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Three Reasons You Should Write Secular Fiction

Aug 9, 2011

Note: This is a slightly-edited excerpt from a very fine post by last week’s guest contributor, Mike Mikalatos, entitled, “Five Reasons You Should Write Contemporary Fiction.” It occurred to me that with a few minor adjustments, Mike’s suggestions could be addressed more broadly to writers of Christian fiction, encouraging them to improve their writing by venturing into secular venues from time to time. I’ve listed only three points because by then you’ll have the idea and will be able to complete the exercise yourself, if you wish. Trying to spin humor from Mike’s work is like spreading peanut butter on peanut butter, but fortunately, this was one of his more serious pieces. Do read the original.

I love speculative Christian fiction. The first movie I remember seeing (at about age three or four) was the movie Them Ben Hur. I had a Darth Vader Charlton Heston poster looming over my bed, and glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth a miniature chariot on my bedside table. The first short story I ever wrote (in high school 4th grade) was about a guy who invented time travel went to New Guinea as a missionary, but neglected to take into account the movement of the Earth in his calculations culture of cannibalism, and found himself floating in Earth orbit a stew pot when he (successfully) tested his time machine went looking for a lost tribe all by himself. For some reason unclear to me today, he had an Irish a Canadian accent, I suppose in an attempt to make him interesting.

However, my favorite writing professor in college, Percival Everett Everett Percival, refused to let us turn in speculative Christian fiction for our assignments. No fantasy angels. No science fiction Last Days persecutions. No slipstream spiritual warfare or cyberpunk demonic possession or alternate histories sanctified historical romances. Contemporary Secular fiction or nothing. I remember one of my classmates defying him and turning in a fantasy an angel story. He returned it to her and said, “No dragons halos, harps, or flaming swords.” (As I recall her next story was set in modern day on Earth but had a girl with a dragon an angel tattoo … I bet she wishes she had run flown with that now!) I gave him a vampire missionary story once and he called me into his office, stood up, and let it slip from his hands into the waste basket stew pot waste basket.

I was surprised to discover one day, reading some of my professor’s published stories, that he occasionally wrote speculative Christian fiction. I confronted him (of course! Because I was in college! And I needed more drama in my life to confirm his orthodoxy!), and he laughed at me and said something to the effect of, “So?” He went on to explain to me that I needed to be able to write “real life” secular fiction before I would be able to write convincing speculative Christian fiction. The more I thought about it, and the more I practiced it, I realized he was right. So, here are five three ways that writing contemporary secular fiction will strengthen your speculative Christian fiction:

1) It will make your stories more compelling.

It’s easy in speculative Christian fiction to distract people with the special effects. If you have a mutated alligator demon chasing your hero through a museum an abandoned church, it’s simple to keep people turning the pages. Whole novels can be written with stock characters who have no reflection in real life. You can get away with it. In fact, people the choir may applaud you for the great “spiritually-uplifting” ride. And if you’re able to pull that off in your fiction, it’s no mean feat great accomplishment. But if you can take that same ability and also bring in meaningful, moving character moments that cause your readers to reflect on their lives and the world around them, you’ve taken it up a notch and people are going to remember your work as more than a getaway from a fifty-foot lizard demon.

2) It will keep you from cheating.

When you’re writing speculative Christian fiction and someone asks you a question about a character’s motivation, it’s tempting to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are done in Faerie Land Christians are.” Yeah, but why are the faeries Christians stealing children from the humans reciting Bible verses instead of hiding behind rocks when the One World Government soldiers shoot at them? “Oh, that’s just something they do.” And what do they do with the children happens when they get shot? “Um. I don’t know. Hide them away where they never grow old the status of nominal Christians during the Tribulation is problematical.” And this is because? “Faeries are capricious Bible scholars disagree on this issue.”

That’s cheating. Any time you say, “That’s the way aliens think Christians are,” or “It’s different in the future Tribulation,” you’re cheating your reader. We don’t want mysterious, unknowable motivations. They can be alien Christian motivations. They can be strange moral motivations. They can even be hidden motivations. But at some point you have to reveal why the Morlocks One World soldiers are serving the Eloi shooting the Christians, and why the Eloi sleep inside Christians stand around in plain sight and get shot.

Imagine, now, that you were writing literary secular fiction and in your story you had a group of people who went around stealing babies. There’s no way you could get away with saying, “Well, that’s just what this group of people does” because we all know that people don’t do something horrible like that for no reason. “Real life” Secular fiction shows the holes more readily when an author is being lazy or cheating on character motivation relying on Christian cultural assumptions, and learning to shore up those holes will help you in your character development and your world building communicate credibly with people outside the Christian community.

3) It will keep your reader better engaged in the story.

Let’s be honest, even books that are basically showcasing some world-building (Dune Narnia comes to mind) are, at the core of it, about the people. Dune Narnia without Paul Maud’dib the Pevensies would be a lousy story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is essentially an epic filled with stock characters from epics with really two three exceptions … the hobbits and Gollum and Tom Bombadil. Many of the memorable scenes of the books, of course, come from those characters.

Now, it’s pretty easy to keep people entertained with stories allegorical fantasies about messiahs and furry animals saving the world. But what if you could do the same thing with a story about a man and a woman watching a television show together and wondering, without ever saying it, whether their marriage was going to work out or if it might be over? If you can hold attention with that story, I guarantee your next speculative Christian story will be better. Because that same couple will realize, of course, that their strange infant is actually a changeling left by the faeries autistic, and when they journey into Faerie to save seek God’s help for their daughter in prayer, they’ll also be discovering whether their marriage will survive. The reader will have a lot more to hold on to and to care about.

3a. The people who need Christian fiction the most aren’t hanging out at Christian bookstores.

3b. You may find you write better Christian fiction when you stop trying to write Christian fiction.

Apologies, Mike, for mangling stealing plagiarizing exploiting re-imagining your article. I’m a lousy, good-for-nothing, lazy hack great admirer of your work.

Fred Warren

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training. Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he’s not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers. Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he’s written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.

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19 comments on "Three Reasons You Should Write Secular Fiction"

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I write Christian and secular (or mainstream) fiction. I use 2 different pen names so as not to offend anyone either way. In some ways my mainstream novels are more spiritual. Because the characters are not Christians and don’t always make great choices, chaos and conflict ensues, which is the life blood of a story.   Every Sunday I sit in church writing tons of notes that are primarily meant for my characters. LOL Every so often I think I should probably mull over the spiritual insight for my own benefit, but it’s been a blast helping my characters along… Read more »
Chila Woychik

Of course you know I totally agree with this, Fred, hence our TEAM PYP initiative, our foray into writing short stories for the secular market.  Glad others are speaking up about the necessity of ratcheting up our writing to contend with the best, whether one is a Christian or not.

E. Stephen Burnett
On this one, I can definitely see two sides of this. First, because the world itself — even under the corruption of sin — is in fact a Christian world, destined to be physically redeemed into the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21), a Christian writer need not be constrained to believing he must write only about Faith Crises or specific religious themes/elements in order to write a Christian story. To think otherwise is Gnosticism, and ignores the Biblical doctrine of vocation. The Spirit has given people various gifts to glorify Him, inside the Church and outside it, and… Read more »
Steve Rzasa

Funny … I can’t help but wonder if “secular” writers sit around talking about whether they should try writing religious/Christian fiction. Oh wait — they don’t need to, because Christians already read secular work 🙂


While a story may not have explict Christianity, the author’s beliefs will come through in some way. What exactly is ‘secular?’ in this context…

What I mean by secular is that my mainstream characters don’t go to church, kneel to pray, avoid labor on Sunday or do the things the culture at large expects of Christians. Of course everything is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, but for purposes of this discussion there is a difference in writing. The Christian Booksellers Assoc. (it’s called something else now, IRCC?) does not allow certain themes in books. Some readers want a clean, unoffensive story. That’s fine. It’s a niche in the market. It’s this segment I refer to as ‘Christian’. I’m a Christian so Christian-reflective themes… Read more »
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