*Guest post by Rosslyn Elliot*
So do I. Which is a pretty ambitious statement for a writer of historical romance, so I’d better explain before I sound like a total fool.
Novels may help fight huge social evils like human trafficking, abuse of women, genocide, and racism. Or, they may fight little social evils like cattiness, covetousness, and cold hearts. Well-written novels can be part of our encouragement toward righteousness. They sow seeds of compassion for others.
Novels speak in private, in the quiet of a reader’s bedroom. They can start inner dialogue that opens hearts and minds. But they are not sermons. Little is more irritating to a reader than finding the novel she just purchased is actually a tract in disguise. It’s my story readers want, not my longwinded opinion.
Christian writers inherit a rich tradition of world-changing novels. In 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Stowe’s story affirmed the human dignity of African-Americans held in slavery in the United States, and exposed the cruelty of their enslavement. One novel changed this country forever.
Before Stowe changed America, Charles Dickens changed England. Writing at the height of the Industrial Revolution, he depicted the awful predicament of the poor and orphaned with such power that we still use the adjective Dickensian to mean a scene of abject urban poverty, often involving children. He was the most popular writer of his time.
There is not the remotest chance that my novels will have the impact of the novels of Stowe or Dickens. But by showing courageous characters in difficult circumstances, I hope I may help at least a few readers feel more courageous and capable of making the world around them better in some small way. Even a love story can be about something bigger than two people.
So, if I want my novels to make the world a better place, even in a tiny way, I have to tell a story, not lecture or moralize. Here are the most important things I’ve learned:
Avoid as much as possible any overt discussion of religion or politics.
An instant turn-off for a reader is characters who ‘teach’ one another or debate a controversial issue in order to make an author’s point. Is this really necessary? Is there no possible way this could be shown through story rather than told in dialogue? And if not, is this really novel-worthy material?
Don’t use stereotypes.
I once read a novel in which a Republican man was completely villainous, and a Democrat completely virtuous. That single authorial choice made me want to slam the book shut, and I would have felt the same if the political roles were reversed. I don’t appreciate it when an author’s biases show through that clearly. That’s a medieval morality play, not a novel. I think it’s better to avoid identifying one’s characters with political terms or buzzwords, if at all possible. Let them appeal as human beings first.
Show both examples and counter-examples.
Harriet Beecher Stowe shows slaveholders who are cruel tyrants, and also slaveholders who are benevolent and loving toward their slaves. It makes her story deeper and more powerful when she acknowledges through her narrative that moral, kind persons owned slaves, but their noble intentions did not make slavery itself acceptable.
How about you? Do you hope your novels change the world in some way? Or do you just want to provide a few hours of relaxation and pleasure to readers?
Rosslyn Elliott grew up in a military family and relocated frequently, attending nine schools before her high school graduation. She attended Yale University, where she earned a BA in English and Theater. She worked in business and as a high school teacher before returning to study at Emory University, where she earned a Ph.D. in English in 2006. Her study of American literature and history inspired her to pursue her lifelong dream of writing fiction. She lives in the Southwest, where she homeschools her daughter and works in children’s ministry.
Thank you for your words of wisdom, Rosslyn!