Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Fab Five Rules of Incorporating Faith into Fiction

Chelle asked me to blog about “reconciling faith and fiction.”  To me, there is no reconciling—faith is a natural part of the human experience, and as such is a valid part of fiction.  However, it is a volatile topic, so here are some tips for making your fiction-with-religion salable:

#1  Tell a good story.   If you are only writing your story because you have a message to send (or an ax to grind), then write an essay.  Good stories have characters you love—or love to hate—plots that are exciting and intriguing, and settings that bring you into the story.  Know the art of storytelling, and let the story deliver your message—not your message dictate your story.

#2  Give the reader complexity.  Readers are more sophisticated, for the most part—they do not want a simplistic Good and Evil scenario.  Nor do they want “plastic Jesus.”  Whether it’s your priest hero or the church your main character  attends, let the reader see beyond the surface—the good and the bad, and the stuff that isn’t so clear.

#3  Know the religion you’re writing about.  Don’t let ignorance lead you to misrepresent a faith, whether someone else’s or your own.  Do some research, get someone of that faith to read your book, and also examine your own motives. For example, in “Antivenin” in Infinite Space, Infinite God II (, I had a Pentacostal snake handler.  Personally, I think the idea of handling snakes to prove your faith is nuts, but the idea was fascinating.  I’m lucky enough to have a friend whose mother was a Pentacostal minister, and she read the story for me, noting that a lot of what this minister did is NOT the way the church approves—even down to the kind of snakes I’d put on the spaceship.  I did more research and discovered my errors.  In the end, it made the story stronger, however, because I was able to rewrite and add a new dimension to the character—one rejected by his church because of his excessive ways.

#4  Don’t use religion as a crutch.  There’s nothing more dissatisfying in a story than an easy answer—yet (ironically) the temptation is to use religion to solve the conflict.  The person “finds God” and suddenly their attitude changes and all their problems start to fade.  Or someone prays and the miracle happens—The End.  Life is messy.  Good fiction, while more clearly portrayed than reality, is not cut-and-dried, either.

#5  When submitting, know the publisher.  No matter how good your story is, you still have to follow their guidelines and conform to their philosophies.  A good example is Rachel’s Contrition by Michelle Buckman.  It’s a powerful story of a woman who loses a child, and her faith—Catholicism—is an integral part of her healing, and thus of the story.  Michelle has been successfully published with CBA publishers, but this book was too Catholic for their tastes.  She had the choice of removing all traces of the religion—changing the theme and character—or going to a smaller, Catholic press.  She chose the latter, and it’s been an Amazon best seller for Sophia/Chisel & Cross books.

I have a reputation for being a faith-in-fiction writer.  Religion is a big part of who I am, and it fires my imagination.  My characters often have a religious side that does not want to be hidden, and I enjoy playing with real and imagined faiths.  I’ve been very proud of the books I’ve written and edited, the latest of which is Infinite Space, Infinite God II.  Although an anthology of Catholic science fiction, it’s been read and enjoyed by people of many faiths.  I believe that’s because the contributors followed the rules I’ve listed above.

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