The Moral Protagonist: A Key Difference

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This is entirely an opinion, but in my reading of general market fiction versus Christian fiction, I have noticed one key difference:

The protagonists don’t have to be moral.

In Christian fiction, the protagonists must be moral or have a great desire to be moral at their core, even though they may make mistakes.

Christian fiction offers a Christian world view.  The characters’ circumstances test their moral fiber. Readers want to see how the characters deal with their situations and trials, and the resulting consequences. Whether or not the characters experience a happy ending will depend a lot on the genre and story itself, but the characters should grow in and/or find sustenance in their faith.

In general market romance fiction, the characters can be of any faith or no faith. More likely than not, the issue of the characters’ faith won’t be visited at all or might be explained or dismissed in a phrase. Often, the characters are swept up in circumstances they must overcome, but they won’t draw upon religious faith to solve their problems. Their solutions may or may not reflect a moral choice. More likely they will reflect the necessary choice to their survival.

When I read about amoral protagonists, I appreciate belonging to a loving God all the more.

Your turn:
Are you comfortable reading books with amoral protagonists?

What, if anything, do you think Christians can learn from reading books with amoral protagonists?

34 Responses to The Moral Protagonist: A Key Difference

  1. Jackie Layton February 6, 2014 at 5:07 am #

    I prefer to read stories with a moral protagonist.

    One thing that really disturbs me is when an amoral protagonist goes to church for some reason, but continues to happily break more than one of the Ten Commandments, and never considers changing their lifestyle.

    I know we live in a fallen world, and I’m so glad there is Christian fiction where we can see characters make choices that honor God.

    Tamela, do you prefer the protagonist to start their journey as a moral character with a flaw, or do you prefer a complete transformation?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 6, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      Jackie: Unfortunately, I think you see amoral characters going to church without having a change of heart because those writers see people doing that in real life. They need our prayers.

      As for characters’ spiritual conditions, I can’t really state a distinct preference in fiction. The author is writing because he or she has a story to tell, and needs to tell that story. As long as the story is compelling and keeps me turning the page, I’m likely to get behind it. Regardless of the plot and character’s spiritual conditions, convince me it could happen. Make me want to see it happen. Make me root for the character.

      • Jackie Layton February 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

        You’re right, they do need our prayers.

        Thanks for sharing.

  2. Gay N. Lewis February 6, 2014 at 5:07 am #

    Thanks Tamela. I enjoy seeing a character change from an immoral or amoral condition to one with more Christian substance. Good food for thought.

  3. Rachel Muller February 6, 2014 at 5:52 am #

    I mostly read stories with back-slidden “Christians” who find their way back to God. But two weeks ago I did pick up a historical in the general market and read it for just that–the history.

    However, I tend to enjoy stories about a protagonist who has a major flaw, whether he/she is religious or not, and works through trials to find a victorious end. I also like stories that are unpredictable and leave me with that unexpected shock at the end. :)

  4. Jennifer Hallmark February 6, 2014 at 7:07 am #

    It depends. I love classics. Even though the main character might not be living by faith, they still had a common code of ethics that was instilled in past times. I don’t care for a “good guy” with no morals whatsoever. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t like “Iron Man.” :)

  5. Carol McClain February 6, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    With amoral protagonists, I realize how far short I fall from being an ideal Christian. Too often, in Christian fiction, the protagonists are boring because we have a fantasy of how perfect Christians are. Thus they become too unrealistic.

    In non-Christian romance, the characters are generally good. The main problem I have with them is that sex is a requirement.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 6, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

      Carol, try Harlequin Heartwarming romances. One example is ORANGE BLOSSOM BRIDES by Tara Randel.

  6. Cristine Eastin February 6, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    Amoral protagonists leave me either not caring or troubled. Though I appreciated the writing skill of Gillian Flynn in “Gone Girl,” I found it a troubling, unengaging story—both of the main characters were so thoroughly unlikeable.

  7. Pamela Black February 6, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    Tamela,

    I think this is an interesting question, because what I read in the Christian fiction market seems to already be a done deal. By that, I mean the protagonist has only to choose the right thing. (As we all do, as believers). But in real life, you and I know that isn’t always the case. Even as followers of Christ we get confused, we get lost, we make mistakes. And we fail. We are in Him, yet we are imperfect.
    So with all our spiritual faculties you would think we could do better, right? Why then, do we expect those who are absent the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to even come close to choosing whats right? If they do, it almost seems like it must be just a gamble, a roll of the dice.
    Or maybe…just maybe…there are situations, and stories, that can be told where those who weren’t acknowledging a Creator God can begin to do just that. Those are the stories I like. But wait, oh yeah, there aren’t many.
    For every Redeeming Love, there are thousands of “believer based stories” where we ultimately know what will happen.
    I’m not trying to be negative, I just feel there is a potential for a better representation of the reality.
    Two books come to mind, COME SUNDAY by Isla Morley (general fiction market) and INTO THE FREE a CBA product. I’ve read both, and enjoyed both. But in comparing the two, I saw a better representation of how one might come to a true saving faith in COME SUNDAY, a general fic book. Sure, INTO THE FREE had lots of scripture and a happy ending, but as far as I could see there was no PERSONAL change of heart in relation to a CREATOR GOD. In fact, in INTO THE FREE, the protag. (a young woman)gets raped in a bell tower of a church and that (THAT!) is the defining moment? Yet, in COME SUNDAY, our protagonist -who has struggled with her faith after the death of her child- comes to see how God has “scooped her into His great net” and she decides to devote her life to caring for orphans in Africa. I don’t know, I just see more of God in that.
    INTO THE FREE is a great book and I loved it. The writing is superb. But I feel the faith element is false, lacking. I want to see a protag who actually comes to see God in her life, not just happens to have heard some scripture and remembered it. And if the CBA won’t produce that, then I guess I will just have to keep searching the general fiction market. :(
    If I’m mistaken, please tell me. Because I’d so love to be wrong about this.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 6, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

      Pamela: I love Karen Ball’s response to your question. I’ll simply add that you can take a look at works by Lisa Wingate, Lisa Carter, Kim Vogel Sawyer, Joyce Magnin, Eva Marie Everson, and Miralee Ferrell. These authors have their own voices, settings, and varying degrees of romance in their stories and you may like some more than others. However, these authors are not writing what I would consider genre romance, so perhaps you can find a few favorites among these as well as from Karen’s wonderful list. Feel free to share your favorites and other discoveries!

      • Pamela Black February 6, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

        Tamela,

        Thanks, both to you and Karen, for taking the time to address my comment. After stepping away from the computer for the afternoon, I realized I may have come on a little strong. But it’s only because I do feel so passionate about this industry. I mean that. And I am grateful for references to good fiction. I will definitely be looking those up.
        I did want to say though, that I seemed to hear a bit of an echo from my comment. Not exactly, but others who said they read secular work for entertainment, and felt more or less like the CBA is putting out a lot of what I would call fiction “lite”.
        I am a Christian, I love God with my whole heart. I am also a person living in a fallen world. One of my greatest personal joys has been to see people coming from a broken situation and into a saving faith. That often happens through trials. Those situations can make great story. But only if we are able to portray the darkness first. Other wise, like someone else said, there’s no contrast. Its aseptic.
        I struggle as a Christian writer because I feel, like you said above–a writer has a story to tell–they are just trying to tell it. As a writer, and as person, I feel called to the hard stuff. Right now I’m writing about sex trafficking (as I’m sure others are) and it’s hard. How do you tell the REAL of that story without selling out to scandal? It’s not possible.
        It’s a difficult task. I pray every day that I’m up for it (most days I don’t feel I am).
        I know it can be done, and accepted, because I’ve read PRICELESS by Tom Davis. Which I HIGHLY recommend to others because he didn’t sell out on the hard stuff. It’s a great book, and he is a great author. But again, how is it that particular story got sold with it’s graphic content? And it’s obvious good vs. evil depictions which portrayed the spiritual battle behind the crime? It’s almost like a Peretti story dealing with trafficking. Any thoughts?

        Again, thanks for taking the time to acknowledge my feelings and to make suggestions. I appreciate it greatly. God Bless~

    • Steve Laube February 6, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

      Pamela,

      Thank you for mentioning Tom Davis’ PRICELESS (published by David C. Cook). A perfect example of a Christian novel on a very tough subject. Notice that it is book two in a series, and it came out 3 1/2 years ago (book one, SCARED came out in 2009). But there doesn’t appear to be a book three. Maybe there never was going to be a third. I do not know Tom personally and am not his literary agent so my ignorance will show. I don’t know the circumstances at all so am only speculating, but it makes me wonder if sales were modest and thus the incentive for the publisher to want more went away.

      Usually success breeds success. Every person who has complained about Christian fiction as being “fiction-lite” need to buy that book at its retail price (not used) or as an ebook.

      Or if you want to read an amazing story of the effects of child abuse read WORDS by Ginny Yttrup which is written from the ten-year-old girl’s point-of-view. It is an amazing story.

      The problem is not that books of this type are not being published. It is that they are not being purchased. Or not being discovered.

      Maybe use a site like Goodreads.com and find other readers who have liked PRICELESS or WORDS and have them help you find the other magnificent novels on meaningful topics that this industry has to offer.

      Steve

      • Pamela Black February 6, 2014 at 7:40 pm #

        Steve,

        I was blessed to find PRICELESS at a discount store (not a book store) but I did buy it new :) And I would have paid more for it. I treasure the book and recommend it to others. I have read up on Tom and he has a personal ministry that works to get children out of sex-trafficking (www.sheispriceless.org) so maybe he has chosen to pursue that over being an author? Who knows.
        I was also lucky enough to find WORDS at Barnes and Noble! I was very excited when it came out because it had a very prominent table display at our local B&N. Not something you see a lot with a CBA book, unfortunately. But I don’t know how her sales were?

        I agree with you and your assertion that maybe the tough stuff doesn’t sell. However, I feel like there’s a double edge sword (one I’m currently sitting on…)and it’s this: many readers have no desire to read CBA fic because it’s too whitewashed, and many Christian readers don’t want reality. So. What do we do? I have no answer. I’m just here complaining. (I’m kidding)
        But, in all seriousness, how do we make people care about things like sex-trafficking? Or third world plight? Or anything? Well, I believe good fiction can. I’m putting all my chips on it, literally. How can I help????

      • Tamela Hancock Murray February 6, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

        Pamela: No worries about coming on strong. You have been Christlike in your communications. I like passionate people and am always pleased when my posts result in lively and respectful discussion.

        That said, the only thing I’d add to Steve’s excellent observation is to check out Kathi Macias’ Extreme Devotion series from New Hope. Tough issues, and well done.

  8. Jeanne Takenaka February 6, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    Interesting topic, Tamela. For me, I tend to prefer moral protagonists. Reading about amoral/immoral actions and choices depresses me if it happens throughout an entire book. Yes, we will all make mistakes, and yes, this should be reflected in CBA books, but I don’t need it stuffed down my throat for an entire book. I much prefer to read of a character who learns from mistakes and figures out better choices, and yes, a heart change is also something that enhances a story.

  9. Richard Mabry February 6, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    Tamela, Great question, and I’m probably in the minority. Although I write in the genre of Christian fiction, almost all my protagonists have some flaw, which is addressed within the book. But the novels are written from a Christian worldview, where God remains the ultimate authority and Christ is our Lord.
    However, often when I read, I read for entertainment. And although the protagonist in the books I enjoy may be moral (like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser or Jesse Stone), they may have their own sense of a moral compass (like Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher) or a hedonistic view (like Donald Westlake’s Parker). I don’t plan to pattern my life after any of them, and thus I can read the books for entertainment, not enlightenment (except authorial enlightenment–I’d love to be able to write like any of these men).

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

      Richard: Great point! Just because you read something, doesn’t mean you have to take it to heart.

  10. Ron Estrada February 6, 2014 at 10:57 am #

    This one I struggle with. I know I need to read popular books to find out what made them so popular. It’s part of being a writer. But often I’m so disgusted by the immoral actions of the “heros” that I just can’t appreciate the plot. A good example is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Here we have a hero and a heroine who are openly and happily promiscuous. Now, I get it. In the secular world, this is a dead issue. Sleeping around became acceptable sometime around March 6th, 1992, if I remember correctly. But the irony is that the villain in the novel sexually abused and murdered women. My thought was that everyone involved in the story suffered from the sin of lust and fornication. The bad guy just allowed it to escalate to a whole new plane of perversion. To us, no one sin is greater or lesser than the other. The secular world creates it’s own magnitude of sin, and that itself is a constantly moving target. Usually down. This is how we define ourselves as Christian writers, even when we don’t have strong spiritual threads in our novels. Our protagonists are either moral from the get go or, preferably and more realistic, suffering from sin and must overcome that sin by book’s end. Sometimes that is even more important than defeating the protagonist. If it doesn’t happen, the victory wasn’t achieved.

    • Rachel Muller February 6, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      Ron, I’m right there with you on being curious to secular writers’ works to find out what sells, but not wanting to read the “filth”.

      I was encouraged the last time I went down to Tennessee to see that Christian fiction is the preferred market down there. Then, just last year I was in my local bookstore and learned that my area (Maryland) has a strong pull for the Christian Fiction market as well. I was very surprised by that.

      We may not be the “best-selling” authors, but let’s hope our works are planting seeds and encouraging others in our faith. :)

    • Pamela Black February 6, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

      Ron~

      I follow your blog and think you are a great writer. I’m surprised to hear you say you don’t read much popular fiction. I’ve not read Steig Larsson’s books. Thanks for the heads up on content, I’ll probably avoid them. However, there is plenty of good fiction in the general market and it seems like you just made the assumption that it’s all bad. My reading is all over the place. I read CBA and general fic. and I read A LOT. There are some really great books that don’t focus on perversion.
      However, having said THAT, some of the best works I’ve ever read had horrible content, but great writing. Example? Toni Morrison. Her content is almost unbearable, but I believe it should be required reading. Sometimes, the ends *does* justify the means. That is my point in regard to the CBA as well. No one wants to focus on the ugly in the world, but its’ there. To avoid it for fear of offense is just false. I don’t believe Christ died for me to hide from this world. He came to bring light into it. If it’s not dark, and there’s no sin, he died for naught. You can read about it and not revel in it. And writers can portray it without glorifying it.
      And I believe you are one of them. Best of luck with your writing. I am looking forward to seeing you published.

    • Pamela Black February 6, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

      And I find it totally amusing that sleeping around became acceptable on my 21st birthday! (March 6th, 1992)
      Sorry, couldn’t resist commenting on that… :D

  11. Starr Meade February 6, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    I teach literature to high school students, and we’re always looking for how a worldview matches the Bible’s worldview AND a real view of the world (which are actually the same thing). They always want to tell me that Shakespeare’s MacBeth has an unbiblical worldview. After all, there are witches, there’s a ghost, and the protagonist grows the wrong way, into murder and a deeper and deeper paranoid ruthlessness. But the witches are a visble demonstration of how half-truth can tempt us, the ghost represents the torment of our God-given conscience when we deliberately violate it, and things do not turn out well at all for the protagonist who has chosen rebellion after rebellion. The worldview is thoroughly Christian; even the doctor, after Lady MacBeth makes her famous D-word statement, says, “More needs she the divine [as in a clergyman who could counsel her for her guilty conscience] than the physician.” I don’t always want to watch characters make the right choices; the real world isn’t like that; question is: when they make wrong choices, what happens? That’s what demonstrates whether the worldvies is biblical or not.

    • Steve Laube February 6, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

      Brilliant!

  12. T.J. Akers February 6, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    Interesting viewpoint,but it seems to me you are assuming morality to be only Christian characteristic. There are many Atheists, Agnostics, ect. that are very moral. The anti-hero also utilizes a very strict morality, but it is more commonly referred to as “code.” The reason they are so popular is because they hold to their code without wavering and are willing to call out hypocrisy.

    But my biggest complaint about having moral protagonist is that its only useful if you put him\her in an contrary setting? The CBA forces it’s writers and publishers to artificially sanitize the circumstances in which you can put a moral character. There are lots of Christians that don’t live their out their convictions, but are we really allowed to explore that? Not in any meaningful or deep way.That’s how come we get such lightweight fiction.

    Are Christians perfect? I don’t think so. How come CBA books don’t allow their protagonists to fall, get back up, and start over again in a way that is real world.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 6, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

      T.J., Christianity is my moral code so I am writing from a Christian world view. Though I am imperfect, I live by the grace and mercy of God, washed in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.

      I don’t think Christian fiction is sanitized. Much Christian fiction is about people I recognize — people I might see in church and around town. I realize I’m very sheltered, but I enjoy reading about people similar to myself. Even though we are not exactly the same, I can relate to the characters and their struggles and I enjoy them and root for them. And yes, they fall and get back up.

      At the same time, I understand and respect the fact that some readers want to be taken to darker places. As you can see elsewhere in the comments section, there are many CBA authors. Keep reading and I’m sure you’ll find many authors you enjoy.

  13. Karen Ball February 6, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    Pamela, I hear these kinds of things from writers all the time, and my response is always the same: “Just because you haven’t found them yet doesn’t mean they’re not out there.” There are plenty of writers in the Christian market who craft stories along the lines you mention. Of course, as you point out, Francine Rivers, but here, in no particular order, are some others:

    Pamela Binnings Ewen
    Angela Hunt
    Athol Dickson
    Jeremiah W. Montgomery
    Eric Wilson
    Lisa Samson
    Brandilyn Collins
    Ginny Yttrup
    Ted Dekker
    James Scott Bell

    And there are many others as well.

    The thing I encourage writers and readers to remember is that (a) a lot of readers, general market as well as Christian market, like books that give them a sense of escape and a happy ending. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are plenty of books out there that go deeper, that give us realistic stories and characters. We just need to keep trying until we find the writers we love. It takes time to find the “gems,” the authors whose every book we want to read. But that investment is well worth it.

    So don’t give up!

    • Pamela Black February 6, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

      Dear Karen,

      Thank you for encouraging me, even though I was a little…aggressive in my post. =) Please know I meant it respectfully to Tamela, You, the Steve Laube Agency, and the CBA! I just desire so much more for this market. I long to see Christian writers making an even bigger mark on this world. I know many are, but I just feel we (as a body) could do so much more. Maybe, I’m being idealistic.
      I often get discouraged when I talk to other readers who say they won’t read CBA because it’s not realistic. It’s depressing. Thank you for suggesting the above authors. I will look them up! I’m always searching for more inspiration and more reasons to believe in this market.
      I actually just bought books by Ted Dekkar, Nancy Rue, Ginger Garrett, and Yvonne Lehman today and I’m hoping to find more favorite authors in the group. I find that a majority of the Christian fiction, and non-fiction, I relate to most comes from David C. Cook publishers. Can you recommend any other writers that they publish?
      Thanks for your kind reply~

  14. Heidi Kortman February 6, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    Often, the characters are swept up in circumstances they must overcome, but they won’t draw upon religious faith to solve their problems.

    Characters from the CBA side of the publishing industry should not do so either. Religious faith never Solves problems, though it can support people Through and During problems. As Christians, when we attempt to write stories with faith as the Solution to dilemmas, people immediately recognize it as weak story telling.

  15. Chris P. February 6, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    I read both secular and christian novels – and am fine with both. My main criteria is a good story. If I am reading secular novels I am not expecting the characters to be living a Christian life so I am not disappointed or upset by their choices. In other words I know what I am getting myself into when I pick up the book. :-) Goes the same with christian fiction.

    My only issue is that in real life, Christians don’t always do the right thing. They are tempted, they have sex outside of marriage, they swear, they get drunk, they lie, they cheat, etc. I would love Christian fiction to be able to portray that reality and show how a Christian would deal with these issues as opposed to someone without God in their life.

    For example, a 20 something girl who thinks she is in love, has sex with her boyfriend. Then they break up. In a secular book, there would be barely any time spent on the emotional aftermath of that. But a Christian would have a lot of things to work through. That would be a really interesting story I think, but I don’t think the Christian market would consider a story like that because of the sexual component.

    I think I went on a tangent – what was the question again?

    :-)

  16. Jenny Leo February 10, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    Another very good novel by a Christian author that deals sensitively with sex trafficking is PAINT CHIPS by Susie Finkbeiner.

  17. Iola February 10, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    I can’t think of many (any?) examples of amoral protagonists in general market fiction.

    What I can think of is dozens (hundreds?) of examples of protagonists with a different world view to mine, who have different beliefs, values and morals. Just because they don’t have a Christian world view doesn’t make them immoral or amoral. If they are acting in accordance with their own beliefs, that’s moral … to them. Even if it’s something I think is morally wrong.

    That’s why I prefer reading Christian fiction (and fiction written from a Christian world view). Because I like reading fiction where my values are similar to those of the characters.

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