Grace A. Johnson
Faith-Filled Romance: A Writer's Guide to Christian Romance
Romance novels have an audience of a whopping 29 million readers, according to The Balance Careers, making it one of the most popular book genres in the world. That’s an overwhelming number, isn’t it? Even more daunting is the task of successfully writing a Christian romance novel. I’m going to assume that, since you’re here, you’ve already decided that one day you’ll write that mushy-gushy romance novel you’ve been toying with. Or you’re giving in and throwing a romantic subplot into your epic fantasy novel. Writing a romance is a noble and profitable venture.
And it’s more than just the basics of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl live happily ever after.
In today’s culture, the term “romance” is often associated with Harlequin novels, Fifty Shades of Grey, gratuitousness that isn’t fit for human consumption. Mixing steamy love scenes with a Sunday sermon doesn’t seem right. We could always go back to the Jane Austen way of things—simplistic, moral, and proper—but we don’t live in the Regency era, y’all. It’s one way or the other for most folks these days—Harlequin romance or none.
And that leaves us, the Christians who stand by morality and Godly values, between a rock and a hard place. There has to be some balance, some way that romance can be clean and pure—exactly the way God intended—but not cheesy or bland. It’s that sort of strained, flavorless romance that has turned so many readers off of Christian novels and most young people off of Godly relationships.
I’ve been reading and writing Christian romances for six years (which is a long time to a fifteen-year-old, believe me), and not all of them have hit it home. Writing a Christian romance, be it a full novel or a subplot, requires three different things—balance, authenticity, and boldness.
Proper balance is one of the most important things an artist of any sort can achieve. Just as a painting or musical composition must be perfectly balanced, so must a book, regardless of the genre. Your prose has to have a balance between description, emotion, action, and dialogue. Your characters need a balance between good and evil, making them realistic and lovable all at the same time.
And your romance? Well, your romance needs balance just as much as every other element. This seesaw of emotions isn’t dependent upon how well-balanced your prose, plot, or characters are; it’s a subject all its own, demanding as much attention as the story as a whole. If only one thing is off-kilter, the entire story could be lacking.
Different types of balance play into different types of romance. A romantic subplot requires enough strength to make it necessary to the story, but it can’t overshadow the main plot. Fantasy romances need to retain that otherworldly feeling, but they must balance the fantastical with the moral (in other words, limit the vampires). Romance also has to be realistic, so you need to balance your fairytale happiness with the harsh reality of life.
But the elements Christian romance must balance, above all, are the steam and the spiritual.
Steam is something secular romances embrace and most Christian ones shun—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Romance without some passion is bland and unnatural. Just because you’re writing from a Christian perspective or are exercising morality doesn’t mean passion doesn’t exist. God created marriage between one man and one woman, gave us a desire for our spouse, and filled marriages based on His principles with passion! Paul says in 1st Corinthians 7 verse 9 that “it is better to marry than to burn [with passion].” And don’t get me started on Song of Solomon!
In layman’s terms, when your hero and heroine lean in for their first kiss, don’t be skimpy. Flying sparks, palpitating hearts, stuttering pulses, and long moments of gazing into each other's eyes (don’t really do that, please) are examples of what makes your reader feel the connection between your hero and heroine. Don’t make it cheesy, though; we all know jolts of electricity at just a touch aren’t realistic (unless we’re talking static electricity, but that’s not as sweet).
A great example of successful non-explicit steaminess comes from Julie Lessman’s A Hope Undaunted:
“As if under a spell, his gaze was drawn to her lips, parted and full, and the sound of her shallow breathing filled him with a fierce longing. ‘Oh, Katie,’ he whispered, no power over the pull he was suddenly feeling. In slow motion, he bent toward her, closing his eyes to caress her mouth with his own. A weak gasp escaped her as she stiffened, but he couldn’t relent. The taste of her lips was far more than he bargained for, and he drew her close with a raspy groan. With a fierce hold, he cupped the back of her neck and kissed her deeply, gently, possessive in his touch. His fingers twined in her hair, desperate to explore.”
I hate to fangirl (A Hope Undaunted is one of my favorite Christian romances), but do you see my point? There’s nothing explicit or gratuitous, but you feel the surge of passion.
At the same time, the amount of attention and emotion you put into your romance should be dedicated to the faith aspects. Don’t limit your characters’ faith to a few whispered prayers or a Bible study. Balance both to create a smooth, emotional, authentic reading experience.
Which brings me to my next point…
Authenticity can go multiple ways. We’re just going to stick with two for now—authentic relationships and authentic faith.
When you’re writing about a close-knit family, you want to ensure that your characters interact with each other just like real families do. There’s fun camaraderie, inside jokes, teasing, berating, arguments, and all kinds of ups and downs. Some family members get along well; others don’t. Some situations flow freely and are full of joy; others are tense or stormy.
You don’t want to portray anything cheesy, bland, or gag-worthy. It has to be authentic.
Same goes for romances.
Not all of us have experienced the same relationships our characters do. In my case, I’ve never had a boyfriend, so I’ve had to ask questions, observe, and read whatever I can to accurately portray a romantic relationship. What’s more, most romances are written in both the heroine and the hero’s perspectives—so guys have to pay close attention to the inner workings of the female mind, and girls have to realistically depict their male characters.
I cannot stress how important authentic representation is. I have read so many novels that fail to depict certain characters in a realistic form. Tough heroes are emotional sissies and heroines are, to put it frankly, stupid. And their relationships? Scary. Misrepresented characters make for a disturbing romance.
Shy away from cheesy or bland relationships. All couples have tender moments, but they also have arguments or even break-ups. Miscommunication and misunderstandings are present in every day relationships—I can’t tell you how many times my parents have misunderstood each other. Conflict in a romance, no matter how small or large, is imperative.
Christian writers have something else stacked on top of their characters and situations. Faith. Just as we portray our characters accurately, we’re challenged to create a meaningful and authentic message of faith--and that’s not as easy as it sounds.
Authentic faith, the true relationship we have with our Savior, is full of highs and lows. Our faith rises and falls depending on our circumstances. It shouldn’t, as our God certainly never changes, but our human nature leaves us distrustful, worrisome, and selfish. Sometimes we get knocked down, and in those dark times we often lose sight of Who is always with us.
Likewise, our faith isn’t confined to bedtime prayers and a Sunday church service. We are witnesses to our friends and family, and our belief in God affects our actions. We and our characters should be kinder, compassionate, and moral. Our Christian characters should shy away from deception, stay away from or witness to the wrong crowd, and turn to God for guidance.
Several years ago, I read a book by Melody Carlson, a very popular Christian romance author. I had been looking forward to reading it, but I was sorely disappointed by her depiction of the Christian faith. Her characters had very few morals and casually mentioned things like fornication, adultery, and divorce without putting it into a Biblical perspective. Only once or twice did her characters pray over meals, and there was otherwise very little faith present.
Don’t dumb-down the faith or put God in a box. Preachy novels aren’t necessarily a reader-favorite, but if they’re pulled off correctly, no one has any complaints.
Another favorite of mine is Julie Lessman’s A Passion Most Pure. Her heroine Faith (seriously, that was her name) possessed a deep, abiding faith in God. She witnessed to all of the people around her (even her enemies) and was a shining light for Christ. Her mentor, the grandmotherly Mrs. Gerson, would often teach Faith how to grow in her Savior. There is a strong message of forgiveness and love in A Passion Most Pure, and even though Julie Lessman’s novels are what one would call preachy, her depiction of faith is honest and true, which makes the “preachiness” more real than the sermon you heard last Sunday.
As strong as Faith was, she also stumbled. Her mistakes would inspire both a boldness on the author’s part (which I’ll expound up later) and a beautiful speech from Mrs. Gerson, which I’ve featured below:
“‘It means, my dear, that every moment of our lives we have the opportunity to reap blessings from the hand of Almighty God. It means you have a choice in your future, Faith, that every decision you make shapes the course of your life, whether there will be joy or sorrow, blessing or curse. He’s begging you, Faith—he begs each of us—to choose life! Choose his way, the way of forgiveness and prayer. In the face of pain such as you’ve encountered, my dear, the choice is clear. You can choose to hate your sister and Mitch and hold on to your bitterness, or you can choose to forgive and be set free. If you choose hate, your heart will grow hard and cold as I suspect you’ve already seen, and you will be destroyed. God is very clear about that. But, if you choose life—his way and his precepts—you choose blessing, not only for your own life but for the life of your children after you.’”
When you add an authentic representation of faith in your romance, you create not only an engaging story, but your book becomes a witness for the nonbelievers and an encouragement to your fellow Christians. And authenticity can only be wrought in a story when the author is unashamed and full of the Holy Spirit.
When I say bold, I mean to be bold in every aspect—bold in your romance, bold in your faith, and bold in your storytelling—but most importantly, I want to address boldness concerning life.
One thing I blatantly abhor about most romances (you heard that right; I actually have negative feelings toward the genre at times) is a lack of realism. This is changing in a lot of novels, especially since more Christian authors are penning stories that aren’t just sweet and clean but are also a testimony of hope and life. But fluffy fairytales still present a trap that is all too easy to fall into. You must stay strong, dear writer! Don’t fall prey to evil Prince Charming and the deceptive promise of Happily Ever After. Life isn’t perfect. People most certainly aren’t perfect.
And the best way to portray authentic faith and write an inspiring novel is to be honest about the darkness of sin in our fallen world and our failings as humans.
There’s a reason why two types of books have succeeded so well in past and recent years: classics and YA. The two are as dissimilar as they come, but they do have one thing in common. You guessed it—boldness.
Authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mitchell, and Harper Lee were not afraid to address social issues—from poverty, class, and social injustice to war and racism. They were stark in their depictions of sinners, corruption, deception, and pain. Characters died. Others left. Some proved to be evil and conniving. The main characters experienced great trials and pain, but they persevered and became icons of some of the greatest stories ever told by man.
The Bible is another example. Does the Bible skimp on its revelation of sin? Nope. From the story of Cain and Abel, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to the woman who washed Jesus’s feet, the Bible is fairly explicit concerning sin, depravity, and immorality. Why? Because its entire purpose is to give you the Good News that despite all of the sin and imperfection, we have a Savior full of grace Who loves us beyond measure!
In the same manner, we should share stories of grace, mercy, and redemption—but we can’t do that with “perfect” characters and fairytale endings.
I mentioned YA, didn’t I? It’s not my favorite genre by a long shot, probably because it’s too bold about a lot of things. But YA authors won’t shy away from subjects like depression, anxiety, suicide, anorexia, drinking, drugs, divorce, etc. Their intention is to reach readers going through those same things, struggling with those additions, living in that world. A Christian author presents our culture through a Biblical worldview and offers hope in the midst of defeat.
Even with romances, the books that are expected to be lighthearted and happy, we should be bold in our depiction of culture through a Christian perspective and speak to readers who are struggling.
Again, I’ll use A Passion Most Pure for an example (and then I’ll move on to a different one; I do read other books). After losing her father and experiencing betrayal twice by men she thought loved her, Faith O’Connor hit the lowest point of her life. She was angry, bitter, and full of spite toward those who had hurt her. The same girl who’d been strong throughout the first half of the book was suddenly crumbling.
Lessman didn’t gloss over her lack of faith. She gave the reader a front-row seat to Faith’s hate, despair, and anger toward God. Why?
Because we have unforgiveness too. We have bitterness and resentment at times, and even if we’ve been freed from that, we can resonate with and be encouraged by books that accurately portray the ups and down of life.
Another level of boldness was portrayed by Tammy L. Gray in her New Adult romance, Shattered Rose. Her heroine, a college freshman, went through it all—anorexia, depression, drinking, premarital sex. To most Christians, that probably seems to be a little...much. Why fill a sweet romance with painful stuff like that? Why wrongly influence readers to accept those things?
But that’s just it. Unlike secular books, Christian novels should be written not to encourage sin but to speak to the sinner. Our boldness should entail an accurate portrayal of darkness and sin and the saving grace of God. Never be ashamed of the Gospel, my fellow writer. Don’t let our culture, the market, or social norms dictate what you write and Who you write for.
I’ve no doubt made my point—boldness is imperative. But why in a romance? Is there something wrong with sweet Happily Ever Afters?
No, of course not! But I want to remind you—particularly the doubters—that romance is more than a princess finding true love. It’s as multifaceted as any other genre, requiring detailed characters with failures, faults, dirty pasts, messed up presents, uncertain futures. Romance shouldn’t be bland and lifeless. It should be full of life, joy, and the light of Christ! It should be a parallel of His love story with us, His bride—and I can assure you that our love story hasn’t been the smoothest.
We do get a happily ever after, though.
Satisfied for Now
That’s basically the opposite of a Happily Ever After, but that’s what I’m leaving y’all with. The key to writing a Christian romance that uplifts, inspires, and intrigues is to be balanced, be authentic, and be bold. Don’t shy away from passion, true faith, and an accurate representation of life.
If you want to know more about writing Christian romance, I suggest reading some. A few fantastic authors out there are Julie Lessman, Tammy L. Gray, Sara Ella, Pamela Griffin, Carla Laureano, MaryLu Tyndall, Becky Wade, and Roseanna M. White. They write a variety of genres—fantasy, YA, historical, and contemporary—but one thing their romances have in common is that they all glorify God and are full of His Holy Spirit!
Another good idea is to read other genres. Read mysteries, thrillers, action/adventure, fantasy, and more to glean from them. The best romances are full of suspense, adventure, and humor, so incorporate other genres, writing styles, and elements into your romance to make it unique and engaging!
Remember that, as Christians, our number one priority is to bring glory and honor to God in all that we say, do, think, and write. Seek His will for your book—because, trust me, He has a divine plan for every word you write! Allow Him to lead, guide, and direct you into all truth, and to give you His wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.
What have y’all noticed that romances these days are lacking? How do you want to change the romance industry to better glorify God? Are you currently writing your romance or have I prompted you to write one? I pray that you’ve been encouraged and inspired by this article—and that maybe I’ve erased some doubt in your mind about romance in general!
Original published on Kingdom Pen.
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