5 Tips for Writing Religious Fiction

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5 Tips for Writing Religious Fiction

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 10 “Religious”


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"I try to have faith in the things that will happen, I get saved from myself when I do. So maybe god isn't the right word but I believe in you."
"First Song, Part 2" by Ramshackle Glory

Contrary to what it may seem by my occasionally colorful language and my semi-obvious beliefs about how the cosmos may work, I have read a ridiculous amount of Christian (and other religious) fiction. I've read works that were wonderful and those which were absolutely terrible. Today, I am going to talk about what makes them so. But to do so, I feel like I need to be honest about my own convictions. I was raised as an evangelical fundamentalist Christian who became an atheist in a religious college after studying the bible and biblical history. With that, I am going to try to make this article respectful towards people of all faiths and lack thereof. This is not because of any determination to be politically correct nor because of any value I see in religion. I don't believe in any inherent goodness in any religion, but I do believe in my readers and in your empowerment to write whatever types of story you want. Additionally, I am more familiar with this genre than with any other and feel like I have valuable insight for those with an interest. 

Tip 1: Decide whether you are writing propaganda, parable, or an honest story.

The most common problem with religious fiction is that the writers are often either preaching to an audience who already agrees with them, or trying to underhandedly convert their audience. If you want money from people who just want to see their views supported through unskillful work or white hankies in the air, then those techniques will work. However, if you want to tell a story that is honest and respectable, you must work toward doing so and toward distancing yourself from parable and propaganda. Don't get me wrong, parable does have its place. Parable is like an angler trying to teach starving people techniques for how to fish as they wade in the water, eager to learn. (That was a meta-parable.) You use it to explain principles. But I and most people I know do not consider it honest or quality storytelling because it fundamentally breaks the show-don't-tell rule. You are instructing your audience in how to think instead of letting them come to their own conclusions. Propaganda is similar, but more purposeful and manipulative in intent.  

Tip 2: Be a religious author who is writing a story, not an author who is writing a religious story.

If you set out to write a piece of religious fiction, you automatically doom yourself to failure, as you have put the theme/message before the plot and characters and everything else that makes a story. Fortunately, that is not necessary for writing religious fiction. The way that we perceive the world, human nature, and the nature of the cosmos will appear quite clearly by the events, people, and consequences that occur within the plot. So just write a story of the genre you want. The faith that you want to express will appear in the pages naturally, in a way that is more powerful and honest than any underhanded trickery or heavy-handed devices you could have used.

Tip 3: Make sure that your story is self-critical.

If it happens that faith becomes one of the main themes of your story, you must have the courage to look at it analytically and critically—just like you would for any other theme. If your faith is so untouchable for you that you cannot bear to look at it in such a light, then you either do not have enough belief that it is strong enough to withstand criticism or are too worshipful towards it to be able to represent it accurately and with ambivalence. Either way, your audience will realize this, pick your poorly analyzed faith to pieces for you, and distrust you as a writer. The way of communicating any sort of theme, including faith, is by taking a courageous look at its flaws, strengths. One of the keys to accomplishing that is honesty about the things that you, the author, do not understand.

Tip 4: Do not utilize Deus Ex Machina.

Contrary to what your faith might tell you, life does not automatically become fixed by any sort of religious or spiritual entity/power. If you assert that problems can magically be fixed in such ways, you will immediately break the trust of any reader who is not naturally inclined to agree with you. The only people who will think themselves benefited by this severe break in reality are those who agree with you and those situationally desperate enough to subject themselves to emotional manipulation. In literature, a spiritual power fixing one's problems (karma, god, angels, etc...) is an unforgivable sin called Deus Ex Machina, by which it becomes obvious that the plot, the characters, the themes, and the morals are not strong enough to lead the protagonist to victory. The writer has to cheat by becoming God and fixing everything. Now you may think that this is how the world really works because of your own personal experience, but readers (especially those who have undergone the opposite experience) will still perceive it as a story-breaking flaw. They will consider it cheap and lazy, and I don't think that this is how anyone wants to represent their faith. 

Tip 5: Demonstrate respect for people who do not perceive the world as you do.

You will likely have characters who do not share your personal beliefs, within your story. That is fine, so long as you treat them with genuine respect. I clarify “genuine” because it is often the case that writers see the word “respect” and think that simply means that you should not portray atheists/Christians/Muslims/whoever you-do-not-agree-with as villains or bumbling idiots. Genuine respect means treating them as important human beings with valid beliefs, valid reasons for believing them, and as characters who can genuinely be admired and learned from. This doesn't mean that every character has to be admirable, any more than in real life. It means that if you are going to address another faith in your work, you should give them a strong and noble representation at some point. If I want to demonstrate the evils that I perceive in any given religion, for example, I can do so with the most effectiveness and honesty if I create a character who demonstrates the genuine good of some people within that religion. If you show people of other faiths (or lack thereof) with respect, instead of treating them like villains or targets for eventual conversion, readers of other faiths will be able to respect you, the writer, and your story. Remember that it is only a weak and insecure person who must put make a strawman target out of other beliefs in order to make their own seem valid.

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Contrary to what it may seem by my occasionally colorful language and my semi-obvious beliefs about how the cosmos may work, I have read a ridiculous amount of Christian (and other religious) fiction—both admittedly good and absolutely terrible, and today I am going to talk about what makes them so. Please note that I am going to try to make this article respectful towards people of all faiths, and lack thereof—not because of any determination to be politically correct, but in a genuine attempt to be respectful and to see people of all faiths and beliefs grow in their ability to tell a powerful story. And I will expect the same out of the comments.  

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MasterVoluminous's avatar

Thank you. I was struggling with this. A wip of mine had committed a number of these writing sins.