Monday, November 15, 2010

So You Want Your Novels to Change the World?

*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.
Visit Rosslyn's Website
Visit Rosslyn's Blog
Thank you for your words of wisdom, Rosslyn!


  1. Hi Wendy and Rossilyn! Great post! I really like your last point, Rossilyn. It's always interesting to see a counter-example to a stereotype. It really does add depth and color to the story.

  2. I love reading and writing a story that takes me on a character's journey. If it's a great book, I find that my life has been changed for the better AND I've been entertained.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

  3. Hi Rossilyn!!! *waves* I'd like to think I was writing something that was going to shape the world or at least one person's world, but alas I'm afraid I'm just a bit of entertainment to distract them from the more important things at hand. ;)

  4. Oh, I do want to change the world -- or to at least rock the worlds of some of my readers. But as I'm sure Rosslyn knows, when you step beyond the "safe" boundaries into the space where you challenge the reader (and of course change rarely happens without confronting someone's presuppositions), then you as a writer set yourself up for criticism from those who don't want to be challenged and refuse to be changed.

    I just got a letter from a reader who was given my novel Latter-day Cipher by a friend. The letter writer told me that after reading the back copy on the book, she refused to read the book.

    A cautionary tale -- if you take a stand, some people will refuse to read simply because you take a stand.

    Thanks, Wendy, for the contributions you make to the Christian writing community. And Rosslyn, can't wait to see your book!

    Latayne C Scott

  5. Rats my post got eaten.

    Anyhew...GREAT advice Rossilyn!

    I do love reading books that try to shape the world UNLESS an author has an obvious agenda political or otherwise that they're trying to shove in my face. That's a turnoff.

  6. Awesome post. Thanks, Rosslyn! I appreciate what you've said here. I'm on board with your thoughts about subtlety, and not trying to hit our readers over the head. I think they'd come to resent it.

    Thanks for having this guest, Wendy. Will go check out her blog now.

  7. What a great post! I love stories that challenge me to change, so I hope I can write like that.

    I'm also allergic to overt preaching/author opinions. It's so much better when truth is weaved into the story. Great advice to think about today. :)

  8. Excellent points, Rosslyn. Readers will not tolerate being preached to--at least, most readers. That's why I appreciate my publisher, who is okay with my books that simply show how a Christian responds to the challenges we all face every day, realizing that things don't always turn out the way we want them to.
    Wendy, thanks for sharing your platform with Rosslyn.

  9. Well, Im certainly not in it for the money! Seriously, Rosslyn. This is an important issue. We must be careful to discern what words to write and how to relay our faith in a believable, entertaining package. It's a daunting responsibility - one I take wholeheartedly - as I know do you.

  10. I agree with the need to provide dimension to our characters. Nothing irks me more than an absolutely perfect main character...I need to relate to this person so there needs to be some level of human-ness, you know? well said and a good reminder. Great interview!

  11. This was fantastic- I am non-fiction so it does not all apply but as a novel reader I completely agree! It is why I believe U2 and Bono have discipled a generation in the gospel.

  12. This is such a great post, with really good, practical suggestions!

    I totally agree that main characters should be complex and multi-dimensional, and that nothing turns me off a story more than the author's bias coming through like a persuasive paper. I think the key to being a good writer... and a good person... is being able to see things from other points of view.

  13. "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. "


    And also, for me it is vitally important to honor childhood and extend dignity to children through what I create.

  14. Those are great points you've made, Rosslyn. I think stories should be real, good and bad. I want to change the world too!

  15. Great post. I don't want to change the world, but I do hope my fiction is entertaining and maybe opens the eyes of a few readers and lets them see their circumstances in a new light.

  16. Great post! Thanks for sharing. I think because I write YA, I'm more about providing a few hours of entertainment. Although, I do have an underlying message in everything I write.

  17. I don't know about changing the world, but I know if they haven't changed me, I need to start over.
    Great thoughts, Rosslyn!

  18. I'm loving these comments! Cathy, absolutely. Reminds me of "I'm starting with the Man in the Mirror...I'm asking him to change his ways..."

    Without personal humility, writers can't change a thing. And our novels will certainly keep us humble. Unless we're just mad geniuses who never have any trouble drafting perfect stories. But I don't know anyone like that. Every writer I know has bruises on her forehead from pounding it on the desk in frustration. :-)

    And Latayne, I have great respect for writers who take big risks, like you. It takes a lot of strength as well as talent.

  19. Hi Jody, I've missed ya! And I big time agree with the counter-example point too.

    Sarah, It is a thrilling experience to have it happen while reading a book, isn't it?!

    T. Anne, I'm wondering. Your blog posts help me to think. They don't distract me, but often help guide me. Curious that your fiction doesn't do the same.

    Latayne, How cool to see you here! I'm pretty sure my boldness has been misunderstood dozens of times. And still...I remain bold. It's a God thing.

    You rock my world. You should know I often click open the file you sent me to get inspired before I sit to write. Your way with words makes me deliriously happy!

    Jennifer, I second the rats! I've had issues with comments lately. Sorry it impacted you. Hope that Blogger starts behaving or it's staying on the naughty step.

    Our pastor once worded it this way, "Spoonfuls of Christ, not a fire hydrant." Loved that!

    Janna, I hope you found Rosslyn. She is a beautiful woman. I was blessed to meet her at the conference in September. A highlight for sure.

    R&M, It reminds me to weave and not slap it down on the page. Who wants to be slapped with Truth anyway. In fact, I'm not even sure Truth can be slapped--not Truth Truth anyway. Okay, now that I've thoroughly confused you. ;)

    Richard, So fun to see you here! And you do have a cool publisher! As far as sharing my platform, it's such an honor to host Rosslyn. I thrive on connecting people and I hope everyone reads Rosslyn's words, on her blog, in her novel, etc...

    Jan, I think our faith comes across most clear and beautiful when we are raw with it, honest, and vulnerable. Characters can do this so well.

    Tess, I know it helps me, knowing how far I am from perfect, when I'm creating my characters. They are so fleshed out sometimes, it's scary. ;)

    Jennie, Yeah for Bono. Just had to get that out. And I can't wait to read your non-fiction, woman!

    ~ Wendy

  20. Heidi, You know, this is truly why I love our God. I love reading who He struck up conversations with while here. It says so much about His character and how much He really tried to hear people.

    Caroline, The minute we give up is the minute the world turns a little darker. Every single person matters. Sounds like you agree, even the wee ones do.

    Katie! Thanks, you.

    Angie, Integrity of characters is often revealed by how much we allow them to have negative traits accompany the positive ones.

    Cindy, I swear I'm seriously loving Wrigley right now. It's a dog thing.

    Susan, Well, there you have it then. You entertain and lace with meaning. Score and double score. Double hitter. I have no idea what the correlation to football would be. I've never understood football...anyway...

    Cathy, Yes, I love that. My characters I swear are a cheap therapy! ;)

    Rosslyn, Thank you for being here--for starting up such an important conversation! I have so much respect for you and I'm eager to read your novels. Humility! I'm certain this is the industry to get into if you want to learn to be humble. ;)

    And for the record, for those afraid of risks, for those afraid of anything, it's because of risk that I connected with Rosslyn.

    It's because of risk that I have a faith that made something hopeful out of something hopeless.

    Thanks again, Rosslyn. Loved reading these comments.


    ~ Wendy

  21. Hi Rosslyn -

    Excellent points!

    I try hard to let my characters live the life in front of unbelievers in my stories. More action, less talk.

    Yet, there are instances where there are clashes between those of opposing viewpoints. Life has those moments. I took a personal experience and wove it into my story. We'll see how it flies when agents and editors finally read my manuscript.

    Susan :)

  22. Excellent example from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Of course, we want our words and stories to have an impact. We don't know what we'll be called to write and who will read it, but we do have the power to make a difference and help people understand their world and experiences a little better.

  23. I do hope mind do! And I hope they are appreciated for Story as much as message.

  24. Rosslyn, definitely. Even if it's in a very small but poignant way. In fact, I like surprise endings. :) So, bring it on -- let's see what we can do to change the world, one well-placed world at a time!

    Wendy, thanks for bringing Rosslyn on your blog. I had the pleasure of hosting her too not long ago. :) Always fun when writers highlight other writers, methinks.

    Be blessed in your writing week, both of you!

  25. Wendy -- I (and all the ladies at NovelMatters) like your boldness. Rave on!

  26. Rosslyn, about your first point...I sort of agree and disagree. I don't have much patience with novels that read like tracts, either, but I'm still trying to sort out how I feel about modern 'Christian' fiction. I've read a couple of 'Christian' books and wondered at the end exactly what it was that made them different from any other novel.

    Personally, when I start out writing I usually think first about what would make a good story and not what message it should have. But if I feel that particular story needs something deeper, it just develops that way. For instance, in a current project, I simply realized at one point that there was no way a certain character was going to resolve their difficulties without realizing that Christ was the only solution. Of course, that instantly made the whole project twice as hard for me...but I couldn't help it. :) It just belongs in the story.

    Then again, I've written/planned other stories that were completely different. I'm still feeling my way. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  27. Great post. I would hope to inspire with my writing, but I want to entertain as well. And I'm not fond of lectures so I hope I never come across that way in my writing:)

  28. Susan, Mary, Kristen, Roxane, Kara - Thanks so much for taking the time to visit and share your thoughts! This has been a very enjoyable topic, and Wendy, I really appreciate you hosting me.

    Elisabeth - Great point! The keynote speaker at the ACFW conference this year made a really good case for why we need all kinds of books by Christian writers. Some are called to write fiction that specifically addresses issues in the Christian life. Others write fiction that is not concerned with spiritual issues, but is compatible with readers' desire for "clean" work. Still another group of writers may be writing fiction intended for a crossover audience: fiction that contains spiritual issues but presents them in a way that is accessible to nonbelievers or young-in-the-faith believers.

    I agree with this point-of-view. The endless variation in audience out there will always require a huge variety of stories if we want inspirational fiction to speak to everyone. And I hope we do.

  29. I can't imagine anything I write will have the ability to change the world, but I responded to God's prodding to move my writing from the secular into the Christian market and am trusting that He'll have a purpose for it. I want to show how ordinary people coping with their lives and problems have a better chance at overcoming when they let God give them a hand. I try to keep the message subtle so the reader discovers it for himself, along with my characters, but sometimes it's a challenge to keep the right balance. I like your point about examples and counter-examples!


  30. Oh, dear one, I PRAY that mine do. But that's what I love about the Audience of One. He is a just judge...and will whisper the answer in your ear.

    You go, girl. So proud of you...and Rosslyn!!!

  31. Rosslyn,
    Good fiction is the toughest kind of writing! I hope you and the other novelists commenting here do change the world.

    I think of "The Jungle," written to inform the world of the brutal working conditions for the middle class, but instead, invoking anger about the impurity of the beef (I hope that is an accurate summation. Has been decades since I read it). The Jungle didn't produce anger toward what the author had hoped, but it did create massive awareness and incite demands for better food prep and quality.

    Dickens still inspires me today.

    And my writing ... not fiction. And I don't hope to change the world. But if it keeps me on track ... :)

  32. Wendy,
    Thanks for hosting this guest post. Great idea.

    And if I can put in a plug ... Rossly is writing a Thanksgiving post for Family Fountain, scheduled to post for Nov. 22.

  33. Great points here. Well done post, Rosslyn.

    A light novel to relax has its place. I'm not much on desserts, though. If I'm going to get my hands dirty, I'd rather it be for a full course meal. I hope to write the "change the world" novel, writing the truths that can only be expressed in fiction.

  34. Careann, I like the way you put your call into words. It sounds as if you are very focused and clear about your aim, which is a great asset for any writer, fiction or non.

    Patti, you are such an encourager. It's a gift!

    Warren, your example of The Jungle is wonderful. I have to admit that I have not read it, because I've always worried that I would not be able to eat beef afterwards. I have a friend who did a lot of research on the meat industry for a novel, and now he is vegetarian. :-)

    Anne, thanks for coming by. If anything is going to change the world, it's passion and honesty and intelligence like yours working for a good purpose.


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