Writing Religious Fiction: An Introduction
To talk about ‘religious fiction’ is to discuss a very broad category of fiction. There are so many different religions and so many different sub-genres of religious fiction within each belief system that it is difficult to encapsulate them all in a single discussion (I was actually planning a series on the subject initially and I may yet come back and write that series in the new year). To be clear, I am not going to focus on any particular religious beliefs in this post, nor am I going to use this platform to propound my own beliefs, important as they are to me. My goal, as always on this website, is to focus on how to write a good story with a religious theme, whatever that religion may be (including atheism, if we can define it that way) and to be as sensitive as possible to the multivarious beliefs out there. That being said, I do have particular beliefs of my own, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I try to navigate these tricky waters.
The first and best tip I can give for writing religious fiction is this: don’t set out to write religious fiction. Most books I’ve read under the heading ‘religious fiction’ tend to be woefully awful stories (except for Ben-Hur; there’s a reason it’s endured all these years and been made into a movie more than once). Write a good story while remaining true to what you believe in. As with any other theme, if your goal from the beginning is to write a Christian romance or an Islamic spy thriller, you’ll end up writing a story simply to prove a particular point. There are two glaring problems with this approach:
- This won’t yield a very good story. It will yield, at best, a thinly disguised sermon. More on that here.
- A work of fiction can’t really prove anything, since you can make anything happen in your story just the way you want it to. You can make hardened Darwinist characters become creationists or born again Christian characters become hardened Atheists. Heck, you could make a homosexual Muslim couple convert to Christianity and start a side business in fortune telling after they have a vision of Krishna. It’s all just fiction. The fact you can make it up does not prove it to be true or laudable and readers of any religious persuasion will not be fooled if you contrive a fictional situation to prove a particular doctrine.
If we’re being honest, writing fiction with a religious theme is a far more simple matter than we imagine. The usual rules apply: start with your characters. Give them strengths and give them weaknesses. Give them motives, give them goals and give them a stinking great problem to overcome.
If you want religion to be a central theme, you can always make religion part of the conflict (e.g.: crises of faith, suffering persecution, etc) but for goodness sake, don’t just make it the solution to the central conflict (e.g. Bob fancies Lucy so he prays about it and they get married). There is, however, an even better approach than this.
Take Ben-Hur, for instance. Ben-Hur is, for the most part, a story of a Jewish man trying to avenge himself against his Roman enemies and trying to find out the fate of his mother and sister, whom he had believed to be dead. It is only in the course of this that occasional encounters with Jesus nudge him, little by little, towards a faith which he fully embraces in the concluding pages of the book after the main conflict has been resolved. So let the theme emerge naturally and develop it exactly as you would for any other type of fiction. The truth as you see it will shine through in anything you write.
I would also be very, very, very cautious about including God, or whatever other power you may believe in, as an active character in your story. The only exception I would make would be if you were lifting a particular theophany directly from an established religious canon (e.g. you might have Moses meeting God on Sinai or Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus). There are a few reasons for this, but there are two biggies I can think of:
- As before, it becomes very easy to ‘prove’ any point you want simply by having God appear in your story and affirm it to be so. However, your readers aren’t stupid. God didn’t write your novel. You wrote it, and you aren’t God. Putting words into a deity’s mouth will only patronise and annoy your readers. If you make God do or say something which he hasn’t done or said in the established canon of your religion, then it is a made up thing. You have left religious fiction behind and have started writing a crude fantasy.
- If God or gods should appear in your story you are in severe danger of the dreaded deus ex machina, where a story’s conflict is not resolved as much as it is simply set aside with a simple miracle.
On the subject of deus ex machina, beware of miracles. Miracles might be something you believe in, but they don’t work well in fiction. If your characters simply pray and their problems get fixed, you’ve still created a deus ex machina ending and that’s bad writing in any genre.
Also one more thing: remember to be objective and respectful. Don’t create unfair caricatures of other belief systems, nor unjustly exalt practitioners of your own religion above others. Show the real world in all its ugly truthfulness or else you run the risk of writing hollow propaganda, which will fool no one.
I realise this has been a bit of a whistle-stop tour of how to write religious fiction and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface today. Maybe I will write that series in the near future. We shall see! Until next time… !
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