Sub-Creators: The Duty of the Storyteller

Posted: October 21, 2013
Nathan Seuss
Writing Center Consultant 
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen. 
-J.R.R Tolkien, from Mythopoeia

From the beginning of creation, human beings have delighted in the art of storytelling. Stories make up the foundation of human culture and identity, and it is the primary medium by which we relate our lives and selves to one another. Who can resist telling or hearing a good story? How many times a day do we tell stories to our friends and family?

Storytelling makes up the backdrop to our lives, and some of us choose to pursue stories further, transforming the foundation into an occupation. These are the storytellers by trade, the bards and prophets who wield the weighty power of words to tell us who we really are, to burn away the glamour and grime of “real life,” and leave only our human essence in all its beautiful and convicting rawness.

We are stewards made in the image of God, and just as He is the ultimate creator, we too are called to participate in the act of creation. Human beings, and storytellers in particular, are what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creators,” given the power to create with words just as God called the universe out of nothingness by giving it a name. In light of our divine appointment as sub-creators, we are bound to the One who named us and gave us words, and we are called to tell stories that reflect His truth to all -- believers and non-believers alike.

This may sound like an immense limitation to the storyteller’s creative potential. How can we write something new and unique if we only write things where good wins, or where the hero only does what Jesus would do? It is true that limiting ourselves to such cookie-cutter tropes would critically inhibit our ability to tell great stories. We need not be so blunt. Rather, we must ensure that our creations are founded in God’s truth. We can tell dark stories of hopelessness, suffering, and defeat, but we must check to see if the truths guiding our stories align with the ultimate truth guiding our lives.

A writer who doesn’t craft stories from a base of truth risks spreading delusion. The Twilights that build an unrealistic and unattainable expectation of romance and relationship, and the horror stories that prey on our fear, disgust, and corrupt fascination with our own monstrous and sinful nature, serve to build and amplify rather than dispel the illusions cast by our broken world. As sub-creators, our creations must be anchored in the truth of the Creator, the Author of life itself. Only with that foundation laid can we hope to tell stories that carry weight and can truly connect to the audience.

Sadly, like every other person on earth, we storytellers are broken and petty creatures, and our profession, like all others, has been twisted and warped by sin, in desperate need of the truth, love, and hope found only in our Creator. Contemporary culture tells us that stories do not require the presence of a point or truth; they are just stories after all. As far as our world is concerned, the only virtue a storyteller should be concerned with is the virtue of entertainment, measured by sales revenue. Make us laugh; make us cry; tie our guts in knots; that’s all we want.

But God has so much more in store for the human race than mere emotional stimulation. He means for us to not only enjoy stories, but to grow from them. Stories help us grow through the revelation of truth, and their power lies in the ease with which we can connect to them. Stories are at our core and are therefore relatable to us, allowing them to teach and shape us in ways we would never consciously allow. Stories must be told from a strong foundation, or else the shaping power of story can mar us.

If a sub-creator must build his or her story on the foundation of truth, what might that story look like? A story founded in truth must have something to say, a truth to reveal. Make a point, or else the story goes nowhere and touches no one, and the best it can be is entertaining. The point of the story can be almost anything: the benefits of a virtue, the difficulty of practicing it, the damage caused by a vice, the freedom that lies in overcoming it, the misery awaiting those who refuse to turn from it, the challenges of life, the struggle between good and evil, and the grey areas where we seem to spend so much of our lives. The key for a sub-creator is to root the point in a desire to seek out and convey God’s truth.

After storytellers have found the point within the story, they must create the characters that will inhabit their world and convey the truth of the tale. The most important law of characters is that they must be understandable. When we look into a character, we must be able to see a part of ourselves in the folds of the personality. This is as true for antagonists as heroes. Even the cruelest of villains is a portrait of humanity, its vices, brokenness, and depravity thrown into sharp relief against the light of surrounding characters; for that reason we hate them, just as we hate the evil within ourselves.

Characters have to convey the truth the storyteller is trying to reveal, and while they must be understandable, they by no means have to be sympathetic. We do not need to like every character we meet. We don’t even necessarily have to like the hero. Shakespeare’s hero Macbeth is in many ways an abhorrent character: a greedy, scheming, murderous wretch. However, we as the audience can connect with the motives that drive Macbeth to his fate, and while we despise Macbeth’s evil deeds and perhaps his very character, we cannot help but recognize our own degenerate nature in his to the extent that we still feel sad when the completely justified Macduff lands the deathblow. Macbeth is powerful not because he does what Jesus would do, but because he reveals to us the truth regarding the corrupting power of ambition.

By creating understandable characters and a plot that makes a point to the reader, writers founded on the truth of the ultimate Creator are far more free to make unique stories than we at first supposed. Now a question arises from the opposite side of the spectrum: with so much freedom as sub-creators, where can we go wrong?

Storytellers miss their calling as sub-creators when, rather than stripping away the illusions and degradations to reveal the core of our being, they accentuate these elements for the sake of entertaining the masses. In essence, storytellers fail when they don’t make a point. Stories that rely entirely or heavily on their entertainment value, such as action sequences, sex scenes, or any other element that draws an emotional response from the audience, without fulfilling a particular purpose, are little more than sales gimmicks meant to anesthetize rather than instruct or inspire. Storytellers who wish to fulfill their role as sub-creators must therefore resist the invitation of contemporary culture to tell stories that do not make a point, specifically a point founded in God’s truth.

Sub-creators are called to do much more than entertain. We are called to bring hope and redemption, to convict and indict, to reveal and teach, to prophesy and encourage, to anger and move to action. In short, sub-creators are called to draw out our humanity, in all its beauty and brokenness. Storytellers polish the glass so that, if only for a moment, we can glimpse the One whom we reflect, whether we recognize Him or not.

In fact, these stories are more important to those who do not recognize the reflection of God than to those who do. Stories of this sort, that reflect the ultimate story of the love, power, and saving grace of God without naming them explicitly, create a bridge between the non-believer and God, a way for the non-believer to engage with the elements of faith and relationship with God without the inhibitions of negatively-connoted Christian jargon. Stories have the capacity to cut through baggage, brokenness, and insecurities, and can draw a direct line from the heart of a sub-creator to the heart of the Divine Creator.

We are all storytellers, and we are all called to be sub-creators partnering with God in the family business of making good works. Those of us who desire to pursue storytelling beyond its regular life application must submit ourselves to the task of telling stories that draw out our humanity and reveal our resemblance to our Creator. We must have a point to make, and we must have understandable characters who carry that point to its fulfillment; and if we succeed in the task at hand, we can enable our audience, comprised of believers and non-believers alike, to engage with the elements of faith and the character of God without apprehension. If we succeed, we can be more than storytellers. We can be legend-makers.


Nathan Suess is a junior Business Management major who plans to become an author and video game designer. He has experience writing case studies, research papers, persuasive essays, creative fiction, and screenplays.  His favorite part of working with student writers is brainstorming and idea development. To make a Writing Center consultation appointment with Nathan click here.