Friday, March 09, 2007

AD: Using All the Colors

(Spoiler alert—I’m about to give away some secrets from River Rising, so you might not want to read the following if you ever plan to read that novel.)

Yesterday someone I respect told me allegorical fiction will not sell well to Christian readers. Today a colleague mentioned that her pastor did not like “Biblical” fiction because it can confuse readers about the truth. While both points of view might be correct in many cases, I don’t think this is a reason for Christian novelists to avoid the use of allegory. That would be like telling a painter not to use the color blue.

It's true that allegorical stories told without care can run into trouble on a couple of fronts.

For one, they can tempt authors to sacrifice the basic rules of good fiction for the sake of an artificial construct (i.e. forcing characters to behave irrationally or leaving their struggle unresolved if what they “want” to do conflicts with the allegorical scheme). This mistake can be avoided with exhaustive plotting and an unflinching willingness to make certain the allegory never trumps the basic rules of fiction. Nothing can ever rise artificially from the allegorical scheme. The allegorical level must always submit to the natural flow of cause and effect. Even in a fantasy, there ought to be rules that trump the author’s “hidden” message, different rules from those of our world, perhaps, but just as inviolate once they are established. A dogged respect for the laws of other worlds is one reason we will accept such wildly allegorical propositions as Narnia or Hobbits.

Another problem involves the increased danger that comes when any kind of symbolism is substituted for plain talk, to wit: we run the risk of leading a reader astray if they misunderstand because we are too vague. This may be more difficult to avoid if one relies upon a sixth sense about how far to go without overstepping, but in River Rising and The Cure (not yet out) I adopted another strategy I think works pretty well.

Simply make the same point on both levels, literal and allegorical.

For example, River Rising has two church congregations divided along racial lines. In the ending members of both congregations leave ongoing church services (services led by preachers known to be hypocrites) to join together in labor on a community project for the poor. They sing hymns while working, thus forming a third congregation then and there. So the message is not allegorical, but rather very blatant. Meanwhile, the allegorical message is also there, with slaves as lost unbelievers, rotten cotton fields as the fallen world, etc. The same points are made in parallel, through both allegory and plain language. Then, to avoid any sense of a schism, there are bridges between these levels. For example, the protagonist tells both congregations the slaves will not seek freedom until they see black and white people together in peace "out in the Jesus world." So the allegory and the literal converge, the same point is made in both ways, and hopefully all of this flows naturally from the cause and effect of believable human choices.

This is a very difficult way to write, not so much in terms of the author’s ability as in terms of effort. Just to develop a reasonable synopsis might take months of torturous brainstorming, whereas a more basic story of simple cause and effect might come to an experienced author on a single inspired afternoon. It’s simpler to create people, put them in difficult situations, and let them do what people do. That’s probably why most creative writing teachers insist their students adopt that approach. On the other hand, layering allegory into an authentic storyline requires working inward from both ends, establishing artificial rules at one end (initially) and authentic characters and events on the other. One must then bounce back and forth between them in search of ways to merge the two considerations, converting the artificial into realism, and the realistic into symbolism. Compared to a story driven solely by events and characters, allegorical plotting is more complicated by a factor of ten, in my opinion. Because of this, it becomes very tempting to bend the basic rules of craftsmanship ever so little to accommodate the allegory, to allow people to behave in ways that stray ever so slightly beyond the bounds of authenticity. Giving in to that temptation would make the job much easier, but it must be resisted at all costs.

I do think this kind of novel can be worth the trouble. If all the pieces come together properly, if the story is an exciting and believable page-turner with an intriguing setting and with living, breathing characters locked in struggles we care about, and if there is also an unmistakable sense of deeper meaning to everyone and everything, then one we have a story that takes full advantage of all the tools available in the art form--a full color oil painting versus a black and white pencil sketch, if you will--and that, to me, is when the novel really comes into its own in terms of communicating soul to soul.

There's nothing wrong with the black and white kind of novel, of course. For pure entertainment I love it as much as the next person. But take a page turner and make the setting, actions and characters stand for something more, and suddenly a novel becomes the closest imitation of real life I can imagine in any art form. Think of all the things in God’s creation that mean something else, speak of something else, and teach something else to those who will pause and look beyond the obvious. With so much allegory in real life, does it really make sense to leave it out of stories imitating life?

Athol Dickson is the author of River Rising and The Gospel according to Moses, with The Cure coming in June.


At 10:08 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

I like this: But take a page turner and make the setting, actions and characters stand for something more, and suddenly a novel becomes the closest imitation of real life I can imagine in any art form.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Jeff Draper said...

I wonder what some of these critics think of modern Christian music which is full of allegory and metaphor.


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