May 9, 2013

Ventriloquy and Belief

pinterest: tempus regina
I finished a book the other day.  (Surprise!)  The Daughter of Time was one of those books that crept up on my consciousness for several months before I got around to actually buying it, and from buying it to reading it.  I don't think I had heard about it before this year, but I understand it is a pretty popular and famous work: a landmark book in the mystery genre, in fact. It is, I think, either the last or the second-to-last book in her Inspector Alan Grant series, the most celebrated, and takes place entirely within the walls of a hospital room.  (Which, by the by, gets quite old.)

The main character is a Scotland Yard Inspector, laid up for several weeks after an injury incurred on the job.  To keep him engaged while he's lying on his back staring at the ceiling, a friend brings him a collection of portraits from historical cold cases - everyone from Mary, Queen of Scots to Louis XVII, the boy-king.  Only one of them, however, catches Grant's eye: a painting of Richard III.  Intrigued by the story of how the wicked uncle murdered his innocent nephews, Grant begins to conduct a police investigation from his hospital bed.  An acquaintance assists by conducting all the research, and the story progresses methodically through back-and-forth conversation between the two men.

Unsurprisingly, this also gets old.  It would be bound to get old in any story that takes place within the same four walls with - let me think - one main character and only about five other people who regularly drift through to talk.  But I realized not far into the book that part of the oldness had to do less with those factors and more with the story not actually being a story.  It is a vindication of Richard III, plain and very simple.  Now, I happen to take an interest in Richard and could follow Tey's arguments with relative equanimity; but even agreeing, I was extraordinarily peeved by the authoress' tactic.  Because it becomes apparent as soon as Richard III's portrait shows up that what you, reader, are getting is Tey's opinion en toto, as articulated by Character 1 and Character 2 with occasional prompting from Random Other Peoples.  It isn't a novel, it's just, well, historical preachiness.

The Daughter of Time is an extreme case, and I would go so far as to wager that Tey intended for it to be.  The trouble, however - the trouble of an invasive author, if I could put it that way - is one that crops up and should crop up before every writer.  We've all heard books described as "too preachy."  It's usually applied to Christian fiction, and it is all too easy to stick our noses in the air and determine that people only say that because there is no longer a belief in objective truth.  Which is very probably the case, but does nothing to alleviate the issue as far as good writing is concerned.

We all have, or ought to have, core beliefs.  If we think we don't, it is only that we don't know what those core beliefs are; and at that point we had either better not write, or better keep our writing private, for the world doesn't need anymore hem-hah-ing and prevaricating.  So I'll start with the statement that we all have beliefs, and that on some level, we desire our writing to reflect that.  We hardly want readers thinking we condone abortion, or adultery, or marriage between believers and unbelievers, when we think just the opposite.  And oftentimes we not only don't want readers getting the wrong impression, but we also have an overdeveloped desire for them to get the right one.  As in, I-must-cram-the-Gospel-Jesus-and-the-Bible-in-if-I-want-to-honor-God-SOHELPME.

It is not a wholly unreasonable wish, and I am not here to tell writers exactly what balance to strike.  But if we desire to write a good story (which, I believe, is just as God-honoring and perhaps even more so than working in the Gospel inappropriately), we must be more attune to the characters themselves and not so quick to override their individual personalities.  We must let them be who they are.  Sayers mentioned this several times in regard to her famous character Lord Peter Wimsey, whom her Christian readers badgered her to "save" - and she ignored them, because it was not part of the character.  In a lesser sense, this is also true whenever a character of ours begins talking, especially about anything theological or philosophical.  Obviously we don't want to be seen as wrong ourselves, or propagate wrong-thinking, so we are more likely to switch into the mode of writing exactly what we believe to be truth in as clear a way as possible.  We do a little ventriloquy act through our characters, and an astute reader can tell.

Too often we think that in our writing we've got to try to evangelize not just the characters, but the readers - even though it is biblically clear that God ordained that work to be done through His Word preached, not through fiction.  Our business is to craft a good story, to let the characters think and say what they would think and say "if free-moving and placed within the literary field."  If that means that they think and say something wrong, well, then they shall.  It is my opinion that our core beliefs will show through the story in some manner; it just shouldn't be through ventriloquy.

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”
g. k. chesterton


  1. Wow. Chesterton smacked it soundly on the head. And you did too. This was something I have instinctively *felt* but had never put into exact words. There is nothing worse than a book that is a puppet. Nasty cabbages.

    1. least they say Chesterton was the originator of the statement; I haven't read the book it purports to come from, myself.

      And very nasty cabbages indeed.

  2. Amen! Nothing wrong with playing out your thoughts and feelings and beliefs in a book but for the love of literature no baseball bats please!

    1. I'm not even sure it's so much the idea of baseball bats as it is the fake taste of the words. We may not be trying to batter anyone; we may only be trying to get it right. Which is good. But not good. Which makes it very confusing. I only know that a character must be who a character is, and that somehow or other, we've got to get used to it. I don't think I have yet!

  3. "...we desire to write a good story (which, I believe, is just as God-honoring and perhaps even more so than working in the Gospel inappropriately)..."

    That's a really good way of putting it. Part of my developing an identity as a writer including recognizing that not every story I wrote would (or was required to) incorporate an overt Gospel message—although I think my personal beliefs do show through somewhere in what I write, whether I plan it or not. The way I look at it, I always set out to write that good story, and the Christian element will work itself in if the story needs it.

    It's easy to look at it that way when writing something lighter. But you know, I still catch myself worrying on occasion, when working on a story with more serious themes, "But if I'm a Christian writer, shouldn't there be some kind of Christian element in here?" I do believe you're right, though; if it's forced, it can be worse than the omission.

  4. That's a thought-provoking post, Abigail! I feel that it isn't so much the incorporating of a Gospel message in a story that ruins it and comes across as ventriloquy and being preachy, rather it is when the writer himself is not living/breathing the faith in Christ and in God's Word that there is an almost repulsiveness about the sharing of the faith in fiction. I know this for myself, that when I go through 'dry' spells in my Christian life where I find it hard to pray and read God's Word and get drawn into worldly pursuits that I struggle the most with the element of faith in my writing. Almost in guilt I feel the obligation that what I write should be Christian and 'spiritual'. It usually ends up being insipid at best, and rather dry if not altogether forced and superficial.

    But when I hold unto the Foundation of my faith, cling to Christ, and spend time meditating on the Word, delighting in it and praying something changes in how I write. I find that I don't then try to force down the Gospel message - I might still struggle, still feel that my words are inadequate and earthly - but somehow, my faith becomes tangible and genuine in a simple way through the lives of the characters and even in the things that seem to have little to do with my beliefs within the context of the tale. It becomes blessed, and touched somehow; often a grace is there in it which I may not find when I struggle in my own efforts to light my words with my Christian beliefs. For instance, in Tolkien's writings his focus seemed on the ancient mythologies, the languages and world he created; he did not 'evangelize' or 'preach' his faith it would seem. But whenever I read any of his writings, I can see how much the author had immersed himself in God's Word and I cannot but think that in his personal life he lived his faith deeply. There is so much of Christianity in his works without it hardly ever being openly mentioned. Hope this makes sense!

    1. (finishing my comment because it was a huge one and blogger wouldn't accept it...)

      So far, I've felt that God has been guiding my writing and training me so that it is specifically focused on meeting a need in a believing Christian audience - rather than purely 'evangelizing'. I truly believe there is a need for good literature (and I mean 'good' in the sense of literary as well as moral) that enriches the Body of Christ and strengthens them to live a life devoted to the Lord Jesus in holiness and love and daily dying to self. In suffering. I have read and watched a few, not many or popular, that have been like this (The Keys of the Kingdom, Ben Hur, The Bronze Bow, Nothing Else Matters, Sunshine Country, Secret Believers Friends Forever and even books like Jenny's and yours etc) that have greatly touched and influenced my life and faith but that are Christian. One day, maybe, (especially if I attempt the fantasy genre) I might write for a non-Christian audience; in that setting I would be inclined to just write a good story and let my faith be but the gentle breathing behind-the-scene of my pen and not the focus a bit like Tolkien did ;), or you now with your newer novels. I am still learning and discovering this, so it is good to talk about it, isn't it! Like, last week I was going through a real struggle after having a debate with some friends about the topic of God's love to unbelievers and the ungodly - and if God 'hated' the wicked and are we called to do the same, vs. the passages that speak of God's love for all men and His goodness and forgiveness... I was really quite in a confused state of mind till I talked with my Dad who helped me so much through going through God's Word with me but also brought my attention to a scene in Lewis' Perelandra and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings that exemplified a truth I was struggling to accept, while at the same time it was balanced with watching the two Les Miserables movies, seeing the message of love and grace - it was amazing to see how much 'fiction' helped me see an example of truths of Scripture that I was learning. So really the gist of it is, sometimes being open and obvious with the faith and beliefs you hold will not be preachy or cliche - sometimes, it can be really deep and beautifully done.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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