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Do Religion and Faith Belong in Fiction?

March 20, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 20, 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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10 Responses to “Do Religion and Faith Belong in Fiction?”

  1. If there’s one thing guaranteed to make me put a book down and not finish reading it then it has to be when I think the author is trying to preach religion to me. I have nothing against preaching or religion if it is part of the story or plot. But making a character religious in fiction should be the same as making a character a stamp collector, or an alcoholic or a fanatical sports fan or a nosy busybody. The trait should be used to explain behaviour or motive or drive or means or opportunity. If an author makes a character religious as a reader I want to know why. Has the character suffered some injustice or pain in their past? Were they brought up that way and how is it affecting their life and relationships now? etc. It is similar to the play prop misquote; “if there’s a gun hanging over the fireplace in act one, it had better be used by the end of act three, or why was it there.”

  2. Christopher, I wanted to say Amen but figured that would be too predictable. But yes, just like any other element in our stories, religion has to be put to use. How does it influence goals, motivation and/or conflict? Does it serve a purpose or purposes? Is it the best story element to achieve what we want it to achieve?

    Great points. Thanks for joining in.

    I don’t think it would hurt to repeat: 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.

  3. I always thought I should avoid writing religion into a manuscript, but then I wondered why. It is a layer of characterization. It can even add a layer of conflict. And it may reveal a psychological trait. Does the character have trouble seeing something unless it hits him in the face? Is he someone who trusts everything and everyone? Religion doesn’t have to be preachy. It can illustrate who that person is and how he fits into his cultural world. It can show how desperate he is or how angry, how beaten, how filled with hope. Use it to show not to preach and it can add dimension.

  4. Priscille, I think that many have been steered away from the religious element, if not overtly then simply through neglect or failure to make faith in fiction an option.

    But there’s so much you can do with it—from stirring conflict to using it for motivation to adding an emotional component. I hope you find ways to work successfully for you.

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

  5. One of my very favorite writers is Gene Wolfe (and if you know his work, you know why). He is a conservative Roman Catholic in his personal life, and this attitude invariably makes it into his books. I am quite the opposite of Wolfe in terms of my beliefs and political attitudes, but rather than being offended or put off by Wolfe, I love him to death, whereas I might despise a lesser writer with the same background. (That is, in his fiction I love him; some of what he says in interviews I take great offense to, just as I would hearing such pronouncements from any other conservative Roman Catholic.) What makes Wolfe work is his brilliant imagination, his subtlety, and his insistence on embodying his beliefs in his characters as human beings, not as preachers or mere mouthpieces. He is perhaps the prime example of a good religious writer (though none of his books is religious fiction per se), and I wouldn’t want him any other way. So if you want to send a message in your fiction (and who doesn’t?) scramble it, hide it, and most of all, make your characters live it.

  6. Joshua, the religious elements are so much a part of so many people’s lives, so much a reason for what they do and how they think, that I’m surprised we don’t see more of it in our fiction. There is some, as you’ve pointed out, and the addition of it to a character’s background can often strengthen a story. Perhaps we’ll begin to see more folded in.

    As I mentioned in the article, I’m seeing this element a lot in manuscripts and most times it’s not overwhelmed or been intrusive but a natural part of the characters’ lives. I hope writers discover that religion or belief systems don’t need to be shunned, that they can instead be used for many purposes.

  7. Some great insight here. In SF writing, I tend to get away with bringing in faith and religion as part of world building, without having to worry too much about it. It simply adds to the setting and colours the characters. Religion is a fact of life and should be used realistically. I sometimes find religion conspicuous by its absence. One TV series in particular that left me wondering where God was in the time of crisis was “Jericho” – conversely, I thought the religious elements in the series “Friday Night Lights” really well done, setting the scene, colouring the characters and their actions. It really depends how you use it.

  8. Suzanne, sci-fi and paranormals tend to use religion and faith more than many other genres. I’m not sure why they’re so easily accepted there.

    I know what you mean about God in TV/movies. I always wondered where Jesus was in the show 7th Heaven. The father was a minister, but little was made of some of the more common religious elements. Odd indeed.