Writer James Scott Bell talks about the death stakes for fictional characters. Characters are threatened with literal death— their own, or that of a loved one— in many books. In others the death stakes are personal or professional death— the character is facing something that feels like a ‘fate worse than death’ — losing a job, failing to win the One True Love….
But in Christian fiction, death stakes can be higher than in secularist fiction. In a secular fiction book, if a character dies, he becomes nothing. He’s over. But he’s going to become nothing someday. Which can sometimes make the death stakes kind of tame, especially with older, disabled, ill or injured characters.
In Christian we’ve got time and eternity to worry about. A character might not only die, he might die when he is not ‘in friendship with God’, and thus be on the hell-bound train. Worse, in Catholic fiction a character who has been a Christian, has had faith, who commits a mortal (serious) sin who dies before sacramentally confessing that sin might get a ticket for that same hell-bound train. (Sincere repentance at the moment of death can stave off that fate, but still, it’s best to be sure.)
Christian characters in Christian fiction must also worry about the eternal fate of the bad guys. If they kill a bad guy in self-defense rather than managing to capture him, they are likely to send him straight to hell. And Christian characters are not allowed to be indifferent to even bad guys’ eternal fate.
One thing I like about C. S. Lewis’ ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ is the moment when the character Ransom wonders if he should be teaching Martian natives the catechism. At that moment his ‘death stakes’ include his sense of responsibility for doing what he can to insure that the future deaths of the Martians won’t be eternal ones.
The heightened death stakes possible in Christian fiction may cause envy among secularist writers. I remember a novel by Mercedes Lackey, Children of the Night, in which a monster that ate souls was attacking people, thus denying these people whatever sort of afterlife people in a Mercedes Lackey novel have (usually reincarnation).
There is of course a type of ‘comfort-food’ Christian fiction in which the heightened death stakes are not raised. Everybody in the story is comfortably ‘saved’ and all the MC has to worry about is which of her brothers-in-Christ is her One True Love and how she can overcome the obstacles to make him her marriage partner. (This storyline works best in the fiction of Evangelicals who believe the Once-Saved-Always-Safe doctrine.)
But for most Christian fiction writers, most of the time, the death stakes we work with are naturally higher. We need to remember that to use it to best advantage.