Positive and Negative Examples in Literature

by Edward Lake


When reading novels authors present readers with two distinct types of characters: Positive examples and negative examples. Both are useful for character development and moral instruction.

Positive examples

A character is a positive example when he or she makes wise choices that please God and bring about some kind of blessing for that character or others. Novels with positive examples clearly show that obedience to God’s commands brings about a positive result (either in this life or in eternity). These positive examples provide role models for readers to emulate.

In the novel The Shepherd of Bethlehem, King of Israel, Mr. Eardley is an excellent positive example. He is a new minister in town and on his first day in his new role he slips on some ice that was purposely made by a young boy looking to cause trouble. Mr. Eardley breaks his leg so badly that he needs to be on bed rest for a long time; yet, does not get angry at the young boy, nor does he complain and pity himself. Despite the challenge Mr. Eardley carries on his work of reaching the lost and holds Bible studies in his home. This novel encourages readers to be hardworking for the Kingdom, to resist self-pity and complaining, and also be resourceful in reaching the lost. This novel also contains a Bible study on the character of David presented by the minister and examines his life as a shepherd and later as the king of Israel. The author has done a very good job of slipping in direct instruction of Biblical principles in a natural way to the novel. These Bible studies also lead to the transformation of a number of characters in the novel.

Negative examples

A negative example is when a character makes poor choices that displease God and that bring about a negative repercussion for that character or others. Novels with negative examples clearly show that disobedience to God’s commands bring about a negative result (either in this life or in eternity). These negative examples provide warnings for readers to avoid.

In the novel Helen the character Helen is a very good negative example. She is knowledgeable of the Bible and is able to answer many questions in Sunday school; however, she does not love God, nor bear good fruit. Helen’s sister, Betty, on the other hand has a limited understanding of the Bible, yet is quick to put into action the simple truths that she does understand, which includes walking home a crippled girl named Louisa and inviting her to Sunday school. Helen is most concerned about pleasing her classmates and does not want Louisa to walk with her and Betty to Sunday school or have anything to do with her. Helen’s hatred for Louisa grows in the novel and ultimately leads to a severe consequence. This novel encourages readers to not act like Helen and to instead act like Betty. It teaches readers to not simply have head-knowledge of the Bible, but to let it penetrate their hearts and to put into practice what it teaches. The specific issues this novel speaks on is hypocrisy, self-control, anger, and being a good Samaritan.

Many Christian novels provide a combination of both positive and negative examples. Some novels begin with a character exhibiting a particular sin and suffering or causing others to suffer because of it; yet, as the story progresses this character repents and, with God’s help, learns to root out this sin in their life. Another combination of both positive and negative examples is when there are two characters that are presented in a novel alongside each other: one that is a positive example and the other who is a negative example. As the novel progress readers are shown that adherence to the teachings of Christ bring blessings to the one character and indifference to the teachings of Christ bring trouble to the other character.

Positive Traits in Secular Literature

Characters in secular novels today may still have some positive attributes that are presented in good light. Perhaps a character might risk his or her life to help someone else or might give generously to someone in need; however, these positive traits are often present alongside of negative ones and thus younger readers need to be instructed in which actions are to be admired and which actions are to be avoided. In addition secular novels do not acknowledge God as the source of all good; however, parents and teachers can emphasize this and thus still allow the novel to be useful. Therefore I would warn against allowing a young person to read a secular text without any guidance but instead that a parent or teacher lead a student in the study of a secular novel and clearly communicate which actions and attitudes honor God and which do not.

Negative Traits in Secular Literature

Although there are some secular novels today that Christians can benefit from, there are also many secular novels that are harmful. One type of harmful novel is a novel that attempts to make negative traits look positive. For example they might glorify warfare or getting revenge. Another type of harmful novel is one that shows a character with a negative trait, but does not have that character suffer hardship because of this trait. These two types of harmful novels give the impression to readers that someone can sin without it negatively impacting them or others. This is certainly untrue.

In conclusion I wanted to reiterate that readers can learn a lot from both positive examples and negative examples. I would also say readers should be seeing these examples primarily from wholesome Christian literature, but that some secular literature is acceptable as long as it comprises a small amount of their reading and the reader can correctly identify the negative traits in characters. It is best for young readers to have limited exposure to secular literature until they have a good foundation and will be able to read under the guidance of a parent or teacher.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Edward Lake

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