By Jamie Dougall
Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated, or perhaps obsessed, with right and wrong. Mom tells me stories about how I knew there was a right and a wrong way to do something, and would not do anything until I figured out which way was right. Now I’ve grown some since then, and I’ve realized sometimes there is more than one way to get a job done. Still, I have that same desire to get things right, and that desire redoubles when it comes to the written word.
After all, once your words are in print and in the hands of your readers, you can never change them. I’ve wrestled with questions like:
Many Christian writers struggle with these questions. We want to craft good stories, we want to “get it right”, but most of all we want to honor a God who hates evil. We feel stuck and kind of dirty, wondering if God is upset because our stories contain so much darkness. We stare at our notebooks or computer screen and ask, “Did I just cross the line?”
In order to truly answer these questions, we must first trace darkness to its root. Why do we include evil in our stories at all? Most would quickly respond, “Because we have to! Stories would be lame and boring without darkness and evil. Nobody would read them.”
It turns out, the answer is really simple. With the possible exception of survival and “man versus nature” genres, all stories depend upon sin, darkness, and evil to create conflict. If you have good, it seems perfectly natural to have evil come up against it. Christian and non-Christian authors are all in agreement with this idea. Though some authors might protest my word choice, their work testifies to the fact that stories rely on a moral battle to create conflict and generate plot.
“It is only natural because stories are mirrors of reality, and in reality, a terrible battle is being waged.”
This real-life story finds its setting in creation. The protagonist is God. The villain is Satan. God is surrounded by goodness, truth, and light. Satan is surrounded by evil, lies, and darkness. Our world is constantly changed, shifted, and shaped by this epic battle, and our stories reflect that. In fact, stories without evil and darkness would be unrealistic because evil and darkness exist in our world.
Obviously, we cannot take that one fact and use it as justification for filling our books with the most terrible and horrific details imaginable. While many debate about where to draw the ‘too much darkness’ line, very few argue the line does not exist. Instead, the fact that stories mirror a real battle and reflect real evil in our world should eventually bring us to the big question:
How then do we write evil for the glory of God? Or in other words, how do we write evil right?
The fact that every audience, every story, and every author is different makes answering this question appear to be really complex, and in many ways, it is. There are so many factors to consider. Too often, the complexity has been used to justify indulging an infatuation with darkness. Some writers and readers claim anything is permissible so long as the writing situation calls for it. This results in arguably grotesque and inappropriate content. On the flip side, some people completely reject the complexity of the issue. They try to make blanket statements and set up legalistic writers’ laws, which end up being either too lax or too strict. Neither of these responses is appropriate.
Instead of creating specific hard, fast rules, we need to pinpoint a main guideline that regulates our use of gore, darkness and evil. God provides just that in Ephesians 5:11-12,
“Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful to speak of the things done by them in secret” (NASB).
If you approach the subject with an open heart and a sincere prayer, I believe God will use these verses to clear up the haze as we discover how to tailor healthy, reasonable limits that fit you and your story.
1. The Audience
As an author, you are responsible for knowing and respecting your audience’s limits. There are many factors to consider here, but I think the biggest are age and maturity.
My sister is three, an energetic ball of… toddler. She loves stories: books, movies, and all things Veggie Tales. Blonde hair bounces as she runs around the house pretending she is Roo or Elsa or a puppy. Recently, Ellie turned from her play and addressed mom in a serious tone. “The soldiers are going to take us to jail now,” she said, “because we’re Christians.” We, the big people, were startled.
It turns out, Ellie had been watching a kids’ show which was set in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero. Previously, mom decided she shouldn’t watch it because it was pretty intense for such a little kid, but one of my many siblings didn’t get the memo. They let her watch it while mom was gone. Ellie loved the show, but that one thought resided in her head: we are all going to be dragged off to jail because we are Christians.
This story brings up two points.
- You cannot always control who will pick up your story.
I’m sure the show my sister watched was not written for three-year-olds. Still, the event did illustrate a valuable lesson. What is appropriate for the older and more mature is not appropriate for the younger. This is a fairly obvious concept that filmmakers tried to accommodate by creating a rating system. Unfortunately, the system often proves to be ineffective as movie producers constantly push the limits and introduce new kinds and levels of darkness to younger audiences. This is one thing you do not want to do.
- You should never introduce darkness to an audience who does not yet have any understanding or contact with that darkness in their real lives.
Stories should never throw readers into new battles. Instead, stories should shed light and meaning on the battles your audience faces every day. They should give your readers the tools they need to conquer their very own dragons and push back the darkness that surrounds them. In Ephesians, Paul wrote it is disgraceful to speak of the evil things done in secret (NASB, Eph. 5. 11-12). If the particular darkness you are contemplating is not a struggle your audience faces, don’t bring it up. Think about the struggles they do face.
What darkness must they fight every day, and how can you help them conquer it through your story?
By focusing on these things, you will be able to eliminate inappropriate uses of darkness in your story, thus establishing your first set of limits.
To be continued: Exposing The Darkness: Writing Evil…Right Part 2
Jamie Dougall is an eighteen-year-old author living with her family of eight in Idaho. She is currently working on her third novel, and has a passion for encouraging others to live—and write—for the King. Jamie believes that life has no greater adventure than to follow the path Christ has prepared for you.
In addition to writing, Jamie loves travel, art, history and reading. She enjoys directing the Sharp Pens Christian teen writers’ workshops and working as a youth leader for her church.