Fiction Isn’t Lying . . . Until It Is

booksSome Christians, apparently, don’t think it’s OK to read fiction because fiction is all about made up characters, places, and events. In other words, it’s all lies.

I had never heard that point of view until I got on the Internet, and then mostly other writers said they’d been confronted by others who chastised them for their lies. I did read a post once by someone who took that extreme position, but it was new to me.

For one thing, appealing to the definition of lie explodes that view, the key being the intention of deception. No one who writes fiction pretends their story is factual. No one who reads fiction is unaware that the story is pretend. So no one is deceiving or being deceived. So fiction isn’t lying.

In addition, authors of fiction use the pretend to make statements about reality. In all my literature classes throughout college, we analyzed stories to determine, among other things, what the author was saying, what he wanted readers to take away or to believe about humankind or the world or God. Thomas Hardy, for example, wrote stories to show that humankind is pushed and pulled by fate. On the other hand, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol which showed that a person can change his ways and isn’t locked into beliefs by chance circumstances.

Those two views which are in opposition to one another can hardly both be true. One might be truthful or they both might be false, but they both can’t be true.

It’s still probably incorrect to say that one which is not truthful is therefore a lie. I’m certain Thomas Hardy believed he was truthfully showing readers the way the world worked, but he was wrong. In his made up stories Hardy revealed his own belief system, one that replaced God with the ‘unconscious will of the Universe’ (see Wikipedia).

My question is this: ought not a Christian writer who knows the truth, reflect truth in any story he or she writes? I want to be clear: I do not think any story can tell ALL truth. For one thing, we don’t have all truth. The Bible, though complete, doesn’t show us all there is to know about God. It is our view of the world through that dark mirror I Corinthians 13 mentions. Second, ALL truth would not fit into one story, even one the size of The Grapes of Wrath or Gone With The Wind.

So what “truth” is a novelist supposed to show in his or her story?

That’s the beauty of writing. An author can open the door for readers regarding all kinds of important truths.

I’m thinking of one novel, for instance, a fantasy, in which the God of that world was worshiped by both factions in an owner/slave society. Both believe this God figure provides for them. Which brings up all kinds of interesting questions: does God provide for the wicked as well as for the victimized? Are those enslaved believing in this God in vain? Is the ruling class worshiping in hypocrisy? Is there anything similar going on in our world?

I could go on to discuss ways in which a novelist can show truth by developing their theme, but the point I want to make is this: a Christian writer, while not burdened to show all truth (an impossibility, but an attempt at such would clearly necessitate the entire plan of salvation), should show truth.

Of course it’s possible to leave out any direct reference to God and still show truth. J. R. R. Tolkien did that. He had Christ figures, but not a direct reference to God or to Jesus.

What Tolkien did not do was mislead people about those Christ figures. He did not have Gandalf decide to take the One Ring for himself. He did not have Aragon desert the forces of Gondor. The one who would sacrifice himself for the fellowship did not turn evil. The returning king did not forsake those who trusted him.

Thus, what an author chooses to show about truth is really up to him, but he must do so faithfully. He would be lying to portray God or a God figure in his world to be selfish or greedy or blood-thirsty or immoral or weak. Any of those would be a lie. A Christian who knows God must portray some truth about Him if He or a representative figure shows up in the story.

Non-Christians who turn God into an it with an unconscious will or who make Him out to be evil, as I understand Phillip Pullman did in his fantasy series, aren’t lying about God in the same way a Christian who knows the truth would be. Rather, they have rejected God and are trying to make sense of the world without Him. They are more to be pitied, though readers must beware so they see the ways their views deviate from the truth.

In short, the Christian is really the only one who can lie in fiction. We know the truth. If we purposely misrepresent God, how can that be thought of as anything but a lie?

God and Fiction, Part 2

The first time I heard someone repeat the idea that fiction is nothing more than telling lies, I thought they were joking. I mean, would it be lying if I told you, I have made up some people who don’t really exist, and here’s what I’ve imagined these pretend people did in their pretend worlds.

Whatever else you might think about the story I proceed to tell you, you would not be accurate to claim I was lying. Fiction, by its definition, announces that what appears between the pages is made up. Imagined. Nothing but pretend.

And yet, I’ve made the assertion that a Christian writer can, and perhaps should, show God within the pages of fiction. Say what?

This apparent contradiction can only be resolved by understanding that truth is not dependent upon reality. Truth is True, whether I believe it or not; whether it is popular or not; whether a person discovers it within the pages of history or within the pages of fantasy.

Truth is not dependent upon the circumstances that surround it. Believing in Truth or not believing in Truth doesn’t weaken it or make it less truthful. Showing it in the lives of imagined characters does not make it less truthful.

Consequently, it is abundantly possible to show God in fiction. But as I see it, the Christian novelist needs to be more concerned with conveying truth about God than about realism in connection with God.

Let me use C. S. Lewis and his Narnia series as the prime example. While the Bible does call the Messiah the Lion of Judah, never does Jesus take the form of a lion and walk through the streets of Jerusalem.

But Lewis depicted Christ throughout his series as a lion. Was he being irreverent? Just the opposite. By departing from reality, Lewis was able to shed the light of truth about Jesus’s position as King and Sovereign.

Perhaps Lewis had an advantage—he was writing fantasy, after all. 😀 But I wonder if more couldn’t be done even in contemporary fiction with the use of types and symbols. While not contemporary, J. R. R. Tolkien showed God in The Lord of the Rings, not by including God in his cast of characters but by giving qualities or roles of God to those in the story.

Granted, some people claim The Lord of the Rings isn’t actually Christian fiction. But because fiction is a communication vehicle with one person giving information and another someone receiving it, there will inevitably be some errant interchanges. Some readers will miss Truth Tolkien intended, some will see it in places and ways he never envisioned.

Be that as it may, the writer’s role is to tell the truth as best he can, and for the Christian, it’s hard to deliver Truth and leave God out.

Published in: on May 14, 2009 at 11:12 am  Comments (5)  
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Books That Last – The Lord of the Rings Model

This post is in honor of Fantasy Friday, though as you can see by the date stamp, I’m writing on Saturday. The key is, I conceived of this content on Friday. 😉

Why has J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lasted? I suppose I should qualify “lasted” because certainly there may be a cult following for some books such as Mark Twain’s lesser-known works, but the way I’m using the word, that does not qualify as “lasting.”

I suppose first a book that lasts must have arrived, which is to say, it needs to have wide-ranging acclaim. The Harry Potter books come to mind, as do the Left Behind books. Those “arrived” because certainly they found a wide audience. But will they last? Only time will tell—unless there is some determinative factor thoughtful reasoning can uncover, in which case we can predict which are most likely to last.

So on to The Lord of the Rings. What made those books so successful? Here are some lines from reviews posted at Barnes and Noble:

Books of the Century; The New York Times Book Review – W.H. Auden

    For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present….No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring.

New York Herald Tribune

    Destined to outlast our time.

Time Magazine

    One of the great fairy-tale quests in modern literature.


    A work of immense narrative power that can sweep the reader up and hold him enthralled for days and weeks..

Sunday Telegraph

    Among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century.

Boston Herald

    A masterful story — an epic in its own way — with elements of high adventure, suspense, mystery, poetry and fantasy..

C.S. Lewis

    No imaginary world has been projected which is at once as multifarious and so true to its own inner laws.

Yes, they liked it, but what exactly did they like?

The thing I saw repeated most was imagination. Here was an epic story that swept readers into a world of questing. (As you know, if you’ve read the books—or seen the movies—the quest was against all odds, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.)

It wasn’t solely Tolkien’s ability to create a credible place, however, that give these books their lasting quality, though that played a significant part. It was The Cause, put in the hands of, apparently, the weakest characters, not the strongest. In other words, The Lord of the Rings appeals to that part in us that longs to do great things.

I would suggest, then, that Tolkien’s work lasts, not because of the characters or the plot per se. I think it lasts because of the setting and the theme. The world is rich, a place readers lose themselves, and at the same time, the theme appeals to their better nature, and they find themselves.

That being said, there’s no doubt the plot had many twists and turns, suspense and tension. And conflict! Equally, the characters were ones readers gladly rooted for and cried over. Frodo, after all, was Bilbo’s nephew. And Sam was what we all hope to become. From Gandolf to Gollum, the other characters were distinctly drawn and easy to connect with.

But it is the fairy-tale, the quest, the world that reviewers brought up over and over. Maybe, just maybe, Tolkien hit the proverbial homerun and got it all right, which is why The Lord of the Rings lasts.

Published in: on September 20, 2008 at 1:22 pm  Comments Off on Books That Last – The Lord of the Rings Model  
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Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 2

So what keeps the reader reading beyond those early pages?

I mentioned engaging characters—ones that are interesting, well-drawn—but the truth is, good characters aren’t enough by themselves. These well-drawn characters must also do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through Christian fiction (what I’ve mostly read since becoming a full time writer hoping to publish with a Christian publishing house), I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to root for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin (or was it Merry) looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can root for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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Recently I received a copy of a publication I had hoped to submit a story to. I wanted to check out this collection, as freelancers are told to do, so I would know the tone and tenor of the stories that made it in print. My expectations were quite high, to be honest. I supposed this particular publication to be of the literary variety, and probably my writing wouldn’t fit, but nevertheless, on that outside chance, I was willing to pay the price of the collection to find out.

When it arrived, I was a little taken aback. The cover was … a bit amateurish, but still, I looked forward to sitting down with it and diving into the stories. Except that most of the publication was not “stories,” but poetry and art work as well. OK, I could live with that, though I now also noticed the amateurish look of the entire publication.

When I finally did begin reading the stories, is it any wonder my mindset, once prepared to consider the stories on a plane above my own writing and admire them from afar, shifted? The look of the publication altered my expectations.

This is a little shocking to me, because I’ve claimed for a long time I hardly notice covers of books or the quality of the paper or the color of the font and such. Yet, undoubtedly those things and others have played a part in creating my expectations for stories.

The real lesson for me, however, is about meeting expectations. In some ways we authors create expectations. If I categorize myself as a fantasy writer, I need to create a fantasy world or some fantasy elements in this world. Otherwise, a reader coming to the work expecting to find a place that is Other would have unmet expectations.

I’m convinced unmet expectations are the greatest cause of reader dissatisfaction.

Which brings me to another point. When an author pitches a book, either to an agent or editor, or on the back cover to readers, he needs to be truthful. Because of marketing, I think we have fallen into hyperbole. But in reality, when I read “the next Tolkien” in an endorsement or a back cover blurb, I’m not sold. I sort of roll my eyes and think, One more in the crowd of NOT Tolkien.

In other words, if a book makes this comparison to the best, I’ve already written it off. Why is that? The claim creates an expectation I don’t think can be met. I’m disappointed before I ever start.

Could be no one else reacts this way. I’m interested, though, in what creates high expectations for others. Reading a review? A recommendation from a friend? The book cover? The forward matter (a cool map, for instance)? The feel of the paper? The back cover blurb? The first page? What gives you your reading experience expectations?

Published in: on July 28, 2008 at 12:53 pm  Comments (7)  
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Thoughts on the Most Popular Post

😮 Picture me surprised. The post here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction that gets the most hits—a steady number each week—is Myths and Legends, Fairy Tales and Fables … Oh, My.

When I first notice that post was receiving traffic, often from search words, I reread it to see what profundity had captured the minds of blog searchers near and far. What I discovered was … nothing profound at all. A throw-away post, I thought. Some good comments, but nothing controversial. Nothing that led me to explore the topic in more depth. In fact, the comments made me think categorizing fiction into kinds might be a waste of time.

This week I notice that this post had surpassed the previous high traffic article, so I reread it yet again, hoping this time to discover the magical element that brought readers to the topic. Nope. I still don’t see it. If anything, I ask more questions and give few answers.

The one thing that intrigues me about the post is that the definitions for the different fantasy types seem to indicate a differing purpose lurking in the minds of the authors. Was Lewis intentionally passing on lessons in the Narnia stories? Was Tolkien intentionally making a statement about the supernatural as he constructed a history of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings? When Stephen Lawhead embellished the stories of Robin Hood in his King Raven series, was he intending to take the reader away from the old traditional stories for a particular purpose?

In all these types—fairy tales, fables, legends, myths, and add in allegories—it seems the theme is a strong thread holding the stories together. In some cases, the thread is quite plain, while in others it is more subtly woven as a highlight, though it changes the entire tapestry with its presence.

What I’m wondering now is, Are some of the current so-so fantasies missing the mark because they are missing the theme element? Just wondering.

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