The Case for Religion in Your Novel
By Jerah Miller, Guest Contributor
Never let it be said that authors agree easily. They hardly ever come to a consensus even among themselves: Should they introduce the character this way, that way, or not at all? Maybe they could make this person the villain, or would they be better as the hero? Would it be better if they scrapped everything and started over? Decisions are a necessary evil when it comes to writing fiction. There’s one choice, though, that is passed over with very little thought; it’s this very decision, however, that I would argue needs to be one of the hardest to make. To write religion or not to write religion, that is the question.
Incorporating religion into a novel is a daunting challenge, to be sure. The idea of attempting to manipulate the concept of the supernatural and heaven and hell is enough to send even some of the more experienced writers screaming into the night. Religion, many argue, is a genre in and of itself. We don’t want it hopping the invisible borders between categories, and we most certainly don’t want it making itself at home in our precious little works of art. I, for one, disagree. I think that’s exactly what we need. So I’m going to present a horrifying idea: write religion.
I can hear the shrieks of terror now, and no, I don’t want everyone diving headfirst into the religious genre. Firstly, that’s actually completely against what I’m preaching here, and secondly, I don’t want to be held responsible for an entire corner of the fiction market drowning in too many manuscripts. Instead, I’m a proud advocate for religion as an overtone, or even as background music, to put it another way. It adds a layer of authenticity and a certain amount of depth for both characters and cultures that can’t be achieved otherwise. But in order to understand the argument for fictitious religion, we have to go all the way back to the beginning. Of this post, that is.
While they seldom agree, authors do hold one rule up as universally true: believability is key. Above all else, fiction needs to be convincing; without that, nothing else can even possibly be achieved no matter how good the storytelling or how pure the moral argument. From that point of view, religion—one of the most integral components of our world today, with effects and influence echoing backwards from the past and into the future—should be a primary building block of every good story. Logic would dictate that it should take its place among other storytelling basics, such as character motivation and foreshadowing. But instead, feared above all else, religion is one invaluable device that finds itself constantly shunned and ignored.
No one can argue, after all, that religion isn’t realistic. History is the loudest advocate of its authenticity. If we were to step back and view the entire world as a story, the authority religion grants couldn’t possibly be ignored. While some have used it to their advantage, such as the Catholic Church with its Crusades, others were afraid of what something that strong could do to them. The infamous Vladimir Lenin fought against religion, afraid of what it could do to him and everything he worked for. Countless battles have been fought over gods, and millions of people have willingly gone to their deaths in the name of faith.
Religion is and always has been a manifestation of values and beliefs. Whether based on truth or fiction, it has always been a way for both individuals and societies to reflect on the principles most important to them. There’s a reason, after all, why so many people daily allow themselves to be defined and represented by their spiritual beliefs—or lack thereof. One of the strongest arguments for the inclusion of religion in fiction is the power it leverages in decision-making. Though sometimes it distorts them, religion acts like a mirror for inner dilemmas, something that all good authors know their characters need to struggle with. It’s used often as a sounding board of sorts, a way for humanity to test their ideas and morals.
So, yes, religion is realistic, and yes, it is very useful in storytelling. Another common misconception is that fictitious religion has to be perfect. Religion in stories isn’t always meant to be correct; sometimes it’s better when it’s written wrong. The higher powers of some faiths have stories that do nothing but humanize them: Zeus and his adultery, Loki getting caught in lies, and even Osiris’s death. All these are struggles that humanity itself faces. Religion’s roots have always been firmly planted in the real world, so why would people argue against including it in fiction?
The answer is, of course, the most basic symptom of the human condition: fear. Emotions are our main resource as authors, the ink that fuels our pens of imagination. When we write, we feel. We feel angry and happy and sad and remorseful. But the one emotion we avoid like the plague is fear. It’s for the horror genre, we argue. We don’t want to touch it because if we’re scared, our audience is scared, and then they’ll stop reading. We lie and tell ourselves that it’s okay to leave religion out because no one notices, and it’s not that important anyway. But religion is an essential part of our arsenal, and we need to learn to overcome the fear that keeps it out of our stories. If we stop being afraid of adding such a crucial aspect of reality into our work, we’ll be surprised by the authenticity it brings and the connection we can achieve with our readers.
We need to stop avoiding our fear of writing religion. Once we stop and move past it, we’ll see the beauty that religion brings to our stories. Entire cultures become real, united under something other than a banner or a crown, and characters wrestle with internal conflict in the context of sin and righteousness and a morality larger than themselves. Fiction comes alive at the touch, holding yet one more resemblance to us and our world. And isn’t that the main goal of writing fiction—a connection with the reader? Here I am, offering you a way to do exactly that. I won’t promise that it will be easy, but it will definitely be worth it.
So I leave you with this command: Be bold, be brave, but most importantly, write religion.
Can you think of a book or series in which religion is effectively used as an overtone or “background music”? How did the religious element enrich the story?
Jerah is a habitual author who can’t remember the last time she went a day without putting pen to paper, or at least words to computer screen. She became an ‘OYANer’ way back in the ancient days of 2010 and has since been unable to stop her writing itch. Some of her favorite things include reading, hanging with her friends, and catching z’s. She is currently in her first semester at college, pursuing knowledge and a major in child development.
I feel like Brandon Sanderson did a really good job of incorporating religion in his novel Elantris. It wasn’t an afterthought; it was a living, breathing part of the story world and character motivations. That is what religion in books should be to me – meaningful, influencing. You’re so right about the importance of religion in our history. To ignore it in our stories makes little sense.
There are so many potential issues her as I complete writeing such a novel. I will check out Sanderson now and continue searching for role models. Tom