Evil in Christian Fiction: Make your readers feel it?

One of the creepier and evil of C. S. Lewis's creations: Uncle Andrew Ketterly

A week or so ago I got some interesting feedback on one person’s view of my recent book, Waverly Hall.  This individual had downloaded a sample and found him/herself to be unhappy with my depiction of Meg’s rich, self-centered parents in the opening chapter.  He/she called it “creepy, and not in a good way” that her parents would leave her with a nearly unknown relative like that.  As I was thinking about the issue, I also read through the two posts recently put up by Tobias and Kelly that have hit on similar themes.  It all begs the question of whether or  not it is appropriate to intentionally provoke those kinds of emotions in our readers, especially as authors who are serious Christians (in addition to being Christian authors).  Is there something “wrong” with a book with themes and characters that people truly find disturbing, evil, etc.?*  Should those themes be avoided or couched in such a way as to avoid the “creep out” factor?  I would submit that, handled maturely and properly, there isn’t and we shouldn’t.

Let me emphasize that Waverly Hall isn’t intended to be at all the sort of dark, terrifying experience that Tobias’s Among the Neshilim is.  It is a work of fiction aimed at younger readers that, like Narnia and the Hobbit, can hopefully be enjoyed by all.  That would seem, perhaps, to re-emphasize the original question, though:  Should a book like mine show real, darkness and dysfunction?   The short answer is yes, and that for several reasons.

First, I would submit that in order to help your readers truly understand the light, you have to give them some sense of darkness.  They need to see real evil in order to appreciate true goodness.  Otherwise, they will not understand why the light (or the right) is truly significant, and the choice between right and wrong will have no meaning.  Therefore, the evil in your book should discomfit your readers to a certain extent; it should bother their conscience.  To what extent depends on your audience and your purpose, but if your evil does not speak as clearly as your good, both will seem unrealistic and flat.

Second, I would argue that as Christians writers, it is our calling to point to a higher, larger Truth.  It isn’t our job to cram that Truth down people’s throats or to hide it in embarrassment and pretend that it isn’t there.  We present it and hopefully do so in such a way that it resonates with our audience on a deeper level.  We leave books written by the very best of us–think Lewis and Tolkien first and foremost– having learned a tremendous amount without them ever “teaching” us anything.  When we fail to show real, intimidating evil, we are skewing the picture of reality.  We are, in a sense, lying to our readers.  Of course, I don’t mean to imply by this that all “escapist” literature is inherently sinful, but if we allow it to distract us from the important things, its overindulgence can become so.

Finally, if our our depiction of evil is inappropriately soft, we are doing far more damage than we are good and may in fact be harming our readers.  Through fiction, we have an opportunity to show our readers the consequences of evil choices.  If they see them in our books, they have the chance of avoiding them in real life.  This happens on a smaller scale when we present how actions affect someone’s character, his/her relationships, and life, and on a larger scale when we wrestle with theological issues.

In my book, the specific theme of Meg’s parents’ neglectful behavior isn’t just incidental: it is intentional. I specifically chose to depict Meg’s parents as the near epitome of modern self-idolization and the promotion of personal satisfaction above all else.  I don’t find them “unrealistic” in the least in a culture where parents abort unwanted children on a daily basis, get divorced because they don’t feel like being married anymore, or just shove them into daycare and then full time government school essentially because kids are terribly inconvenient and get in the way of how the parents want to live their lives.  I do find Meg’s parents “creepy” and wrong.  Frankly, I hope you do too.  Why?

  • Because later in the book, when Meg is presented with a picture of how a real family should work, the principles that that make it function are all the clearer.  Without Meg’s parents being who they are, what she learns watching Kolinet and Brehana loses much of its significance.
  • Because the reality is that our society is rejecting the idea of a proper family in favor of radical individualism, irresponsibility, and, often, self worship.  The dynamic would be the same regardless of social class, and I chose to include it.
  • Because I hope you’ll see the effect they’ve had on Meg and the idea of treating a child like that will seem rightly abhorrent.  Perhaps some of Meg’s self-discovery will reveal something to you the easy way, rather than having to learn it first hand.

It has been said that Lucifer’s greatest coup of the modern age was convincing the world he didn’t exist.  We only contribute to that by depicting evil in ways that people can be “fine” and “comfortable” with.  I think we should take a page from Lewis:

Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. […] As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.  (Of Other Worlds, 31)

All that said, I do think we need to be careful about how we depict evil realistically.  More on that later, probably in my next post.


*FYI:  for my purposes here, I’m using “evil” as a generic term for “not good.”  People with good intentions still commit evil acts, and in doing so become “evil” to a certain extent.  While that doesn’t make the “utterly evil” neither does it change the fact that they are making evil choices.  People today–Christians included–like to keep things “stylishly gray” when it comes to morality.  In the grand theological scheme of things, though, I don’t think we gain anything from that and are in fact harmed by pretending its true.  More on that in another post, perhaps.


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on July 21, 2011, in Authors, C. S. Lewis, Children's Literature, Christianity, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth, Narnia, Plot, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Story, Tobias Mastgrave, Universes, Villains, Waverly Hall, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I should report that Brian’s reader gave it a second go and came away more positive, after I had explained some of these very points to her. They are spot on, in my estimation.

  2. This is my own testimony for why “not good” parts of life need to be present in fiction, not glossed over. Your comments about the need to see darkness in order to understand why the light is go good made me think of the first time I saw Disney’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Although I liked the movie (and adored Mr. Tumnus), I remarked to a friend that that movie didn’t go inside the kids’ heads at all and that I really missed that part of the book. I’d never read the books as an adult, and soon I did so to refresh my memory for the next movie.

    Much to my surprise, there *wasn’t* much inner dialogue or monologue from the kids’ perspective. Apparently, my memories of the internal part of the story were generated in my own mind based on the way Lewis presented everything else. I had a much richer experience because Lewis let me see Edmund make bad choices based on his selfishness and not wanting to take responsibility. He also let me see the evil behind what had first been alluring (the White Witch) and the consequences of Ed’s choices (especially as it affected others). Aslan’s steadfastness, mercy and sacrifice would seem maudlin without the Witch’s evil in contrast.

    • That’s an excellent point and an excellent example. I’ve been interested in how the movies play around with the concept of evil. One thing I noticed was that in the book, there are certain creatures that Lewis just treats as evil. Period. Cruels, hags, minotaurs, etc. In the movies, some of these creatures are later depicted as good–the minotaurs in particular.

      That seems to me to be a significant difference. Maybe like implying that no evil is permanent. Of course, they don’t show any ugly evil Narnians switching sides, so that might say something else entirely.

  3. Wayne the Shrink

    Brian, has anyone who told you that ever read the Old Testament? Did they understand what they read? I don’t expect people (read Churchians) to be happy when I follow God’s example, but then they crucified Christ, didn’t they? The professionally religious, I mean, by “they”.

    • Good point. I think that perhaps putting in King James maybe makes it more acceptable to some people.

      It might also be a sign that some of the people wo shout the loudest don’t actually READ their Bibles….

  4. Wayne the Shrink

    Brian, to be honest, I doubt the King James would help at all. After all, it takes more work to understand it then the NIV. People who complain about these things aren’t thinkers, they are reactors and have little or no intellectual basis for their reactions.

    • True. I was actually being sarcastic about KJV. Some people seem to assume that since its so hard to read, uses “thou” and “eths”, anything it says must therefore be “respectable” and have a certain gravity.

      I’ve always wondered what they would do with the repeated references to “he that pisseth against the wall.” That’s a dignified translation right there.

  5. I ran into the question of how much to show in my own novel. My novel is intended for young adults, but I also hope that adults will enjoy it. My king in the novel has a mistress, and I struggled at first with just how to handle it. Frankly, with teens being so over-sexualized by the media, I wanted to make certain that I did not add to the problem. I had to find the balance between portraying something, but also not putting it into terms that could somehow glorify the sin. It was difficult.

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