It’s easy to find novels that caricature Christian people; I read two of them this summer. Driftless, by David Rhodes, is an award-winning volume about contemporary life in rural Wisconsin. Rhodes is such a master of evocative description that I read his book twice to see what I could learn of his storytelling technique. He engages all of our senses when he takes us into the predawn pandemonium of a milking barn or the silent serenity of a sledding hill. We experience these places firsthand, and a skillful novelist enables us to experience them again.

Largely for the same reason, I read The Breath of God, Jeffrey Small’s story of a graduate student who goes to Bhutan in search of a manuscript purporting to show that Jesus spent his “silent years” of adolescence and young adulthood in India and Tibet as a disciple of Hinduism and Buddhism. Like Rhodes, Small paints sensory-rich word pictures of the places his hero visits–especially an opening sequence in which the grad student nearly drowns in a kayaking accident.

Yet both novels give us distorted portrayals of Christians. Rhodes tends to see all believers as niggling hypocrites. Even the most sympathetic character of the story–Winifred, pastor of the local church–is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that she tries to persuade a parishioner to exhume a farmer’s casket and place his cremation ashes in it, since most townsfolk believe he wasn’t cremated. The only overtly Christian characters in Small’s novel are the protagonist’s father (a fundamentalist preacher) and a zealous televangelist who wants to scuttle the expedition because the manuscripts might challenge the traditional teachings of the Gospels.

Stereotypes such as these make Christians pass over secular novels that might otherwise give us helpful perspectives on our daily life and faith. Unfortunately, Christian novelists are tempted to exaggerate the saintliness of their characters, which undermines the authenticity of their stories as well.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was such a comic example that it became the butt of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” monologues. Rebecca could do no wrong, so discerning readers passed her by. We see the same tendency in some of the “bonnet novels” based in Amish culture. Just because Amish culture is unfamiliar, novelists should not assume that Amish girls are without character flaws.

Verisimiltude in fiction writing (i.e., making our imagined world faithful to the real one) requires us to describe our characters as imperfect people, striving to become more like Christ but mindful that they have not yet arrived. We need saints with 5 o’clock shadow and runs in their hose. In other words, we need realistic characters if we’re to tell realistic stories.