Both in real life and on the page, a characters faith can be tested during difficult times. This can be especially the case for characters set in the thriller genre. This week’s Killer Nashville guest blogger, Catherine Finger, masterfully incorporates faith-based characters into a dark, gritty setting in her Jo Oliver Thriller series. Finger personifies emotions such as betrayal, guilt, and shame to bring her characters beliefs to a breaking point in Cleansed by Death and Shattered By Death.
Opposites DO Attract: Writing the Faith-Based Thriller
By Catherine Finger
What do Stephen King, Lee Child, Kevin O’Brien, and Jude—author of his own little New Testament Epistle—have in common? Everything, as it turns out. In addition to recounting blood-chilling events in true thriller style, their stories are packed full of the human failures and hopes of the heart that keep us hungry and thirsting for more.
My goal as an author is to paint a picture of a real God, who offers us a future and a hope, in the midst of calamitous times. Writing faith-based thrillers challenges me as I strive to write compelling novels chock full of grit, while keeping the gratuitous gore to a minimum. Oh, and skipping the monkey sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with either— rather, I know myself and what makes my mind, body, and spirit happiest on any given day. My mind is my best feature, and I work to keep it free from imagery that has the capacity to chip away at my sense of personal safety or otherwise hurt my heart. Add to that my belief that a solid character arc comes only accompanied by a side dish of a genuine faith experience, and you get a sense of my essential story ingredients.
Are you snoozing yet? I hope not. I strive to find creative ways to tie these two big ideas together — faith and thrillers — and come up with one fantastic story. Weaving these pieces into a tapestry of intrigue led me to create the Jo Oliver Thriller series.
I’ve been accused of trying to destroy my own protagonist — Police Chief Jo Oliver — by throwing a series of overwhelming circumstances at her from every possible direction in each book. And while I do enjoy creating messed-up lives for my characters, my secret goal is to stir up as much trouble as I possibly can, and then see how my characters respond. I want my readers to feel the tension of wondering whether tough circumstances will serve to make my characters better — or bitter.
I delight in watching my characters experience some of the heaviest human emotions as they face escalating personal and professional catastrophes. Betrayal, guilt, and shame are The Big Three in my mind as I write and I want my reader to feel their presence, almost as if they were a character in their own right. What will these powerful forces drive my characters to choose? How will guilt and shame impact their current relationships? Who will they ultimately become after tangling with The Big Three?
Playing with key questions designed to help me frame the spiritual element in my books as I write helps keep me focused and fresh. Authors interested in adding their own unique brand of faith to their stories might find this practice beneficial. Questions I return to as I continue with my Jo Oliver Thriller series include the following:
- How does a hardened police chief find faith in the midst of a gritty murder investigation? And how is that faith manifested in a real way that resonates with my readers?
- What difference does faith make in the lives of my chief and others having faith experiences along the way?
- What does her growing faith look like, and how does it inform her choices and impact her behavior as the novels progress?
In Cleansed by Death, book one of the Jo Oliver Thriller Series, our heroine faces private battles at the hands of an abusive husband in her personal life—while hunting a serial killer. Escalating conflicts incite a personal crisis forcing her first encounter with ‘my Magnificent Being’—God, as she then understands Him—during an intense moment of spiritual warfare. This unexpected encounter shifts her inner landscape, and while her external circumstances don’t improve, she discovers within herself a renewed sense of life, hope, and peace.
In book two of the series, Shattered By Death, Chief Josie’s fledgling life of faith is severely tested as her world is threatened by The Big Three—especially betrayal. In addition to dealing with her inner demons, she faces a cunning foe that might just be strong enough, and smart enough to outwit her as the kill list mounts. Circumstantial evidence causes her once stalwart companions to doubt Josie’s innocence and she is forced to defend herself within her own department while pursuing a killer. The story begins with betrayal of another stripe as her philandering, soon to be ex-husband is found brutally slain alongside his mistress.
Where could God be in that complex mess? Isn’t that the question many of us face in our own daily lives? I delight in illustrating that question against the backdrop of impossible circumstances, and then watching Chief Josie walk through them, hand-in-hand with her Magnificent Being.
In addition to these internal struggles, let’s not forget that there’s a world of hurt going on externally as my Police Chief fights crime and hunts killers in a race against time in every novel. And — spoiler alert — people die! In creative ways! One of the things I love about this genre is that it lets me play with the notions of Good and Evil. I find it great fun telling stories about doing the right thing — or not — through an extreme medium with inherently high stakes. Writing faith-based thrillers allows me to take readers to the edge of their seats, while examining their hearts—hopefully while keeping them up at night.
Like Police Chief Jo Oliver, Dr. Catherine Finger is committed to protect and serve. But instead of handcuffs and handguns, she uses her wit and wisdom as a high school superintendent and church and community volunteer in northern Illinois. Shattered by Death is her second novel. For more information about Catherine, visit her website here.
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