as we see Him in Colossians — the One through whom all things have been created so that He will come to have first place in everything, the One who is the mystery of God, the One who is head of the Church, the One in whom dwells all the fullness of God.

    I love the “in Him” verses in chapter 2:

    Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority (Col 2:6-10).

    Most definitely there is more we can show about God in our fiction besides His saving power, as important as that is. To limit ourselves to that one theme, we are creating predictable stories, I fear.



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