335. About Storytelling: Christians Are Evil

Those Christians, I tell you! They’re all so evil. All of them! If you don’t believe me, just switch on the television or go to the movies. Hollywood proves that Christians are evil, because Christians are often depicted as villains, and the media is always right.


Seriously, though—why are Christians so often portrayed as horrible people in the media? Why are books, movies, TV shows, and video games full of perverted priests, prejudiced pastors, and sinister ministers?

Consider Warden Norton from The Shawshank Redemption, a film based on a story by Stephen King. (I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ve heard Stephen King uses Bible-thumping Christians as a lot of his villains.) Warden Norton is an awful person. He mistreats prisoners in his care, denies them justice, accepts kickbacks, murders people, and generally makes himself unpleasant. All the while, he quotes the Bible and assumes God is on his side.

Evil warden

God loves you, but Warden Norton will probably shoot you in the face.

Even when Christians in fiction aren’t evil, they’re often well-meaning but ignorant simpletons. Take Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I really enjoyed the series, but one episode irritated me. It was the episode featuring a Christian, and she was a bland, weepy, superstitious ditz.

Why are Christians portrayed so badly in the media? There are actually quite a few reasons.

It can be ironic or scary when a supposedly “good” person is evil.

There’s an artistic irony when a righteous person is actually wicked. It’s also pretty freaking scary. Who isn’t disturbed when a good person turns out to be a bad one?

Religious people have power and influence, which makes them great villains.

Priest and pastors have influence over groups of people. What happens when religious leaders are evil? They command the loyalty of their followers—even when that loyalty is innocent or well-intentioned. Religious leaders have power and authority, which can be easily turned to wicked ends.

Religious people sometimes do horrible things.

I hate to say it, but there’s a little truth in the portrayal of priests as pedophiles and preachers as charlatans. Christians, and people who call themselves Christians, have done some awful things. The media reflects that.

No secular media group wants to be accused of proselytizing.

Media groups exist to make money. Unless they produce religious media, these companies don’t want to be accused of pandering to Christians or spreading religious propaganda. Creating a genuinely Christian character puts media groups at risk of seeming to push a religious agenda. It’s safer to fall back upon familiar stereotypes like the evil or ignorant Christian.

Some religious traditions are spooky.

Have you ever stepped into an old-fashioned cathedral? You should try it. Little noises are echoed and magnified. Candles light the vast, empty gloom. Stained glass windows depict sad, soulless saints. Somber Christs hang in perpetual agony on crosses and crucifixes. Some Christian customs and traditions are frankly a bit creepy. They really build an atmosphere for villainy.

Some people just hate religion.

I’m looking at you, Philip Pullman.

As much as I understand these reasons for creating lousy Christian characters, I’m tired of the stereotypes. Am I the only one who thinks most depictions of Christians in the media are offensive? If other groups were so badly stereotyped, there would be outrage. Why is it socially acceptable to portray Christians as universally evil or ignorant?

It’s a problem, and I have two suggestions for resolving it.

First, do your research and create Christian characters that actually represent Christianity.

I’ve already touched upon this, but I’ll say it anyway: religious stereotypes are not only offensive, but usually incorrect. Joss Whedon, God bless him, understands this. Whedon is an atheist, yet he created a character named Shepherd Book who is genuinely Christlike.

Shepherd Book demonstrates a good understanding of Christian doctrines, and an equally good sense of humor. He is devout, patient, kind, and generous. To put it simply, Shepherd Book is represented by the media as a great character and a good Christian. It can be done.

The good Shepherd

Learn from the good Shepherd.

I’m not asking anyone in the media to create religious propaganda. I’m asking everyone in the media to create Christian characters that aren’t shameless hypocrites, greedy shysters, arrogant bigots, filthy perverts, sociopathic lunatics, or well-intentioned idiots. Is that really so much to ask?

Second, it’s perfectly fine to create characters that are evil Christians—just don’t be lazy about it.

I occasionally recommend an anime called Trigun. Set on an arid planet in the distant future, Trigun is basically the Old West in space. My favorite things about the show are its two main characters, Vash the Stampede and Nicholas D. Wolfwood, and their strained friendship.

Vash is an expert marksman, unbridled optimist, and wandering hero. He lives by a philosophy of “love and peace,” refusing to kill anyone. “Ain’t it better if we all live?” he asks.

Vash and his philosophy are tested by Wolfwood, an itinerant preacher who carries a literal cross wherever he goes. (When a bystander remarks that the cross is heavy, Wolfwood quips, “That, my friend, is because it’s so full of mercy.”) Despite his merciful profession, Wolfwood’s philosophy is a harsh one. There’s an Old Testament justice in his actions. He won’t hesitate to execute a bad man.

The bad shepherd

You do not want to cross this man. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.)

The thing about Wolfwood is that he himself is a bad man. He drinks, smokes, sleeps around, and kills quite a number of people. (Wolfwood’s cross is actually a machine gun with compartments for handguns, which is either blasphemous or awesome.) Even his theology is flawed. However, in spite of his faults, Wolfwood is a complex character. He sees violence as a necessity, and regards the world’s evils (and his own) with determined resignation.

To put it simply, Nicholas D. Wolfwood is a good bad Christian. He manages to be a Christian and a bad person without ever becoming an insulting stereotype. It doesn’t take offensive clichés to portray Christians as bad people. It can be done.

Christians are generally depicted very badly in the media. That needs to change. Christians—even the bad ones—can be treated fairly, and they deserve to be.

252. About Storytelling: Endearing Quirks

When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Quiring whose legendary silliness I have mentioned one or twice before on this blog.

For example, he once removed his necktie and unbuttoned his shirt during class to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the Batman logo. (He wasn’t really Batman, sadly.) At various times, Mr. Quiring pelted me with chocolate, brandished a meat cleaver and leaped off a chair shouting “To infinitives and beyond!”

The reason Mr. Quiring’s antics amused me so much is that he is not a silly person. Quite the contrary: Mr. Quiring is one of the most intelligent, dignified gentlemen I have ever known. It’s as though he compressed all the humor and silliness of ordinary people into short, intense bursts. Every time he did something outrageous, he reverted immediately afterward to his solemn self.

Mr. Quiring provides fine examples of endearing quirks: those funny little habits of real people or fictional characters that make us love them.

Some fictional characters are simply masses of endearing character quirks. Wooton Bassett, the mailman from Adventures in Odyssey, has too many odd habits to count: collecting fast food toys, expressing his feelings by the color of his slippers, baking jellybean casseroles and exiting his house via a slide. Wooton is fully capable of thoughtful introspection, but he’s mostly just hilarious.

Wooton BassettSome characters are less silly, balancing funny quirks with tragic flaws or struggles. Consider the Doctor from Doctor Who and Vash the Stampede from Trigun. The Doctor is an intergalactic goofball, bouncing around the universe with a beaming face and a slew of witty remarks. Vash is a gunslinger who obsesses over doughnuts, whines like a child and walks into a firefight with a trashcan lid on his head.

My thanks to my younger bro for permission to use his artwork!

My thanks to my younger bro for permission to use his artwork!

Vash and the Doctor seem sillier than Wooton, but their quirks mask profound inner turmoil. The Doctor despises himself. His travels throughout space and time are not a careless vacation, but his way of running away from past mistakes. Vash also has a lot to hide. The body beneath the overcoat is covered in horrific scars, and the man behind the goofy grin is tormented by regret for the lives he couldn’t save.

In the case of Wooton, endearing quirks are a form of comedy. The quirks of Vash and the Doctor serve a different purpose. Their odd habits hide sad struggles, and make the viewer feel more when their stories take turns for the tragic. After all, it’s easier to feel sorry for funny characters than for serious ones.

Then there is Miles Edgeworth, the friendly rival of Phoenix Wright from the Ace Attorney series. Like Mr. Quiring, Edgeworth is dignified, composed and intelligent.

Miles Edgeworth

Edgeworth also has a secret.

This respected prosecutor is secretly a fan of Steel Samurai, a cheesy show for kids about a futuristic warrior and his neverending fight for justice. Edgeworth vehemently denies liking the show, of course… but there’s his inexplicable knowledge of Steel Samurai trivia and the Steel Samurai action figure in his office.

In the case of super-serious people like Mr. Edgeworth, a single quirk can make a cold, distant character seem a little more human. Liking Steel Samurai is a weakness, but not a sin. We can respect Edgeworth, and we can also laugh at him.

Carelessly loading a character with endearing quirks is a mistake: too many odd habits, or quirks that seem out of place, are irritating. Used intentionally, however, endearing quirks can develop great characters—and make us laugh!

139. The Wanderer-Hero

I’ve been watching Doctor Who. Besides kindling a strong desire in my heart to own a fez, the show has reminded me of my very favorite character archetype: a rare, strange and wonderful kind of character, comic and tragic, plain and mysterious—the Wanderer-Hero.

(I should wear a fez. Fezzes are cool.)

The Wanderer-Hero is my favorite kind of character in fiction, and a very rare one. I can think of only four characters that fit the description perfectly: the Doctor from Doctor Who, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Vash the Stampede from Trigun and Father Brown from the stories by G.K. Chesterton.

These four—a time-traveling alien, a wizard, a gunslinger and a priest—have hardly anything in common, or so it seems at first glance. They actually share quite a number of traits, all of which characterize the archetype of the Wanderer-Hero.

For fun, let’s take a look at just a few.

The Wanderer-Hero wanders

There is no home for the Wanderer-Hero, whose destiny is to roam.

The Doctor travels in time and space with no home but his TARDIS, a spaceship and time machine. Gandalf wanders across Middle Earth. Vash roams the deserts of Gunsmoke. Even Father Brown, who supposedly lives in Essex and later in London, spends a surprising amount of time rambling throughout England, stumbling onto crime scenes wherever he goes.

The Wanderer-Hero is comic

Outwardly, the Wanderer-Hero is cheerful, witty or clever.

When confronted with deadly peril, the Doctor’s first reaction is to make a joke. Gandalf has a wry sense of humor. Vash makes a fool of himself at every opportunity; for example, while bravely defending a town from bandits, he wears a trash can lid for a hat. Father Brown possesses a gentle wit and a comically unorthodox manner of solving mysteries.

The Wanderer-Hero is tragic

Inwardly, the Wanderer-Hero endures terrible agonies.

The Doctor suffers from deep loneliness, guilt and self-doubt, besides the sorrow of being the only surviving member of his race. Gandalf fights a long, lonely, thankless battle against a nearly invincible enemy. Wherever Vash goes, innocent people die; these tragedies tear him apart. Father Brown admits to solving crimes by possessing a profound, painful understanding of human wickedness.

The Wanderer-Hero is more than human

In some way, the Wanderer-Hero is superhuman.

The Doctor is a Time Lord, the last survivor of an ancient race of extraterrestrials. Gandalf is one of the Maiar: divine beings sent into Middle Earth in the guise of mortals. Vash is a Plant, a humanoid creature possessing incredible power. Father Brown is only a human being, but his gentleness, wisdom and compassion are almost angelic.

The Wanderer-Hero is old

The courage of the Wanderer-Hero is balanced by the wisdom of age.

The Doctor is roughly nine hundred and nine years old. Gandalf spends centuries wandering Middle Earth. Vash is one hundred thirty-one. Father Brown is the only one whose age isn’t numbered in the hundreds, and even he gives the impression of being an ancient saint.

The Wanderer-Hero always happens to be in the right place at the right time

The character is called the Wanderer-Hero, after all.

Quite by accident, the Doctor always finds himself in exactly the right time and place to avert a catastrophe. Gandalf regularly appears just in time to rescue his companions. Vash helps people wherever he goes. By solving every crime he encounters, Father Brown saves the day—and sometimes the criminal.

I suppose the reason I like the Wanderer-Hero so much is that the character is a paradox: funny and sad, silly and wise, plain and mysterious, ordinary and extraordinary. The Wanderer-Hero has a little bit of everything.

Who is your favorite Wanderer-Hero? Should I acquire a fez? Let us know in the comments!

117. How to Kill Off Fictional Characters

Be ye warned: Here there be spoilers; specifically, plot details for Radiant Historia, the Harry Potter books and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Every fiction writer, no matter how inexperienced, possesses an ability with the potential to make readers rejoice or rage or weep. Although this ability can be powerful, too many writers fail to use it well.

Fiction writers can kill off their characters.

I’m currently playing Radiant Historia, a delightfully well-crafted RPG for the Nintendo DS. The story is set in a fantasy world in which two nations are at war over their continent’s dwindling supply of fertile land. Stocke, a secret agent, is given the task of saving the world using a magical book called the White Chronicle.

Early on, Stocke meets a young soldier named Kiel who hero-worships him. Although insecure, overenthusiastic and awkward, Kiel longs to serve his country and become a hero like Stocke.

Kiel, Stocke and their companion Rosch are suddenly plunged into a crisis. Rosch is critically injured. Enemy soldiers are patrolling the area, and it’s only a matter of time before Stocke and his companions are found and executed on the spot.

After hesitating for a moment, Kiel proclaims, “I’ll go and draw their attention!” Stocke objects, offering himself as a decoy in order to let Rosch and Kiel escape. Rosch insists they save themselves and leave him to die.

Kiel responds by shouting: “Sergeant Stocke! Thank you for everything!”

Then he’s gone.

In the end, Stocke and Rosch escape to safety. Kiel is surrounded by enemy soldiers and brutally executed.

I was staggered. Kiel was dead. The story fooled me into thinking he was just a background character, and then ended his life in a scene that made me want to cry.

That, dear reader, is how to kill a fictional character.

In the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore seems invincible, untouchable, immortal. He’s too good to die. He dies.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson with all his heart and soul. When Tom is convicted, Atticus resolves to appeal the sentence. He never has the chance. Tom makes a break from prison and is gunned down. Just like that, Tom Robinson, whom Atticus has spent the entire novel trying to save, is dead.

I’m not an expert when it comes to murdering characters in fiction. I kill off too many people in my novel—and spare one or two characters that probably should have died—but there is at least one death that matters. Those who’ve read The Trials of Lance Eliot know exactly to what I’m referring. One character dies who does not deserve to die.

Killing off characters should not be done lightly. If too many characters are killed, the reader is desensitized to death. Consider action films, in which dozens or hundreds of people are killed (in highly stylized and carefully choreographed scenes) and nobody cares.

Let me give just one more example of how to kill off characters.

There is an excellent anime called Trigun featuring Vash the Stampede (whose beaming face has already been featured on this blog). Despite his unmatched skill as a gunslinger, Vash is a pacifist. He resolves conflicts without killing anybody. When faced with two violent solutions to a problem, he invents a peaceful third solution.

One of the best things about Trigun is how Vash slowly unravels as he witnesses the carnage around him. People die. Lots of people die. Trigun has just as many fights as any action movie. For Vash, however, every casualty is a tragedy. Every death tears him apart. In the end, Trigun is a story about Vash coming to terms with himself and the violent world in which he lives.

When watching Trigun, the viewer comes to care about the victims, even the nameless background characters, because Vash does. He reminds the viewer that each death matters.

Asleep yet? No? Good. Let’s get practical.

Characters should not be killed off lightly

Don’t kill off a character just because you can. Death matters in real life. It should matter in fiction.

Don’t kill off too many undeveloped characters

Let’s face it. Nobody cares about the minor characters. Kill them off when the plot requires it, but don’t get too carried away. Deaths lose their emotional impact if they happen too often. When possible, save it for characters that matter.

The death of characters works well when it’s totally unexpected—or when it’s totally expected

Consider the examples of Kiel and Dumbledore. Part of what makes their deaths so powerful is that they’re unexpected. They happen suddenly, without much warning. Most players and readers are unprepared for them.

At the same time, however, foreshadowing can be a great way to make readers feel for a character. We feel pity when we’re sure a good character is going to die. A doomed character’s actions are poignant, and that character’s death is more moving when it comes.

What writers should avoid is killing off people whom readers suspect might die simply for being a certain type of character. If an obnoxious jerk is featured early in a detective story, for example, he often turns out to be the murder victim.

Quick, brutal deaths work well

There are enough slow, overdramatic deaths in fiction. People don’t usually die in the arms of loved ones after uttering beautiful last words. It’s a mistake to make every death in fiction emotionally satisfying. In real life, how many are?

Killing off minor characters can be a good way to develop major characters

When a military officer executes a civilian for stepping on his toe, we might not be moved by the death of the civilian—but you can bet we learn something about the military officer.

What’s your advice for killing off fictional characters? Let us know in the comments!

99. Pencil Drawings

My old man is a great artist, and his portrait of my typewriter monkeys at work—work being a relative term—graces TMTF’s banner. Sadly, neither I nor my older brother inherited any of my old man’s artistic skill. My younger brother, however, is turning into an excellent artist, and I’m proud today to share some of his work. Check out his deviantART page for more awesome artwork!

I’m not sure why he needs the sunglasses or the sake jug, but Auron is one cool dude.

This excellent portrait of Cloud Strife leaves me with one question: Which is sharper, the sword or the hair?

Besides being brave and noble, Link has a great fashion sense.

Featuring Vash the Stampede, a legendary outlaw, this may be the most awesome wanted poster in the history of history.

65. TMTF’s Top Ten Fictional Clergy

Deep within every blogger’s heart is a strong, almost irresistible compulsion to make a list of the top ten of something.

This means that practically every possible top ten list has already been made. This is a problem, since I, being but a mortal man, am not exempt from the desire to feature a top ten list of some kind on TMTF.

Then it occurred to me a few days ago that there are many notable, unusual or simply awesome priests, ministers, chaplains, monks, nuns and clergymen in fiction, many of whom deserve notice and none of whom (to the best of my knowledge) are commonly featured on top ten lists.

It is, therefore, with pride and satisfaction that TMTF repairs this deficiency by presenting…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Fictional Clergy!

Note that when pictures of the characters themselves are not available, pictures of the author have been featured instead.

10. Friar Tuck (Ivanhoe)

Friar Tuck

He may be a sham and a scoundrel, but I can’t help but like Friar Tuck: a trusted companion of Robin Hood, a formidable fighter and an unapologetic drinker. His reputation as a man of the cloth is questionable, but his cheerful disregard for his priestly duties is somewhat endearing all the same.

9. The Impressive Clergyman (The Princess Bride)

The Impressive Clergyman

“Marriage is what brings us together today.” That’s all I have to say.

8. Graham Hess (Signs)

Graham Hess

For a movie about aliens, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs gives quite a touching picture of a man torn between faith and cynicism. After his wife dies in a car accident, Graham resigns from the ministry and becomes an agnostic. He spends much of the film struggling with doubt, and the rest of the film defending his family from alien invaders: a courageous man on both fronts.

7. Shepherd Book (Firefly)

Shepherd Book

Firefly is a show about criminals, rogues and scoundrels. The cast includes a smuggler, a trigger-happy gunman, a wanted criminal, a lunatic and a classy prostitute. In the midst of these (surprisingly charming and likable) rogues is a kindly, compassionate, grandfatherly gentleman known as Shepherd Book. While one or two of his theological beliefs are slightly suspect, he may be the most genuinely Christ-like character I’ve seen in any television series of the last decade.

6. Dinah Morris (Adam Bede)

George Eliot

For those who have wondered, Adam Bede is not a cheerful book. It’s a novel about vanity and betrayal, and several of its characters end up dead or disillusioned. The gloominess of the novel makes Dinah shine all the brighter. Apart from demonstrating great selflessness and compassion, she is patient with even the characters whom the reader detests: a remarkable feat.

5. Nicholas D. Wolfwood (Trigun)

Nicholas D. Wolfwood

One thing must be made clear from the beginning: Nicholas D. Wolfwood has questionable morals. His morals are so questionable, in fact, that even other characters object to them. Nevertheless, his character is a fantastic depiction of a man trying to do the right thing the wrong way. He believes in absolute justice—he who lives by the sword must die by the sword—and can’t understand his friend Vash, who somehow solves crises without killing anyone. Vash and Wolfwood are easily two of the most complex and compelling characters I’ve seen on television.

4. Sister Carlotta (Ender’s Shadow)


Compassionate, patient and delightfully sarcastic, Sister Carlotta rescues orphans and street kids in her search for a child genius to defend Earth from a potential extraterrestrial invasion. She demonstrates great patience toward the children in her care and no patience whatsoever toward her haughty superiors—one of whom complains, “I didn’t know nuns were allowed to be sarcastic.” Like Christ himself, Sister Carlotta is kind, gentle and unafraid to speak out against foolishness.

3. Sebastião Rodrigues (Silence)

Shusaku Endo

When Sebastião Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest, travels to medieval Japan to learn the truth behind the alleged apostasy of another priest, he finds himself in a crisis unlike anything he could even have imagined. He was prepared to be martyred for the sake of Christ. He wasn’t prepared to watch as Japanese Christians were martyred instead. Rodrigues is given a choice: renounce his faith or watch as his brethren are slaughtered. Desperate for divine guidance, he is instead tormented by the silence of God. Rodrigues finds himself asking, as another great Priest once asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sebastião Rodrigues ranks high on this list for the depth of his character and his earnest desire to help others at any cost.

2. Charles François-Bienvenu Myriel (Les Misérables)

Victor Hugo

Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, once goes on a journey to visit a remote village because, he explains, its residents “need someone occasionally to tell them of the goodness of God.” He is warned that dangerous bandits roam the area; if he travels toward the village, he may meet them. “True,” says the bishop. “I am thinking of that. You are right. I may meet them. They too must need some one to tell them of the goodness of God.” Unlike the pompous, self-righteous bishops of his day, the Bishop of Digne is humble, selfless, kind, patient and generous. It is a single selfless action of the Bishop of Digne that saves Jean Valjean, a disillusioned convict and the protagonist of Les Misérables, from a bitter life of crime.

1. Father Brown (The Innocence of Father Brown)

Father Brown

Number one on this list is my all-time favorite fictional character. Father Brown is a short, clumsy, disheveled Roman Catholic priest with a blank face, a compassionate heart and a keen understanding of human nature. He’s also a brilliant detective, albeit an apologetic one. Most remarkable is his concern for criminals. Sherlock Holmes throws his archenemy over a precipice to a violent death. Father Brown, by contrast, persuades his archenemy to give up crime and become a private investigator; they later become close friends. As a detective, as a priest and as a fictional character, Father Brown is amazing.

What notable, unusual or simply awesome fictional clergy do you think should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!

5. Anime Hair

In my middle school days, it seemed that everyone had spiked hair. Well, by everyone I mean many of the boys. I did know a girl with spiked hair—it was actually quite a good look—but the fashion was almost exclusive to the males of the species. I even tried spiking my hair once, a dreadful mistake that I’m still trying to block out of my memory.

It would be much more convenient to have naturally spiky hair. People have naturally wavy or curly hair. Why not naturally spiky hair? Sadly, spiky hair is not a gift God has given humankind. Perhaps spiky hair is a gift we lost when we sinned against God at the beginning of the world. Could Adam and Eve have had naturally spiky hair in the Garden of Eden?

I guess I’ll save that theological question for another time.

Spiky hair seems to be a requisite for anime, or Japanese animation. This prompts a number of questions. Do anime characters take time to style their hair, or is it naturally spiky? If it’s naturally spiky, what are the theological implications? Are characters with spiky hair holier than characters without spiky hair?

Another common tendency of anime hair is to be creatively colored. Anime characters have black, brown or blond hair like the rest of the human race. They also have blue, green or purple hair. Explanations are never given for these unusual colors. Viewers are left to assume that anime characters either dye their hair or possess highly irregular genes.

I read somewhere that the trend toward odd hair colors began with manga, or Japanese comics. These comics were printed without colored ink, restricting a character’s hair color to black, white or a shade of gray. The covers of the comics, however, were printed in color. In order to visually distinguish characters as much as possible, comic artists gave their characters vividly colored hair. This tendency toward unnatural colors passed from manga to anime, thereby accounting for the brilliant shades of pink and indigo that brighten the hair of certain characters.

The really striking thing is how natural spiky or vividly colored hair seems in Japanese anime. Viewers tend not to think twice about a character with spiky blue hair.

Of course, there are a lot of strange things in Japanese anime that viewers tend not to think twice about. Like the characters (usually females) with furry ears and whiskers who possess a vague resemblance to cats, and the innate ability of some characters to produce large hammers from thin air, and the inexplicable ubiquity of pandas.

Strong Bad was right. Japanese cartoons are weird, man.