Does Hope Lead to Clichéd Fiction?

Christian Fantasy Fairy Tales

Most people desire a sense of hope, particularly in troubled times, and one place they get a glimpse of what hope means is through story. Edward Kitsis, one of the writers for Lost and producer for the upcoming ABC series Once Upon a Time shared that his new show would explore hope, since “everyone is kind of grasping for hope right now.”

His inspiration? The fairy tales of old, stories that are often “terrifyingly dark” but always have “undercurrents of hopefulness.” In this way, fairy tales mirror the realities of life, both the grim and the beautiful. Dark fears, rending sorrows, and legitimate horrors exist, and Christians certainly don’t go untouched. Yet hope can survive even the bleakest of situations, and people are searching for that assurance.

So when I see the value of hope in fiction being downplayed, as in Mike Duran’s recent post on Novel Rocket, I question it. He expressed concerns about the term inspirational fiction and about fiction serving as a means of communicating hope:

“This portrayal of Christian fiction as an agent of hope is common, and I think it captures the essence of what many readers expect from the genre. They want something uplifting, inspirational, encouraging, and/or ultimately optimistic. So is this why the genre exists, to evoke or inspire hope in those who despair? Is this why readers seek out Christian fiction, to recharge their Inspirational battery? If so, I think that’s a problem.”

He then expressed three specific criticisms regarding fiction that inspires hope: 1) literary predictability, 2) superficiality, and 3) an incomplete Gospel. While I admit that a “hope-infused” story could certainly be predictable, superficial, and incomplete in its depiction of truth, I ultimately think if we portray hope in a biblical sense it would give rise to none of these problems.

True hope doesn’t rely on everything working according to some predictable plan in which everything resolves perfectly at the conclusion. Rather, it grows in the most difficult of circumstances, stubborn as a tree burrowing into the cleft of a rock. True hope doesn’t need to ignore dark circumstances, but can shine all the more brightly in the midst of them. And true hope permeates Scripture and the human story–even the parts that seem the most bleak.

So what does hope look like on the pages of a novel? I think of Lord of the Rings, a trilogy most of us have read (potential spoilers ahead if you’re unfamiliar with the story). Upon each reading, I come away with a sense of hope, yet the conclusion strikes layers of emotion between joy and grief. There’s a sense of celebration with Sauron’s defeat and the subsequent freedom of Middle Earth from the oppression of his evil, yet we still feel the weight of things once beautiful passed away, the weight of suffering Frodo bears in body and soul, and the weight of the scars that have left their mark on Middle Earth. Perhaps some will call it predictable, yet it’s certainly not a simplistic evil-is-defeated-and-all-is-forever-perfect tale (though our ultimate destiny does involve the permanent defeat of evil and sin).

But can a book with less of a happy ending still inspire hope? A few months ago, I read Divergent by Veronica Roth, a dystopian fantasy novel that hit the NYT bestseller list shortly after its release. It’s a fairly brutal story (a little too brutal for my personal taste) in a bleak future, and everyone in the tale suffers much. Yet in the end, the protagonists and others make choices for love, choices to sacrifice for what they believe. Those decisions change circumstances and give a hint of hope for the future. Of course, as this is first in a series, it conclusion hints at greater trouble yet to come, but the point is that even in a genre known for its dark outlook, a story has the most power when it contains a hint of hope. It’s doesn’t make it trite or predictable, rather it rings true. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that though Roth writes for the mainstream market, she professes faith in Christ.

As a reader I most enjoy books that reflect true, biblical hope–not a sugar-coated happily-ever-after nor a tale of utter despair–and as a writer that’s the sort of hope I desire to reveal in the pages of my stories. What about you?

Comments

  • Emily
    October 13, 2011 - 9:14 am · Reply

    I tend to think similarly to you; I don’t like a book that’s completely unrealistic in that everything always works out perfectly for everyone, and they all live happily ever after. Yet I like it when books have a realistic, biblical hope, as you mentioned. I usually get so into whatever I’m reading at the moment, that I get somewhat depressed when the book I read is totally bleak and un-hopeful throughout. Wonderful post, by the way!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 14, 2011 - 1:37 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Emily! You brought up an interesting point about how our emotions can be influenced by what we’re reading. A well-done story immerses us in the story world and causes us to identify with the characters, so I think most people are impacted by what they read. For that reason (and others), I’m with you in disliking books that portray unrelenting despair.

  • Mary
    October 13, 2011 - 1:58 pm · Reply

    I find it curious that Mike Duran finds it ‘a problem’ that people would see Christian fiction as a source of inspiration, and perhaps even hope. Christians are agents of hope, pure and simple. It is who we are. So I think it’s a good sign if people see Christian fiction in that light.
    I don’t really know if or how many non-Christian people actually read Christian fiction (for the purpose of ‘recharging their Inspirational battery’ or otherwise), but if that really does take place, it just makes sense to me. They can read a work of Christian fiction and get a taste of the hope and joy Christians have, without actually having to ‘buy in’ to our beliefs. Or, even if they don’t necessarily care one way or the other about the Christian message, they can just enjoy a good story that’s clean, content-wise.
    As I’ve mentioned before, I love happy endings, but the bittersweet ending is the one that most deeply resonates with me. There is hope and happiness in the end, but it has come at a great cost. That pattern is so true to life that I don’t think it can ever become cliched.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 14, 2011 - 1:39 pm · Reply

      At the end of the post, Mike comes around to wondering if Christian fiction captures the reality of the suffering that often goes alongside true hope, which is a question worth asking. My main concern was that he seemed to view the inspiration of hope problematic, which I don’t think is the case.

      That’s a great point about Christians carrying hope. If some hint of that hope doesn’t make it into our fiction, it would be strange. That sense of hope draws people because it reflects the greater hope offered us. Not hope that came without cost, as you said, but great sacrifice paving the way for great joy.

  • Kessie
    October 13, 2011 - 3:54 pm · Reply

    I read Mike’s original post, and I know the kind of books he was talking about. The one where everything is going wrong, the girl’s boyfriend is into Bad Things and won’t come to church … and she gets on her knees and Prays (angelic chorus) … and everything goes happy and rose-colored and her boyfriend accepts Jesus and all the bad things work out tidily a la a Wodehouse caper.

    Those are the “inspirational” stories I think Mike was complaining about.

    I’m all for stories that have happy endings, or at least an ending that resolves some things. For instance, I don’t hold the ending of the Princess and Curdie against George MacDonald, but I do wish he’d stopped writing about a page and a half early.

    I don’t mind being taken for a dark, twisted ride, as long as things work out for these poor, tormented characters in the end. Like in Hexwood, by Diana Wynne Jones. (Not for the faint of heart, especially since the whole book is out of order, and reading it is like solving a puzzle.) Goodness, such bad things happen to the heroes, and the bad guys are soooooo bad. But eventually the bad guys get their just punishment and the heroes triumph. It’s like rewarding you for this long, sad slog.

    When you get to the end of a long, sad slog, and there’s no reward at the end (the characters just die, or things are worse at the end than at the beginning), that’s a novel without hope. You feel guilty, because you feel like you took these characters on this awful adventure and left them at the end to suffer.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 14, 2011 - 1:43 pm · Reply

      Kessie, I’m in agreement that stories promoting a false view of life and hope (as in the example you gave) are of little benefit. My concerns mostly related to the section I quoted. I think stories can uplift and encourage without giving false hope, whereas I felt like Mike was suggesting that only the bleakest of tales give an accurate view of reality, that a sense of hopelessness was somehow more important than hope (though that may not have been his intent). As I mentioned to Mary, I do think he asked a valid question at the end, and one important to consider.

      Anyway, it wasn’t my intent to put down Mike in any way. It’s just that I’ve been thinking on what it means to hope and the importance of hope lately given circumstances in my own life, and thus a post was born. 🙂

      The ending of a tale does have a great deal of power. It’s the lingering impression in a reader’s mind. Like you, I’m willing to accompany the characters on long and difficult journeys if the conclusion gives some hint of redemption.

      When you get to the end of a long, sad slog, and there’s no reward at the end (the characters just die, or things are worse at the end than at the beginning), that’s a novel without hope. You feel guilty, because you feel like you took these characters on this awful adventure and left them at the end to suffer.

      Exactly…well said!

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    October 13, 2011 - 6:09 pm · Reply

    I don’t think a hopeful story needs to be predictable either. I think you’ve portrayed good reasons why, Sarah. Not every character has to come through unscathed, not everything is put perfectly to rights, and most importantly, the way in which good wins can be amazing. Who knew before it happened that the boy betrayed by his brothers would turn out to be their means of salvation?

    It’s our job as novelists, I think, to find the surprise in the way hope surfaces.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 14, 2011 - 1:43 pm · Reply

      Becky, I love what you said about our job as novelists, and I entirely agree. Surprising people with hope means we’re not relying on easy answers to convey truth, but creating something fresh that could only flow from our stories and our characters. Thanks for chiming in!

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