How to Make our Writing Impactful by Understanding Theology
I don't know about you, but I have never realized that my view of theology could affect how I write! I want to create more authentic characters within a designed story arc so that I can impact my readers in a way that transforms their lives. But how does my view of God do that?
As I was reading a blog post entitled, “Authenticity vs. Outline,”* I had a “lightbulb” moment when I came to this line: “Plot is the author’s design.” I realized that in order to create a work of fiction that works, a plot that makes sense with authentic and dynamic characters, a writer must follow the logic that God is a designer. Even if secular authors don't believe in God, they must still follow the logic of a worldview that does believe in a benevolent Designer, or it won't work.
What do you think when you hear this statement: “My protagonist wouldn’t listen! She did what she wanted to do, not what I wanted her to do!” I have never thought that. I have never had that happen. Now, there have been times when I realized that my dialogue doesn't sound much like that character. But I've never had them say something I never planned for them to say. I am the author. The characters came out of my head. The plot came out of my head. I tell my characters what to do. I make them fit into my plot.
Does that mean I'm not original? That I'm not a “real” writer? No, it just means that my view of the world and the craft of writing differs from the majority of secular writers, and that worldview has worked itself out in my writing style.
I realized the way I view God determines my method of writing, my method of crafting, and my view of the author's role.
What is your view of God? How will that affect your writing?
If you believe that God is in control of every molecule (Determinism), then everything that happens in your story was preordained, and planning is pointless.
If you believe that God is weak and/or distant (Deism), then your characters will walk all over you, and planning is pointless.
If you believe that God is sovereign but merciful and delegating (Free Will), then you plan for every contingency while allowing characters to make mistakes and to grow.
We will discuss here these three worldviews, ways of thinking that color your view of everything else, and how they will help you write more authentic characters within a designed plot for maximum impact.
Since this is not the place nor do I have the time and scope to lay out a comprehensive argument on worldviews, I will try to summarize. (Let me know in the comments if you want to me to delve deeper into this at some point in the future.)
The author of this blog post, Donald Maass, explains from his viewpoint:
“The solution [to weaving a strong plot but keeping authentic characters] involves transforming yourself into both Story God and the Story God’s subject. The Story God is wrathful and compassionate; by turns gracious or harsh. The Story’s God’s subject—your protagonist—is flawed but defiant, sunk by human need but lifted by divine-given strength.”
The view of God:
This view that every author is this kind of “Story God” reveals his view of the real God. Unfortunately, this is a view that many even in mainstream Christianity have embraced.
This view of God makes Him capricious. We are at the mercy of His whims and do not know when He will be compassionate or when He will be harsh. He chooses some to whom He shows mercy, and He chooses some to whom He will show condemnation (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15-18**).
As writers, character plotting is simply a waste of time in this worldview, because characters will do only what they're told to do. There is no character arc to plot. There is no authenticity. They will be who we say they will be, they will only fulfill the purpose we need them for, and that's all they will ever be and do.
The view of mankind:
This view of humans makes us unable to really change or grow. When a perspective sees people as “flawed but defiant, sunk by human need but lifted by divine-given strength,” then people ride the roller-coaster of life that was completely constructed ahead of time.
If this view were true, everyone would have an attitude that says, “I was born this way, and this is the way God made me.” There is no real need for repentance or sanctification. The hero will still win in the end, because it was destined for them to do so, therefore they don't need improvement or even effort. The villain will still fail in the end, because it was destined for them to do so, therefore they don't need any reformation or compassion. What will be will be.
As characters, the “Story’s God’s subject”is defiant of the roles they play, but they can't change that role. The story becomes very depressing when the hero can't do anything but win big, and any inner struggling is merely an illusion, an inauthentic attempt by the writer to make it look like there might be a possibility of failure. But there's really not. In reality, a reader is not going to identify with that kind of deceptive world-building, that formulaic plot, and that unrealistic character.
The view of God:
In the deistic worldview, God started everything and then left it to its own devices. He is not engaged nor does He even care about this world. In this view, God would allow us completely free reign, able to mess up anything and without the hope of any divine intervention.
As writers, the result is surprisingly similar to the Deterministic view, where plotting and outlining are simply a waste of time in this worldview, because characters will do what they're going to do. There's nothing we as authors can do to stop them. They will be who they will be.
The view of mankind:
Characters are their own gods. They decide what will be done. The story becomes very boring when there is no main objective to be reached or overcome.
Donald Maass describes these “stories without a strong design.” When there is no overarching plotline, they “can feel realistic yet without force. Without an author’s strong hand on the wheel, characters can race around in circles, their stories becoming self-indulgent, stuck in low gear.”
3. Free Will
For lack of better term, I will Free Will to delineate the different worldview.
The view of God:
In the Free Will view of God, God is the overarching sovereign, the King who has authority over everything but who wisely delegates some of that authority to others. But His is the ultimate responsibility. In this view, God is the Chessmaster who can see every possibility, every move the characters may make, but it's up to the characters to make whichever of those moves they wish.
As writers, this means that to help our characters grow, we authors have a responsibility to test them, to bring a plot twist that tempts their deepest weakness or pushes them to do what they feared they could never do.
Donald Maass: “That which your protagonist would avoid, make unavoidable. That which your protagonist fears, bring about. The basis for action is that at which your protagonist excels. The basis of failure is that which tempts your protagonist and to which he or she succumbs.”
In this way, we understand why God tested Abraham, why He tests our faith. He is not trying to tempt us to do evil (James 1:13-14) but to stretch our faith more and more so that it grows stronger and stronger and endures longer and longer. This is how our faith grows, bringing with it many other of the fruits of the Spirit. As faith grows, so does our joy and hope, our patience, our self-control, our peace. Growth takes time and adversity to strengthen. God is our master Gardener (John 15:1) who prunes us and nourishes us as we need.
The view of mankind:
In this Free Will view, people are wise to ask for direction and guidance from the all-knowing One, but they also have the responsibility to make the right choice. When they make wrong choices, the truly sovereign God can redeem even those and make good come out of it, though never the intended good.
As characters, our creations are reflections of ourselves. They are fundamentally flawed yet also loved and valued. They don't always ask for wisdom; they sometimes make poor choices. But they can learn from their failures, growing and stretching closer and closer to the ideal, though they won't fully reach perfection. Readers will see themselves in our characters and relate, hopefully learning from their fictional mistakes and growing vicariously in their own real faith.
Isn't it amazing that our view of God affects so much of our lives? Even our writing styles are determined by our theology and our worldview. Determinism and Deism both throw outlining and planning out the window. The only worldview that allows for planning with a design is the free will theology, that God is a benevolent view of a sovereign dictator who is a Master strategist but delegator. Then as writers, we can choose what's best both for individual characters and for the over-arching plot, ultimately for the reader's benefit. This is my hope in every book and every story I share.
As a reader, how does your view of God affect how you view stories? As a writer, do you agree or disagree with my assessment, and why or why not?
* Authenticity vs. Outline, posted May 2, 2018, By Donald Maass
**If you'll notice in Exodus, God only says the positive part of this phrase: “I will show mercy on those whom I will show mercy.” Paul quotes this in Romans 9:15. Then he goes on to add in verse 18, “...and harden whom he will harden.” This Greek word for “harden” (skleruno) is only used six times in the New Testament. Five of those instances use it as an imperative: “Don't harden your hearts...” There is only one time when it's a narrative. Luke is showing in his narrative that “some [Jews in the synagogue] were becoming hardened and disobedient” (Acts 19:9). I think it's safe to say that this was their choice. So Romans 9:18 is the only use of this phrase anywhere in the NT. It's very dangerous to build an entire doctrine based on one word or one phrase.