These days, with so many niche markets, it leaves writers who want to lean on their inner lives with quite a dilemma. Where is the line between keeping your novel mainstream and limiting it to a niche religious market? Often I've been leery of presenting ideas about faith and God in a mainstream book, but when I examine the data, it seems clear to me many people manage it. There's also plenty of historical fiction novels where characters display a lot of their religions.
Considering my goal to allow my faith to actively enrich my writing, it's worth looking at religion and plot and storytelling and seeing what I can learn from others. This post is originally one I wrote for the Toasted Scimitar a few years ago on the subject of religion and plot.
Dangers of a Religious Based Plot
When religious themes, actions, or situations are so central to a story that they drive the plot, it means you, as author, are no longer neutral on the subject. If religion is just a colorful world building devise, the story puts no judgement on it. But if it drives the story, it is drawn into the theme and message of the book, and will say something to your audience about the religion/beliefs that are plot important.
The major danger of religion in plot is of course preachiness. When we pick up a novel we want a good story, to lose ourselves in another world, not to hear a sermon on what we should or should not believe. Nothing is worse than picking up a book, getting into it, and discovering mid-way that it's actually a religious apology for someone's personal beliefs, trying to make you agree with them. No one can stand a novel that feels like only a platform to have philosophy thrust at you. Thus, if you find religion is becoming central to your plot, or have a desire to use religion as a plot tool, your main task is to find a way to do this that is not preachy.
Three Ways to Avoid Preachiness
Many authors have struggled with the dangers of getting preachy and/or limiting their audience, and looking at the best works in fantasy that have faced this problem, I see three choices for writing a compelling story.
First, you can preach, but do it with care, and accept the fact it will limit your audience. You do this by writing for the already converted to the religion you are presenting, and give them a story within their world view that they can enjoy and appreciate, and that will deepen their faith. I can almost hear some groans… because this method has been done so badly so often, however, that's not implicit to the idea. Books can and have been written that are powerful works of literature that do this, and do it well. It's not easy, but I never promised any of these methods would be easy. But it does and will limit your audience, because any reader not already of that worldview will likely find the book preachy, so you must accept that.
Secondly, you can use religious or theological principles inherent in your world building, but disguise them so they are a subtext. In this method, on the surface the story appears to be about broad moral principles, but since it's still central to the plot, literary criticism can easily reveal the religious bias beneath them—you're still saying something concrete about your beliefs. The power of this method is that it can be read by a wider audience than method one, because those not interested in your religious subtext can ignore it. It's present, but it doesn't preach. The downside of this method is that it's a tricky balance to keep the message present but hidden. Too obscure and it will be missed completely, too obvious and you're back in category one.
The third way to make religion central to the plot successfully is to have the characters vividly religious but the narration neutral and the plot and author fair and balanced on the subject when all is said and done. This highlights religious issues/tensions/plot devises, yet does not commit the book to preaching the message of any particular character. The danger is that if the author is not excellent at keeping neutral on the subject, you're back in category one, but done successfully, such novels are thought provoking and enjoyable.
All three ways can create a compelling and satisfying story. I'm going to briefly show this by discussing some well-written fantasy examples. There's so many bad examples out there, that there's no need to get into those. (Although there are more good example in the literary and historical fiction genres… it seems more common that religious plots are done badly in fantasy and science fiction.)
Preaching with Care
One of the best books I've ever read in my first category is "Hinds Feet on High Places," buy Hannah Hurnard. The book is a stunning and compelling Christian allegory, and Hurnard doesn't pretend it's anything else, or for anyone else, than those who believe. It is a compelling character story, and anyone who doesn't mind the concept of Christ as savior, would most likely enjoy the book.
The main character, Much Afraid, learns her relatives are planning to marry her off to Craven Fear, whom she is terrified of. Her desperation leads her to finally accept the offer of the Shepherd to send her to the High Places, where she can receive a new name and life. But the Shepherd cannot stay by her side constantly, so he gives her two companions to help her make the journey, Pain and Suffering. At first Much Afraid is furious and distrustful, but as they are forced to face both the dangers of the journey and Much Afraid's insistent relatives trying to force her to return to the unwanted marriage, she must learn to trust them and accept their help.
Unlike many first category books, Hurnard's allegory is a well-balanced plot with plenty of tension, both in action and in spiritual journey. For someone of a Christian worldview it offers deep insights into the spiritual life. However, someone not interested in the Christian faith would probably lose patience with the spiritual discussions instead of finding enlightenment.
This principle was clear to me upon reading Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials." While it starts out a bit hidden, the series is most definitely preaching to the atheists, and is beyond blatant by book three. He is advocating through story, a certain point of view and does it openly. Despite the fact the story was well-written and had a good balance of tension and plot, because I am not an atheist, I found it annoying, unsatisfying, and preachy, where I would guess a believer of that world view would have found it moving or enlightening.
By openly constructing their plots and characters around their beliefs both Hurnard and Pullman limit their audience to people who agree with them. However, to that audience the book is valuable and well-loved, and both books have been very successful.
Religious Underlying Structure but Hidden
The most famous book in this category is of course, Lord of the Rings. Widely popular among people of all sorts of faiths, underneath the surface, Tolkien's Catholic worldview and theology are easily found through literary criticism. And, they are no accident, Tolkien was openly Catholic as well as a well-known member of Christian writing group, the Inklings, who strove to show their faith through their writing.
However, unlike Hurnard or Pullman, Tolkien's book is neither allegory nor openly advocating for his religion. Readers may not even notice the Christian structure of the story, of if they do, are free to ignore it. Yet, it is undeniably there.
Huge articles, and probably books have been written on the Christian symbolism of "Lord of the Rings." I'll do the short version. In Middle Earth, there are demons (Sauron) and angels (Gandolf). Magic is a force of evil and the devil (the ring). The forces of evil want to corrupt man into using those powers because ultimately that will bring them under the control of the devil. The characters struggle with moral choices when faced with the corrupting power of evil, and in the end good conquers evil and the world is saved.
If you want more details on the theology behind LOTR, I'd be happy to dig up some references to Christian articles on the subject. For the moment, suffice it to say that the book is full of classic theological references to Tolkien's religion, and that those are central to his construction of the plot, but are also hidden enough that no hint of preachiness breaks into the surface story. It's extra for those who care to find it. In this respect, Tolkien is a master at balance, because I've yet to find a way to do this properly in any of my novels, but then, LOTR wasn't written in a day, was it?
Religious Characters without Authorial Judgement
This category is no less difficult, and mostly seen in historical or literary works. However, in the fantasy genre, the book "Beast," by Donna Jo Napoli is an excellent example of this. The main character, a Persian prince, is a practicing Muslim in his historical tradition of that religion. Yet, despite the fact that his religion is the core factor that helps him retain his humanity after being transformed into the beast of the traditional "Beauty and the Beast" folk tale, the story does not try and convince us to be Muslims. His beliefs are part of his personal struggle, and especially late in the book when he meets the French Christian Beauty, no authorial judgements are drawn on either religion.
Both characters act as true representatives of their separate, and often warring religious traditions. Both characters find their religion a crucial support in their struggles in life. Yet, because this is shown as a personal view of faith, the reader is able to sympathize and understand the characters even if personally they disagree with them on the subject of religion. This works much like having friends or acquaintances of other faiths. The reader can respect the character's beliefs, because the character is not actively foisting them on the reader, but only living them out as they see fit.
And, the book is balanced. A faithful Muslim is shown next to a faithful Christian, and both characters are good and honest people. A book that shows everyone of one faith as twisted hypocrites, while those of another as kind people ends up making a statement on the value of various religions, even if it never claims outright that everyone of said religions is good or evil. It implies it through situation, placing the book back in category one.
Picking What Works for You
In conclusion, you cannot have religion as plot important without dealing with the issue of meaning. So, it is important when desiring to use strong religious symbols, theology, or motivations as plot important, that you take into consideration what sort of meaning you want, and the best way to present it. Done well, all three methods produce wonderful stories. Just be careful and conscious of the pitfalls, if you don't want to end up like many of the horrors out there.