Lying, murder, torture, assassinations, lust — as Christians called to be a light in the world, should we touch on these darker aspects of life in our writing or should our books be clean and full of light? Should a character swear? Is it wrong to have a character be immoral? What about the sympathetic thieves or the hardened interrogators? As Christians, we want to write inspiring stories. But is an inspiring story the same thing as a squeaky clean story, and what does ‘clean Christian writing’ even mean?
A Christian focus
When you sit down to write, think about it this way. As Christians, what are we trying to focus on and portray? Philippians 4:8 reminds us to think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, and are of virtue and praise. This includes what we watch, listen to, read, and, of course, what we write. So, everything should be fuzzy and light and happy and hopeful, right?
The light means nothing if one hasn’t seen the darkness. There is only hope when there is doubt and fear. There can only be salvation when there is something to be saved from. A (what I call) ‘fuzzy clean story’ that doesn’t touch on any of the darker aspects of life will be greatly lacking in power. We live in a dark world, and unless the book we read also touches the darkness, it won’t be able to touch us with its presentation of the light. The question to keep in mind as you write is what is your focus on? Is it on hope or love or courage? Is it on light and the glory of God? Remember your focus, then use both the light and the dark to weave a powerful picture for your readers.
We need to show darkness
What exactly is darkness? The definition is a bit subjective but, for this article, it includes everything that isn’t good. Sin, the horrors of war, the sorrows of life—they are a part of the world and so they should be a part of our books. Because how is one to show the glorious light if there is no darkness to contrast it with?
The power of light comes because there is darkness. Our writing ought to reflect reality and the reality is that the world is broken and hurting. It’s not ‘clean’ and unless we can portray it correctly, we won’t be able to bring across the glory of the hope that we have.
In stories, as in the world, there are bad people doing bad things, and there’s nothing wrong with showing this darkness. Just make sure evil is clearly shown as evil and is judged accordingly. We may watch through the eyes of a villain as he plans an assassination or a robbery but, as the plots and subplots interweave, don’t leave your final portrayal of evil as enthralling; show what needs to be shown, and show the results.
Our goal isn’t to paint a fuzzy glowing world of ‘could bes’. Nor is it to shift a story as close to the edge of darkness as we can without stepping over the line. The point is to glorify God through our writing. As Christians, we have a duty to not only show the power of the light but to show the power of the darkness and how the light can conquer it. People live in a fallen world. Unless your writing reflects reality in the basic emotions and situations, your theme will lack power. If something is horrible, then show it as horrible, not as glorious or painless.
But there are limits, right? A strong book will not be ‘fuzzy clean’ in the sense that it will touch on evil and darkness, but what about the other (fairly subjective term) of a clean book as one without swearing or sensuality or gore? In this sense, one should try to keep their books clean. So how do we show the evil and the darkness without being crass? Can we show the dirt and still have a clean book?
We don’t need every dark detail
Again, back to the focus. What are you focusing on? Yes, darkness and the dirtiness needs to be shown, be it the sin in the life of a character or the depravity of a society. Every detail, however, does not need to be laid out.
The amount of detail you add into your story will depend on a number of things, including your own convictions and the age and sensibilities of your audience. There are a few basic guidelines on some of the main points you can keep in mind, however.
Take violent scenes. Is the focus on torn bodies and how much blood there is, or is the focus on the scene as a whole and the point of the scene? There may be a situation where your theme or character arc or plot calls for a brutal reveal of some act of violence, but normally the situation will not call for graphic details. We generally don’t need to see vultures tearing at the dead in great detail. Having them flap into the air as the character approaches is generally enough to bring your point across unless there is a reason for you to paint the picture as starkly as possible. A touch of subtle subtext will bring the horror and power of the scene across much better than a blatant description in any case.
Then there is cursing. There has been plenty of debate on this, and maybe one day I’ll write an article on it. In fantasy, or even my futuristic stories, I’ll make up exclamations for some characters to use (if it fit with them and their situation—Haydn in Shadows of the Hersweald, for example; one doesn’t need to add these words just for the sake of it). I do, however, avoid using real life swear words for two reasons. One: the audience I write for would not appreciate it, so I am not going to use it. Two: the more I am in contact with certain words, the more they spring to my mind on their own. So I tend to try to not read or watch things with too much swearing in them, not because it bothers me on a personal level (most of the time) but because I don’t want to be thinking those words.
Then there are sensual scenes. There are parts of life that ought to be portrayed and included, if need be, for the theme of the book—be it showing the horrors of war or depravity of a character or a society so one is better able to mirror the light with the darkness. At the same time, some things don’t need a lot of detail. Even if characters are married, I don’t need details of everything they do beyond a kiss or an embrace (and I don’t need half a page describing a kiss. Please). Implications, yes, but most of the scene is generally best left to the reader’s imagination. Showing a character leaving a bed chamber in the morning, or perhaps slipping into bed at night is as far as I’d probably go.
Finally, something that most Christians would agree black. Witchcraft. There are also ‘dark’ religions in a fantasy world or almost any kind of detailed pagan or unchristian rituals. While a dark or otherwise unchristian religion might be part of a story, and while some scenes might even be shown involving said religion, I don’t think it’s or wise to go into deep details about rituals. This is especially true when you’re writing about something that is real as opposed to a fantasy, and even more when dealing with satanic cults. Researching such things for accuracy will do little to contribute in keeping your mind on that which is pure and holy, and the same applies to those reading the scenes. I’m not saying to gloss over it. You want to show evil in its full darkness, but at the same time, remember your focus in writing. Your focus should be the light. Yes, darkness will be present. But details of gruesome rituals are not necessary, and neither opening one’s self to all the details of spiritual darkness.
Remember your focus
You want to write for the glory of God. This doesn’t mean writing fuzzy clean fiction that never touches on sin or evil. This means portraying the good and the bad for what they are and showing the power of the truth. At the same time, you don’t want a book that is crass and full of filth.
In the end, there really aren’t many hard and fast lines I can draw across every author’s writing about how much of something should be added in a story. Some of it will be a matter of personal conviction, such as my own stand on swearing and dark religions. Some things will depend on circumstances of the book and the age range of the readers.
What there is no question about, is that you do need to show the darkness of the world in your stories if you wish to bring across the light in all its power. Show what evil is, what it does, how it harms others, and how the hope and the light can shine through all the brighter. And above all, as you write, remember where your focus lies.