by Narelle Atkins
There is a distinction between a Christian who writes fiction from a Christian worldview for the general market and a Christian who writes books that are labelled Christian fiction. A Christian worldview can be very subtle or more pronounced. Readers usually prefer books with strong Christian themes and content to be labelled as Christian or inspirational fiction.
Christian fiction audience
Many Christian fiction writers have a heart for reaching the unsaved. Others want to entertain their readers with wholesome stories that are uplifting and provide hope and encouragement for the Christian journey. Some want to address issues from a Christian perspective and show their characters growing in their faith as they face tough situations. Each writer is different and needs to choose the publishing path that fits with their goals and aspirations.
Christian fiction in North America
The Christian fiction category is dominated by books from North America. Christian fiction readers have certain expectations regarding the content of Christian fiction books. The typical Christian fiction book is usually written from a non-denominational evangelical Christian worldview.
It is expected that Christian characters behave in a manner that upholds Biblical principles. When they fall down and sin, there are negative consequences in the natural world but also grace and forgiveness from God. Christian characters aren’t perfect and they struggle with real issues, irrespective of the genre.
Christian fiction publishers
Publishers of Christian fiction tend to take a conservative stance regarding content. They are running a business and can’t afford to alienate any segment of the Christian fiction readership. If book stores won’t stock their books due to customer complaints about content, this will have a negative impact on the publisher’s bottom line. Publishers want to maximise the size of their market, not shrink their sales.
Pushing the envelope
A lot of the discussion regarding the content of Christian fiction centres on how far writers can push the envelope. Common questions include:
Can you include swearing, bad language, blasphemy, sensuality, violence, blood and gore, paranormal or supernatural elements in any of the Christian fiction genres?
If yes, where is the line in the sand? What is the Biblical foundation for deciding upon the location of this line?
Can you include a love scene in a Christian romance? How far can a Christian romance writer go regarding the description of intimate moments between their characters? Is the bedroom door open, closed, or are those scenes never acceptable in a Christian romance, even if the couple are married?
Are swear/cuss words ever okay in Christian fiction? If yes, which words are acceptable for a Christian audience?
Why are violent or gory scenes okay in certain Christian fiction genres but even a hint of sexual content is often frowned upon in Christian romances? Is this a double standard?
Is the Aust/NZ Christian fiction readership less conservative than the North American readership? Is there a desire for more edgy content from Christian fiction readers in our part of the world? If yes, how can Aust/NZ writers reach this audience without offending the more conservative readers?
Writing guidelines on acceptable content
I write for Love Inspired Heartsong Presents in North America and they provide their authors with a list of guidelines regarding acceptable content. I’m happy to follow all the rules on their list. Why? Because Love Inspired readers trust the brand and know what the books will deliver. I respect my future readers and value their expectations. I don’t want to offend any readers and I would prefer to take a more conservative approach to the content in my books. For example, I’ve heard people complain about bad language in Christian fiction books, but I haven’t seen the complaints about a lack of bad language in Christian books.
My take on the discussion
The reality is my personal opinions as an author regarding what I think is acceptable in Christian fiction aren’t the most important issue. Now I’ve signed a publishing contract, I’m writing to please my future readers. I hope my books will entertain readers with a satisfying and uplifting romance story that encourages readers in their faith and inspires readers to consider faith matters.
Reader expectations of acceptable content
The market dictates the genre expectations of Christian fiction. Writers are wise to heed the voice of Christian fiction readers if they want to sell books to a large audience. Indie authors have more freedom regarding content. The savvy Christian indie authors will find their niche and put content warnings on their books if they sit outside the box. Readers can then choose if they want to ‘go there’ before they purchase the book.
Readers are smart
Readers use their imagination when they read books. For example, a writer might envisage that their character has a tattoo but choose not to mention this detail in the story. Readers who are comfortable with tattooed Christian characters will likely join the dots and envisage a specific character with one or more tattoos. Other readers who dislike tattoos will create their own visual picture and not be offended or thrown out of the story by the mention of a tattoo. The same can be said for the back story of your characters. Give your readers the freedom to create their own version of the back story that sits comfortably within their worldview and doctrinal beliefs.
What content do you find either acceptable or unacceptable in Christian fiction? Is unacceptable content a deal breaker? Would it stop you from reading the story or future books by the author or publisher? Do you like edgy fiction books that push the envelope and go further than the typical Christian fiction book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Narelle blogs regularly with International Christian Fiction Writers. http://internationalchristianfictionwriters.blogspot.com/
She is also a co-founder of the Australian Christian Readers Blog Alliance (ACRBA). http://acrba.blogspot.com
Twitter: @NarelleAtkins https://twitter.com/NarelleAtkins