Suffering Grace-fully

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by Christine Sunderland

I’m writing my next novel (working title, The Fire Trail), a story about the “medication generation,” hooking up, love and marriage, sexuality today, jungle culture versus civilization. I collected a thick file of news clippings, Internet printouts, and quotations from relevant reading. I revisited my first books on craft – creating characters, plotting plot.

To develop my characters’ backstories, I tried a new technique. I wanted to care about them, so that readers would care as well. Each of the main characters – Jessica and Sebastian – wrote their backstories first-person. What did they want? What did they love? What were their fears, hopes, dreams? What were the painful events in their lives that molded them into who they were in the Fall of 2014?

Jessica, my twenty-two year old heroine, explained about her twin sisters and their tragic nosedives with drugs and abortion, about a theory of sex she learned in a family therapy group that helped her to control her own life, about the Love and Fidelity Network she discovered on her college campus, which she nicknamed the Chastity Club. Now, as a grad student in History, she thought her life was taking some kind of shape, her love-life carefully bounded by her theories of love, sex, and marriage. The tragic deaths of her father and sister kept her theory alive and active; she would not forget them. Her mother, Carrie, was brokenhearted and never the same again.

Sebastian, twenty-six, described himself as an only child, bullied in school for being overweight. He told of his mother, Anna, overweight too, who loved to cook, and his father, Luke, who worked in a local grocery store. Sebastian grew up with books and music and a strong desire to experience transcendence. He learned to play tennis with his father, and when they lost the extra pounds together, he reinvented himself at a new high school. He still escaped into words and notes and his college years pulled him into an English degree (and piano playing) then a Master’s, and soon, he knew he would be teaching English somewhere. But when his father left his mother (still overweight), he vowed he would never do that. He would be truly in love, committed.

These mini-biographies highlighted the importance of crucial points, cross-roads, in each person’s life – points of suffering, points of the cross, points of stigmata. As Christians, we know we live in a fallen world and that selfishness – Eden’s old sin – causes suffering. We also know that a loving God gives us free will, and just so, as creators of our own creations, we give our characters free will. Inevitably, they act selfishly; inevitably, they – or others close to them – suffer or cause suffering. They are victims or aggressors. They feel pain, but through pain learn to love.

All good stories involve conflicts to resolve. As Christian authors we offer hopeful resolutions. My recent novel, The Magdalene Mystery, sends Kelly Roberts on a quest for the true Mary Magdalene. Kelly enters the world of New Testament scholarship, considers the veracity of the Gospels, the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed. She discovers a new way of thinking, a structure of belief that explains, heals, and redirects her toward a truer and therefore more real life. Christ offers resurrection through his crucifixion. He heals our wounds with his wounds. He raises us with him, to him. Just so, as Christian authors, we offer to the world a new vision of suffering. Our characters grow through suffering; grace acts upon them as they search for truer lives. We offer the antidote to Eden’s Fall, to the world’s pain. We offer a way of thinking and believing, a grace-full worldview.

9781602901261-Perfect.inddChristine Sunderland is author of five award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, and The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene, set in Rome and Provence (all OakTara). She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union. Visit Christine at (website and blog) or

Comments 0

  1. Dear Christine: Thank for another well-written, and enjoyable article. I am looking forward to reading your next book. I was intrigued by your idea of writing biographies of your main character.
    Also, in you article you mentioned that you ‘went back to first books on craft’ about Characters and Plotting. May I ask, the titles of these books? Thanks for your courtesy.
    God bless you and happy writing.
    Rev. Donald True (retired)

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