Sunday, August 22, 2010

"What is that smell?!" Creating CULTURALLY RELEVANT CHARACTERS IN CHRISTIAN FICTION

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According to The American Heritage College Dictionary, the word relevant is derived from the Latin, relevāre, which means: to relieve, raise up.

Although I’m not an artist, this makes me think of an art done in reliefwhere the images are lifted up off the surface to give clarity, dimension, and definition. So… cultural relevance could be interpreted as an accurate definition of a particular branch of society—or—a set of details which bring attention to dimension within a specific culture. It's like a 3-D image for the imagination, delivered in High Def resolution. So... to place that definition of "relief" upon fictional characters we could say:

A culturally relevant character is a character whose behavior, attitudes, and way of expression reflects (or contrasts against) the behaviors, attitudes, and expressions of the culture in which he/she lives.

That sounds simple enough, but when it comes to placing culturally relevant characters within marketable Christian fiction, the concept gets a little muddy.

It's important to note that when speaking of Christian Fiction, even Edgy Christian Fiction, we need to remember that our audience, by definition, is mainly filled with Christian people. I think we have a tendency to lose sight of this from time to time. The Christian culture is just that: its own culture; a unique people group with its own language, customs, mores, and behavioral expectations; a culture filled with numerous and diverse sub-cultures within the larger group (can you say "denomination"?) But, and this is very important, we also need to recognize that these Christians within our reading audience do not live in the bubble-like sanctuary of Christendom. (Hopefully.) They live, work, and interact within a larger cultural sphere; within a society that is often at war against the very mores, behaviors, and expectations they hold dear. Meanwhile, forces within the church could be fostering an "us against them" mentality in regards to the world we've been called to engage. (whew. insert deep breath here....) Therefore, to make characters culturally relevant to a Christian audience we have to respect and honestly relieve, or raise up, that juxtaposition with believable conflicts--and reactions to those conflicts--that clearly show both parts of our characters' (and our readers') worlds.

As an anthropologically astute author you have to study the applicable culture and subculture(s) of your fictional characters as well as the psychographic profile(s) of your intended audience. This means that, as writers of Christian fiction, we must step out of the safety of the church-bubble we so often find ourselves gravitating toward in our daily lives and open ourselves up to experience a friendship with The World and Its Inhabitants. A scary thought indeed. (note the sarcasm, please.) But a necessary step if we want to accurately write about those living apart from Christ, be they believers or unbelievers. Yes, I said believers. Characters living apart from Christ can even be—gasp!—Christians. Saved ain't perfect. You've seen the bumper sticker.

Just because a character is culturally relevant, however, doesn't mean they live within your readers' culture. Creating characters who are both relevant to their time in history as well as to your contemporary audience is, in my opinion, a daunting task; but one which can (and is being) done with excellence by many authors. In Historical and Biblical fiction some edgy authors, such as Jamie Carie (Wind Dancer, among others) and Tosca Lee (Havah: The Story of Eve), have masterfully overcome the challenges of historical accuracy and cultural relevance, creating beautifully wrought plots and characters who are timeless, but placed within a specific time. (Bravo!)

As a writer I must know to whom I write. But in all honesty sometimes I don't have a clue to whom I'm writing until I'm already deeply into the first (or fiftieth) draft. And I must admit that I write largely to... myself. Though it's often a bloody proposition, writing is cheaper than therapy, after all. But when it comes to putting the proposal together for a submission, I need a bigger book-buying audience than that face in the mirror. So... I must ask myself some pretty tough questions.

Will my story appeal to a conservative Christian audience, an evangelical Christian audience, or a post-modern reader who claims allegiance to Christ? And if only one of those, how can I change it to encompass them all--and do I want to? Does my story recognize the uglier aspects of the humanity within individuals within a body of faith? Am I willing to honestly show the traits and behaviors of Christians which are contrary to the Gospel? Am I willing to show SIN within CHRISTIANS--and juxtapose it against the morality within the unsaved?

If so, then I might be creating some culturally relevant characters.

Most writers (and publishers) of conventional Christian fiction would tell you that there are specific parameters which must be followed in order to avoid offending a Christian audience. The overall message of these traditional books, regardless of setting, is this: "Everything just falls into place when we come to Jesus, honey." Which, to me, is a little bit like greeting my fellow Christian with the shocking exclamation of, "Dude, what's wrong with you? You're still struggling with sin? Yeesh. Get it together, man!" In the end of those elder-board approved, traditional Christian stories everyone is happy and everyone gets saved. Just like in real life.

Right.

It amazes me that we can sell so much of this crap to Christians. Oh, I get it. Christians like to be comfortable in their faith and that sort of writing sells well to the well-churched masses. And don't get me wrong--I love to see people come to Christ. But why are we selling evangelistic messages to people who've already walked the aisle? While I can believe that readers can be entertained by such fiction, I can't believe it resonates within their hearts and lives--because it is not relevant to their situation. Even if the salvation message is well delivered I probably wouldn't loan a book like that to an unsaved friend because it's (often) written in such a goody-goody style that I have to scrape sugar off the cover just to avoid attracting ants to my bookshelf! Anyone who's been a Christian five-minutes past the "glow period" of salvation knows that the Christian life is fraught with temptation and pain which we can (and often do not) avoid. Propagating goody-goody happy-happy Christian fiction--irrelevant Christian fiction--only serves to insulate the reader from the possibility--and beautiful agony --of transformative revelation.

Kool-aid doesn't kill cancer cells, but chemo does. And you can't get chemo while admiring a bed of roses from the backseat of a buggy in Lancaster County.

Yes, I'll admit that there is entertaiment value--yes VALUE--in irrelevant fiction. There can be a beautiful thing called escapism found in the entertaining fluff of a perfect world, and that will always keep "that sort of fiction" viable within the Christian marketplace. I will not deny that there is a time and place for insulation. (see previous post) But there is also a time to swan dive right off the steeple and spill some honest ink upon the page. That's why we need to create culturally relevant characters. And that's why edgy authors are emerging within the Christian culture as a force to be reckoned with.

Edgy authors realize that Christians have a lot of junk--and the power of a culturally relevant character's story can help to sort it out.

A few mainstream pubbers are getting the message, but so far the e-book industry is where we are more likely to come across these authors . E-book publishers and other small "presses" are more willing to take risks with "edgy" Christian authors than the big boys who earn their bread and butter among the bonnets and buggies and fluffy meringue. The authors who are taking risks--taking their writing to the edge (and sometimes past it!) of the line-in-the-sand drawn by traditional CBA expectations have discovered that culturally relevant characters can be found across time and setting and worldscape. A story can be sweet and light romance or sassy chic lit and still have culturally relevant characters (read Sandra Byrd’s French TwistTrilogy or the novels of Camy Tang.) The story can take place in another world (Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia’s Colors), another time (Liz Curtis Higgs’s Lowlands of Scotland series), or even another planet (Kathy Tyers’s Firebird Trilogy) and still have culturally relevant characters.

Cultural relevance is about honesty, transparency, vulnerability, and sometimes has a little stank on it--but it's a familiar aroma if it's relevant. Cultural relevance leaves a little bit of fat on the bone when it tosses the meat on the table because that's where the flavor's at. It doesn't necessarily have to be deep and life-changing (though I love when it is), it just has to be real... in a fictional sort of way.

Actions. Consequences. Sin. Mercy. Risks. Rewards.

Reality.

Sometimes my characters (both Christian and non-Christian) use “bad” language, behave in deplorable ways, break vows, break commandments, and live in denial about it all. And so do their friends. Does that sound familiar? Sometimes life stinks, and we stink, and our faith walk absolutely reeks with hypocrisy and disingenuiness. And it can be quite painfull--though sometimes pretty fun--to eek that stink out upon the page.

To make nicey-nice out of ugly issues or to insulate a Christian character within a Christians-only society is to portray a human creature in a way that denigrates their God-given free will (and the consequences of that free will) as well as the Great Commission. Some edgy authors I’ve found who portray morally conflicted characters honestly (and with excellence) in a contemporary setting are Kristen Heitzmann (The Michelli Family series is a favorite of mine),Tosca Lee (Demon: A Memoir), and Christa Parrish (Home Another Way.)

Regardless of the time period, sub-genre, or setting of a novel, an edgy author of Christian fiction will avoid allowing her characters to tip-toe around the pristine exterior edges of Christendom and, instead, make those characters stomp or crawl through the sanctuary with muddy and blood-soaked boots.

Or turn around and walk the other way.

Anyone who has approached the throne of mercy can tell you that the way to the altar is not a bright, smooth pathway paved in doilies with little birdies singing “Oh, How I Love Jesus” from the lofty rafters. No, the mercy path is a shadowy, rutted alleyway littered with shards of shattered stained glass--and the only music playing is the frantic rhythm of your own filthy heart.

Been there. Done that. Will do it again and again, I’m sure.

The author who strives to be culturally relevant in his/her writing of Christian fiction knows this and works to portray his/her characters in such a way that the reader identifies with the characters—cuz sometimes she smells the same stink on herself. And, also, the same perfume of hope. That is where fiction mirrors truth.

To state it simply, creating culturally relevant characters shows that Christians still need Christ.

Ba-da-bing.

By creating these characters within our fiction we can work together with the Holy Spirit to lessen the human-inflicted distance between those in need of mercy-- and the Cross where they can find it.

Thanks for stopping by this 2nd-to-last stop on the Edgy Christian Fiction Lovers Summer Blog Tour 2010. I welcome your comments!

Don't forget to stop by Donna Fletcher's blog on Wednesday for the final stop on the tour!

Now go read a book or something!

**an additional note: Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010: Just found a blogger fluke! I saved the first draft of this post on Wednesday and, for some reason when I posted it at 6:30 am this morning (Sunday), it posted for last Wednesday, with any number of odd posts in between, so my apologies to anyone who visited earlier today and did not find the post in the correct place! And my apologies to those of you who, in looking further down my blog, find it repeated under last Wednesday's date! It was posted for the first time this morning around 6:30a.m.

16 comments:

Lisa Lickel said...

Wow, Shawna, you brought up a lot of great points. Everything from how we potray a culture that is developing in Havah to moving past and outside la-la cba buggy faire. Someday edgy will catch up commercially to sweet.

Lisa
Meander Scar: a story of finding home

Keith Madsen said...

Thanks, Shawna for an excellent post. Your write with passion and eloquence. One issue we need to deal with concerning "culturally-relevant" characters is that we have SO MANY cultures. There are many non-Christian cultures: older Southern Americans; younger East Coast Americans; Northern Ethnic Americans...etc. And there are just as many Christian cultures in our society (Sherryle wrote of African-American -- sometimes called "urban" fiction a few weeks ago). Then add in I think there is a whole culture of people who see themselves in between our Christian and more secular cultures. If Christians think that non-Christian culture is making "war" on Christians, then most of these would think of themselves as "Switzerland"! The problem with so much traditional Christian fiction is that it is written from the perspective that there is only ONE Christian culture -- the statistical average conservative Christian who goes to Christian bookstores. Books are written and marketed with that myth in mind. The family of Christ, in this country and throughout the world, is so much richer than that! I applaud all Christian writers who are edgy enough to write with that in mind.

S. R. Van Ness said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shawna Williams said...

Great post, Shawna! You covered a ton of stuff! Very thorough and spot on.

S. R. Van Ness said...

Oops, deleted my own comment while trying to add to it!

Thanks, Lisa & Keith. And Keith, I agree with you--the American church and the larger international fellowship of believers is a rich pooling of subcultural diversity. I went back in and did a little editing to clarify better. My eyes weren't as astute from 430a.m-6:30am this morning when I did the "final edit" before posting!

I often feel like Switzerland, myself. :-)

Keith Madsen said...

The world needs more Switzerlands! :)

Joy Tamsin David said...

Way to go, Shawna! Great post.

I loved Jamie Carie's Wind Dancer. That book really stuck with me long after I put it down.

I just got Havah in the mail this week. I can't wait to read it.

I'm going to check out some of the other authors you mentioned too.

S. R. Van Ness said...

I do apologize for the crazy paragraph formatting. i tried and tried to fix it, but the crazy thing wouldn't cooperate. Hope no one needs a dramamine after reading!
-S.R.V.

Anonymous said...

great job mom! :) i <3ed the post. good work kuz i know how hard you worked!! :)
-lane

Michelle Sutton said...

Great post! Yeah, my characters in all of my books still need Christ. Is that wrong (just kidding, sheesh!) Anyway, I love the points you made. I think cardboard stories are boring. As much as I read I need something different every time. Make those characters seem real and I'll love the book. One awesome story I recently read that was edgy and very realistic with even a spiritual twist to it was The Gathering Storm by Bodie and Brock Thoene. Sheesh, that book made my heart hurt and sometimes sing, too. I loved it. :)

Debra E. Marvin said...

Good stuff to think about. I often wonder, 'who am I writing for? who is my audience?' And why?
Often I think of people in my life who do not have a personal relationship with Christ and how my story might touch their lives.

I don't know if we are to just write and if the story is strong enough to be published, let God direct it to someone who needs it, or to have an audience in mind.

maybe a bit of both? As much as I enjoy writing, it's hard work. If I had no driving need to do this in the hopes it can be used by God, than I'd lose a lot of initiative.

Nike Chillemi said...

The article is fantastic, right on!!! And so are the comments.

I think I write to Switzerland. I'm increasingly feeling I write to red-letter post-modern readers, and to those who are Christian friendly.

Both of these don't want anything sugar coated. Bother of these readerships know Christians commit sin. They will be turned off by any novel that tries to sugar coat that or sweep it under the run.

David A. Bedford said...

If one's purpose is never to offend your readers, then one is an insignificant writer. Christians cannot be a subculture nor can we be simply a part of culture. The downfall of American Christianity has been the identification with the culture. Christians must relate meaningfully with the larger culture we belong to and challenge it. All writers are supposed to deal with universal topics of concern to anyone. If anything makes a book Christian, it is because the author is a believer.

S. R. Van Ness said...

There is a difference between a Christian Writer and a writer of Christian Fiction. While both camps of authorship may claim the same core belief system, they do not (usually) claim the same publishers, agents,genres, marketing thrust, and audience. (Though there is some overlap, of course.)

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Great discussion, Shawna. So in the end, it really just comes down to creating honest, well-developed characters, doesn't it? I was so glad to see Liz Curtis Higgs' Scottish series mentioned--one of my favorites.

Janalyn Voigt said...

Thanks for words well written, Shawna, and important.