Dealing with immorality when writing fiction

During contract negotiations some years ago my fantasy novel Swords of the Six went before a Christian publishing house’s committee and a couple of editors raised objection with the violence in the story. I remember the acquisitions editor asked for a good response to their concerns. Back then I felt in my soul what I wanted to say, but it was difficult to put it into words. Fortunately another editor had foreseen this and I was able to satisfy their questions by showing them why I believed violence was a necessary element in that novel.

In my books and my short fiction I deal with tough subjects, darker themes. Being a Christian empowers the clarity of good versus evil, yet it presents its own set of challenges when well-meaning parents or readers object to elements of my stories’ content. Violence and romance are a couple of examples.

As a guideline I like to look at what God left us: the Bible. And what is the Bible full of? Along with good deeds it is full of violence, theft, incest, rape, murder, and all kinds of wickedness. But what the Scripture does not do is glorify the sin or the sinner.

Some have argued that those sins are shown only because they are part of history, but it’s important to note that these things are not glossed over. Rather, they are often told in great detail. As to historical context, a simple summary of an evil act or an act of violence would suffice but instead we are often given the details.

A prime example is Ehud who slew King Eglon (Judges 3:12-30). Some would consider the details of Eglon’s death gross and gratuitous. Who wants to picture stabbing someone who was fat enough that his body fat prevented Ehud from pulling the blade back out?

But because of the details we experience disgust, and those who are inclined toward wicked deeds find themselves horrified at the consequences of God’s retribution.

In past ages children were not sheltered as much as conservative Christian American children are from tales of violence and cruelty. Well-meaning parents often miss the point of showing the good along with the bad. The law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, and without a fear of God no one flees into His arms for salvation.

Christianity has the advantage in fiction because it demonstrates love and fear, wonder and evil and horrors. Without the darkness we cannot see how bright the light is.

When fiction is written to be “safe” it creates unrealistic expectations for relationships and our lives. It paints a picture in our mind of ideal people in ideal or easier circumstances.

It is my conviction that we need less “sanitized” fiction and more honest fiction. We need to stop avoiding evil in story in order that the light can reveal the darkness for what it really is. Too often conservative Christian youths enter the world and find that “Surprise! Sin is pleasurable.” But if they are taught to discern instead of avoid, they will have greater defense against temptation because they know that the pleasures of sin only last for a season.

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for  a whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For  the one who sows to his own flesh  will from the flesh reap corruption, but  the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7,8 ESV)

Instead of interpreting what is good by how we were culturally raised, let’s learn it from how it is demonstrated in Biblical and historical narratives. Instead of worrying how culture will respond to our writing, let’s be excited to share through stories that are true to our earthly existence, even if that means we have to drag readers through darker events and wickedness.

Show the good, but show the bad too. The Biblical cannon demonstrates this repeatedly. Writing is only powerful as long as we are willing to let it take us through the muck as well as the green fields.

Q: Which subjects do you avoid when reading fiction?


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Most obvious thing about me is how much I love reading and writing. This is truly my passion and has been for almost as long as I can remember. I know that sounds cliche, but it is true. Growing up in a conservative Christian home I learned to value God, intelligence, and life. I am always learning. I am a husband and a father of three young children. I love my family and my life. God is good and I attribute my success to His provision.

Great fantasy stories are a lot of fun. I write the stories that I want to read and am fortunate enough to have several published novels under my belt as well as more in the pipeline.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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14 thoughts on “Dealing with immorality when writing fiction

  1. Scott,

    I’d say this post is probably one of the best ones you’ve posted lately. I say this because it is honest, forth right and open. I agree that our Christian fiction sometimes is too “holy” and “pure” leaving out a major element of story telling, good verse evil.

    Our world unfortunately isn’t black and white all the time…it has shades of grey mixed in. But like you said, “Too often conservative Christian youths enter the world and find that “Surprise! Sin is pleasurable.” But if they are taught to discern instead of avoid, they will have greater defense against temptation because they know that the pleasures of sin only last for a season.”

    Thank you again for such a wonderful post and being who God called you to be!!

    • Thank you Jonathan, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Hopefully we can encourage one another to pursue the right things. Not an easy thing in this world.

  2. “Instead of interpreting what is good by how we were culturally raised, let’s learn it from how it is demonstrated in Biblical and historical narratives. Instead of worrying how culture will respond to our writing, let’s be excited to share through stories that are true to our earthly existence, even if that means we have to drag readers through darker events and wickedness.

    Show the good, but show the bad too. The Biblical cannon demonstrates this repeatedly. Writing is only powerful as long as we are willing to let it take us through the muck as well as the green fields.”

    Well said, Scott. Truer words have rarely been written.

    “Which subjects do you avoid when reading fiction?”

    Generally, everything that depicts animals suffering at the hands of humans. Ever since I was a child (before I could even read), it seems the culture was saturated with animal suffering and and a truly obscene disregard of the fact that animals can think, too. They’re just as sentient as we are (albeit WE were created in God’s image, and they were created as mere animals; we’re NOT “distant relatives” of the monkeys, and we don’t have any “comon ancestors” with the monkeys, either). They can have bad dreams, they can get their feelings hurt. And all too often, they willingly sacrifice their life for us, even though they love Life just as much as we do. And the ungratefulness of our reaction to that made it all but impossible for me to view any animal movies since 1980, much less read any animal stories except the books by Felix Salten or “Maya the Bee” by Waldemar Bonsels.

    Because I just KNOW that it will end very badly for the poor animals in the stories/movies.

    • Interesting, I have contemplated many times the condition of animals and their humane treatment is very important to me as well. We should have a healthy respect for all of the resources we rule over in creation. They are a bit of a mystery, especially when we consider that at points God gave them voices to speak. The donkey and the serpent, for example. It is a challenging balance when writing my fantasy novels.

  3. I know I probably shouldn’t, but I avoid super long descriptions. Don’t get me wrong obviously books need to have some descriptions in them and I love it, but when the description gets to be two pages long….. I forget where I am in the story. And that’s probably a big reason why a love your books, the descriptions are not drawn out yet they still have amazing character development.

  4. Great job, Mr. Appleton! That was an excellent argument! 😀
    I love how you brought it back to scripture. Since that’s what we want to base our lives on, why not our writing, too? :)

    The main thing that I try to avoid when I’m choosing a book to read (and watching movies, for that matter) is certain things being too graphically described. Besides it being possibly over the top, I have a very sensitive memory where I can remember clear details and scenes read in a book or watched in a movie several years after I read or watched it. :{
    It’s not always easy to tell just from the cover if the author likes to be descriptive, but I’m always wary of authors I’m unfamiliar with.

    • I am glad you found it thought-provoking. I think of all the books I’ve read, though, few have been as graphically described as they are in the Bible… Or in the accounts of the martyrs. I think what matters is understanding the author’s intent and in recognizing that they are on a creative journey that explores the depths of their wisdom and of their confusion.

  5. Thanks for touching on this topic, Mr. Appleton!! Immorality is a touchy subject when presented in various forms of media, and I think you’re right – we can’t shy back from presenting it truthfully but must do so tastefully, keeping the integrity and point of the story on track while not keeping the focal point of what you’re reading/seeing/hearing the violence, etc., but using it as a device to move the story on…like what the Bible does.
    Thank you for going to the Bible as our example, we can never go wrong to do that.
    God bless with your writing projects!!!

    • And it’s especially touchy in the “Christian” market :) There is still a large portion of that publishing sector that sanitizes fiction in a way that sometimes presents a false message to the reader. A message of what life should be like that gives a false impression or vision.

  6. I try to avoid romance when dealing with fiction. Not only do I find it to be a complete bore (with very few exceptions), I also find that authors rarely write Godly romances (and when they do, the couple instantly reaches some sort of inhuman and perfect enlightenment ). It’s also quite annoying when the two main characters (or even the side characters apparently*) are “forced” to fall in love. Luckily most of the authors I read don’t really include romance or sex. If only the t.v. shows I watch could do the same.

    *Ombre and Caritha are cool however.

    • Yes, I also have found that too often fiction does “force” romance. It’s unfortunate because really romance is one of the key components of a healthy life and if in our stories we show it in a way that shows how it could be, how it might be, and sometimes even how it is when its misguided or even wrong, it teaches our souls. It’s a subliminal teaching by confirming or bringing into question how the culture around us, even of sometimes how we were raised to believe, so that we grow in wisdom.

  7. My son loves this series and has read the first 4 books several times. He is dying to know when In Search of Dragons will come out. Thank you for writing such a good series of fantasy fiction that deals with real topics of good and evil, and the consequences of sin and free will. Thank you also for giving glory to the Creator and not the sin or the evil. When is the next book coming out?

    • That pleases me to hear! There are actually 5 novels, so there should be at least one that your son has not read yet. Swords of the Six, Offspring, Key of Living Fire, Neverqueen, and The Phantom’s Blade. Also, if he’s looking for extra reading, have him check out By Sword By Right, a collection of my shorter fiction.

      The next book is coming out this year. I’m pushing for late-Summer or early-Fall to release Neverqueen2.