By Christine Sunderland
I am currently reading a novel with a fascinating historical setting and colorful characters. It has received rave reviews, become a bestseller and book club favorite. And yet, the characters seem shallow. What is missing?
I considered the plot, which lacks direction. The action doesn’t climb to an anticipated climax. I asked, What drives these characters? What moves them forward in the story? For that matter, what is the story? Is this a novel or a painting? Each character is interesting, certainly, but where is the dramatic tension that gives depth?
It seemed to me that what is lacking is a great and clear desire, a necessary need. Is the main character on a meaningful quest? Is he being chased by a diabolical enemy? Is he trying to survive, mentally or physically, after flood or famine, heartbreak or betrayal? What is the problem that needs to be solved, the question that needs to be answered?
I recalled writers’ workshops where the instructor asks, “What does the character want?” And when we’ve established his desire, we ask, “What must he do to get what he wants?” And lastly, “How many obstacles can we place in his path to frustrate, challenge, or prevent his success?” The same questions would apply to the secondary characters and their plotlines.
I considered our own plotlines, our paths through this life. As Christians, we have a path to perfection, for we are commanded to be perfect by Christ. When we stumble and fall, Christ raises us up. We repent, turn in a new direction, a stronger and better direction. With admission of fault and acceptance of forgiveness, we progress to perfection, to become truly who we are meant to be.
As Christian novelists, we have a powerful tool that can drive the narrative of our stories in a Christian direction. Our characters may have wrong desires and, as they reach for them, they fall. But when they fall, they admit and confess those wrong choices, those sins. Rising, they seek and embrace better desires, ones placing them on the path of perfection.
These characters need not be Christians in order to walk this path, to follow the light through the darkness. The movement itself will quietly train readers in an unconscious pattern of thinking, creating Christian echoes of thought and action. Such echoes will be reminders of an earlier culture of faith and responsibility, powerful echoes to infuse our present culture of relativism. For today all is acceptable, all manner of deed and lifestyle is approved, encouraged, for only present pleasure counts. Judgment is taboo, considered hateful and silenced. So the Christian narrative, that arc of striving to be perfect, to become responsible adults in God’s realm on this earth, according to his plan, recalls the ethos of another time and witnesses to our mad and anarchic world.
In my latest novel, The Fire Trail (eLectio, 2016), four characters grapple with our current culture in different ways. In a sense the culture is a character itself, one embodied in a drug-crazed murderer on the Fire Trail above UC Berkeley. The murderer drives the action, and the characters must survive his increasing threat. And mirroring this exterior movement, each character is threatened interiorly by the culture and must survive its incivility, amorality, and lawless tyranny. Gone are beauty, truth, liberty and love. Gone is a path leading to perfection in today’s culture.
We must remind our culture of the Christian narrative, the plot of all plots, that we are born, we stumble, we repent, we get up, we are transfigured and transformed, we step forward again, until we are finally perfected by the love of God.
In the end, it is the plot of perfect, divine love that drives our stories. For it is only through the desire to be what God commands us to be, according to his perfect law of liberty, defined by his abundant grace, that we reach for the stars, that we become the creatures we are intended to become, all included in his umbrella of grace.
Without a path of perfection, a plot that challenges and changes our characters, pages become static, characters flat, no matter the setting and the quirkiness. As Christian authors of fiction, we alone can give to our world this great arc of grace, this perfect movement of faith, hope, and charity, imbued with truth, goodness, and beauty.
Christine Sunderland has authored six award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set in England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene and the historicity of the Resurrection, set in Rome and Provence, and The Fire Trail (www.eLectiopubishing.com) about the collapse of Western culture, set at UC Berkeley. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union (www.AmericanChurchUnion.com). Visit Christine at www.ChristineSunderland.com (website and blog).