Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Have you ever been advised to keep religion, faith, beliefs, and related issues out of your fiction?
Have you wondered why? Have you ignored such advice or followed along with it?
Have you purposely omitted faith and religion from your stories because you’ve been told it doesn’t sell or that readers don’t want such stories?
I want to remind you that you can make anything work in your fiction, even religion and all—good, bad, and indifferent—that comes with it.
Much of the advice against putting religious elements into fiction probably came about because of the over- or heavy-handed use of religion in novels. But we don’t throw away a rich source of character motivation or a major contributor to setting or tone just because some writers were heavy-handed.
Yes, keep in mind that you don’t want to overplay any story element, and that includes religion and faith. But not overdoing doesn’t mean you have to cut religion out altogether. What other broad subjects are so often ignored in fiction? There aren’t many.
And while there is a religion category in fiction, that doesn’t mean if you add a faith element to your story that it’s automatically put into that category or that your story wouldn’t better fit another category designation. You are not writing a religious book simply because you include a faith component, no matter what someone else tells you. At its most basic, religion is merely another story component, one that can accomplish for your story what no other component can.
Quite a few of the manuscripts I’ve edited recently have featured a religious connection. And I’m talking religion in many guises.
Not all mentions of faith are what we’d consider traditional, but belief systems are not being ignored in fiction.
Writers are including both traditional Western and Eastern practices, but they’re also writing about angelology, prayer, meditation, Roman and Greek gods, Egyptian deities, Wiccan rituals, elaborate rites, and simple daily faith.
Religion and faith are broad categories with lots of practices and options among them. Don’t be hesitant about considering any type of religious rite or ritual or belief for your characters and their fictional lives. Some book series are built around religion and faith. A lot of sci-fi and paranormal romance focus on what would be broadly considered religious or belief systems.
Would a religious element fit your story? One or more of your characters? Would religious practice of some kind be expected or commonplace for the era, for the background or occupation of your lead characters? Do your protagonist and antagonist have competing belief systems?
Do protagonist and antagonist share a belief system but have opposing views about how the practices should be carried out? Maybe a difference of opinion about who should be leading worship? A difference of opinion over who should be worshipped?
Do your characters recognize the passage of days because of a church calendar? Does your protagonist attend daily mass, celebrate a formal Shabbat seder every week, perform Salah every day?
Maybe you’ve got a character who talks to God easily, as though he’s been doing it all his life. Or, maybe you write a character who doesn’t know God but who calls on Him in a crisis.
Religion and belief in fiction can be as simple as a dad kneeling with a child, teaching him to pray. Or faith in a story can be the barest snippet of a scene in a hospital chapel with a character thanking God for sparing his wife. Or religion can feature in every other scene, acting as the backbone of the story’s structure.
The addition of religion can bring color and depth to your stories. It can bring a touch of reality to what the reader knows is unreal. Or it can make what is seemingly normal into something altogether alien.
A woman in crisis may well turn to God. She may turn away from Him. She may question what she’s always believed. She may delve into beliefs she’s only heard about but never explored.
Religion can be an underpinning of the story, it can be a thread laced through it, it can be the barest hint of a mention that causes turmoil. That is, it can leave a large footprint throughout your story or the barest trace of its presence.
The religious element can be used for back story or to create conflict and raise the tension in a scene. Religion can put characters at odds with each other or draw them close. It can reveal prejudices or it can reveal truths. It can help a character or impede his progress. It can tie a character in knots or free him from what has him bound. It can do both in the same story.
Religion can be explanation or excuse or revelation.
Religion and all its trappings can add layers to story and depth to characters. Don’t be too quick to ignore the religious element and its impact on story and character and reader.
Keep in mind—
Readers can be easily turned off by too much of the religious element. As with any writing element, don’t overdo.
You are writing fiction, not a screed or a proselytizing tool.
You want to make the religious elements fit the character and the era and the genre.
Mentions of faith can be subtle or grand.
Religion is personal and marrow-deep in many individuals, in your readers. But the strength of those connections shouldn’t stop you from using religion for your characters. Actually, because readers so identify with their beliefs, that’s a strong reason for you to include the religious element. Religious issues can create an instant emotional tie that you produce with few other story elements.
What you can do—
Put what you know of people and of faith to work for your stories. Don’t hesitate to push emotional buttons for characters and readers. Manipulate the religious element for effect.
Decide on the level—intensity and depth—of the faith elements you’ll include. Is faith part of what makes your character who he is? Does it color everything he does or is it merely background info?
Use faith and rite and ritual to reveal character, advance plot, create or raise conflict, provide back story, play the centerpiece of an action scene.
Make faith a natural part of a character, not an add-on.
As with any story component, don’t introduce religion only once and then drop it. If you include faith practices or issues, put them to use.
Don’t overanalyze or over-explain faith and beliefs. As you don’t explain how a car runs when a character jumps into it to make a fast getaway, don’t explain how religion makes a character behave. Just make use of faith the same way you make use of a car.
Create individuals of faith rather than writing caricatures. Not all religious people are angelic in thought or behavior, as they were written 150 years ago. And not all priests and modern religious believers are psychotic, evil men hiding behind their faith, as they’ve been written for the past 40 years.
Don’t allow other writers or experts to tell you what to include in your fiction. Writers are including religion, faith and beliefs, and they’re doing it well. Use any element that fits your story.
Consider faith for your fiction. Don’t add it only because you can, but don’t ignore it if your scenes, plot, and characters would be more involving with it.
Put religion, faith, and belief to work for your fiction. Draw from any subject matter that suits the tale you want to tell and that fits the characters who live in your story world.
Don’t allow yourself to be steered away from any story element that would enhance your craft, any element that could be the making of your story or your personal writing style or your career.
Introduce faith into your stories.
Write about characters and their beliefs.
Write powerful, inspiring fiction.