Religion in Novels: Terrific or Taboo? — Guest: Jody Hedlund
I’m excited to share today’s guest post with you because in addition to being a lovely person, Jody Hedlund runs a fantastic blog for writers. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also graciously arranged for a book giveaway of her latest release, The Doctor’s Lady (see bottom of post for details).
Jody writes historical romance stories that touch on issues of faith, and we all know that religion and politics are potentially dangerous topics. So I wondered how she balances being true to herself and her stories while not alienating potential readers. Whether we write political/religious stories or not, I think we can all learn from her approach.
Is religious-talk taboo in novels? Should we avoid it for fear of offending some of our readers? After all, each of us will have (and are entitled to) our own diverse religious beliefs. We won’t all agree (even those sharing the same faith will often have differences on issues!). So should we just keep our beliefs to ourselves and out of our books?
Anyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook or my blog knows that I tend to take a more professional approach to what I share. While I try to be authentic about my life and writing journey, I keep my personal opinions and beliefs to a minimum. People aren’t following me for my witty political opinions or for my inspiring faith tweets.
Rather, most of us hook up on social media sites because we enjoy the connections and the writing information we glean. In fact, the majority of us get turned off by others using social media as a soapbox. We enjoy using social media to socialize (go figure!), and we don’t particularly appreciate having someone else’s beliefs (religious, political, or otherwise) shoved down our throats.
But what about in our books? Should we attempt to steer away from vocalizing our beliefs in our stories too?
Here are several things I think writers should keep in mind when determining how much religion, spirituality, etc. to weave into their books:
- Everyone has a worldview (belief system) and it will come out in our books in one form or another.
When a writer sits down before a blank page, they are bringing everything within them to the table—that includes personality, past influences, life experiences, and yes, even religious beliefs. There is really no way to separate out who we are at our core from what we write. It will weave its way into our stories in subtle ways even if we try to stifle it.
In fact, when I read books to my children, we almost always try to decipher the worldview of the author based on the clues within the story. When we can logically and rationally talk about the differences in what people believe, then reading viewpoints that vary from ours becomes less threatening.
- Writers & readers should be aware of genre and publisher expectations.
I’m currently contracted to write for Bethany House which is a large traditional Christian publisher. Most readers who pick up a Bethany House book expect a spiritual message in one form or another. And thus, my publisher and editors expect my stories to have some kind of uplifting religious tones to it as well.
Writers will need to be aware of their publisher’s guidelines for how much or how little is acceptable. And it behooves readers to understand what type of book they’re picking up too. I’d probably be frustrated if someone gave me a 1-Star review on Amazon simply because they didn’t like the spirituality in my book, particularly because my genre is Christian historical romance. That would be like someone giving a 1-Star review to an erotic novel because they didn’t like the sex.
- To add depth to our characters, we will need to have them struggle through issues.
Aside from the above two points, I think we do ourselves and our readers a disservice if we refrain from exploring the deeper struggles of life. Readers long to delve into the complex problems and issues that we all face. One way to do that is to give our characters spiritual struggles that they’ll need to work through during the course of our books. We don’t have to “preach” to our readers, but we can have our characters naturally wrestle through questions.
- We should seamlessly weave in any themes or messages we want in our books.
If we choose to explore spiritual themes, the challenge for all of us is to do so in way that doesn’t take the reader out of the story. The best stories are ones that can uplift, inform, and entertain all at the same time, without the reader knowing that’s even happening.
Like any other aspect of our stories, we want to subtly and gradually layer the details that will bring our plots and characters to life. Information dumps for anything (religious or otherwise) can diminish the impact of our words.
©Jody Hedlund 2011
Jody Hedlund is an award-winning historical romance novelist and author of the best-selling book, The Preacher’s Bride. She received a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Michigan with her husband and five busy children. The Doctor’s Lady released in September 2011.
About The Doctor’s Lady: Priscilla White and Dr. Eli Ernest both feel God’s call to missionary work. So when they learn that their board will no longer send single men and women into the field, the two agree to an in-name-only marriage. Will their minds—and hearts—be tested and changed by the hardships of the journey west?
If you’d like to win a copy of The Doctor’s Lady, leave a comment before midnight EST on Sunday, September 25th, 2011. And don’t forget to enter Jody’s Trailblazer Contest for a chance to win a $300 prize package.
I definitely agree with Jody that no matter what, we want to avoid letting our stories become a soapbox. As she points out, then our religious/political beliefs become just another type of information dump. That doesn’t make for a good story, and ultimately, no one will read our book if it’s not a good story.
How do you handle religion or politics in your stories? Do you agree that your worldview will show up in your book in some form? Or do you think it’s possible (and necessary) for writers to keep their beliefs out of their books? If you’ve read any of those soapbox/info dump type stories, what did you think of them?
Great post, Jody. For the most part, I keep religious themes out of my work. I want to tell fun and exciting stories and I worry that I might put people off if I don’t handle them well.
That said, given the nature of my genre, urban fantasy, it’s impossible to not touch upon some aspects of religion and spirituality. When you have a world full of magic, monsters and deities, not mentioning religion says as much as mentioning it. I think it’s vital for any author to be aware of how their words can be interpreted and I agree that every author lets some of their own world view slip into their writing.
As I grow and learn, I want to have the freedom to deal with matters of faith. If I want a major character to be a devout Catholic, even in a world where demons and sorcery are real, it’s my responsibility to know what it is I’m trying to say about the character, and why their faith is a significant enough part of who they are to warrant it being explicit.
“not mentioning religion says as much as mentioning it.”
Excellent point! Just as with everything we write, the words we type – or don’t type – are a choice. They are deliberate, and we have to make sure they match our intentions. When characters say the interjection, “Oh God,” I use a capital “G” with some and a lower case “g” with others – on purpose. (Yes, I will drive a copy-editor nuts over this. 🙂 ) But I think that tells us something about the character and their beliefs. I have one character who capitalizes “Hell” and lower cases “god” because that’s what resonates with her. Thanks for the comment!
Oh, your worldview definitely shows up in your writing, because your worldview influences how and what you think. While some of us are aware of points where we’re influenced, we aren’t aware of all of them.
In my own writing, I try to create a diverse cast, but what I believe does skew how I approach things. That doesn’t stop me from giving “good” characters beliefs and actions that I think are wrong, but overall, my worldview does come out in my writing.
For example, I believe that much of the appeal of underage drinking (and possibly drug use) comes from it being forbidden—and that those are wrong because it’s illegal, not for moral reasons. That makes me handle those issues differently than some writers who think that those things are morally wrong.
However, I also write religious characters on purpose, because I want to see more of it in (urban) fantasy. I like to hope I don’t preach; readers so far haven’t complained. But so often outside of CBA, all the characters are effectually agnostic—if they aren’t extremists.
Is everyone I write religious? Not at all! But some are, including some narrators. There’s so much possibility in urban fantasy, to have religious characters struggle to reconcile their faith with magic (and violent magical politics).
“I try to create a diverse cast”
I do this as well. I know my world view will show up on some level just because I think our themes will reflect it, especially when we tend to return to similar themes over and over. But as far as the words on the page, I think someone would have a hard time knowing my exact beliefs because I write characters with different beliefs, both religious and political-wise. Thanks for the comment!
Great post and thoughts! This is something I’ve struggled with quite a bit in my own writing because I am so fascinated with spiritual beliefs of all cultures and time periods and was a religious studies major in college. I know some of my earlier works came off a bit too heavy. I’ve since found that by writing in fantasy and using myths, I can be a bit more subtle with some of the deeper meanings of my story and more entertaining. .. At least I hope so!
Thanks for the great post, Jody and Jami!
As Jody points out, a big determining factor of whether a story is too heavily religious depends on the publisher and market you’re trying to reach. In Jody’s The Doctor’s Lady, the heroine’s internal arc is centered on her religious journey. That would be too heavy for most publishers but is a perfect fit for hers. But yes, you know I love looking at things through myths too, so I think your approach works great for you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Great topic, not often dealt with. I don’t include much religion in my romances, since it simply doesn’t come up for my Harlequin Blaze characters, but religion has been an ongoing issue in my self-pubbed mystery series. I didn’t plan it that way, but as it turned out, the heroine (a tarot-reader/medium) had a very Catholic fiance in the first book, and that brought up religious discussions between them — the books are also set in Boston, and has some historic angles, so when you deal with things like Protestant/Catholic history, it’s going to come up, as it is in the second book, which I am writing now.
Although in the books, I also include the academic/agnostic view, the paranormal view, etc… but it’s all just part of my characters’ worlds, as you say — the books are not *about* religion. They are murder mysteries, and that’s what they are about, and about the characters involved in the story.
I always go by the guide of doing what’s right for the book, what’s right for the characters — that’s what you include, where ever it takes you.
“I always go by the guide of doing what’s right for the book, what’s right for the characters”
Exactly! If the characters are struggling with their beliefs or clashing with others over their beliefs, that should be on the page just as much as any other conflict. And as a reader, the only time religion/politics bother me in books is when it feels forced, when it becomes that soapbox. Thanks for the comment!
Tough topic. Hard to talk about respectfully without stepping over the line.
As religion and politics are part of our world, it’s hard to create a believable character or story without including such beliefs.
I do like stories that come from various religious viewpoints. They give me a chance to learn about other people, what they believe, and how they live.
However, and here’s the hard part to talk about, I don’t like stories where religion is used to demonize others. For their beliefs, lifestyles, or whatever.
Well, unless they’re demons. Then you kinda gotta demonize them.
And…even harder. I do like stories that place the demonizers in the crosshairs. V for Vendetta, the True Blood series, and so on.
“I don’t like stories where religion is used to demonize others.”
Excellent point! A character shouldn’t be made out to be the “bad guy” just because their beliefs are different. That’s a form of soapbox-ing. They should be seen as the bad guy because they do bad things (for those beliefs or any other reason), and the focus should be on the actions and not the reasons, just like any other backstory. A character can come from the worst abusive background, but those reasons aren’t justification for their bad actions in the here and now story. Similarly, different beliefs alone shouldn’t be the justification for bad actions. As you said, that’s demonizing someone for their beliefs.
I haven’t read Jody’s other book, but I will say that in The Doctor’s Lady, I think she handled this issue well. She included characters of many different backgrounds and beliefs in a respectful, non-demonizing way. But that’s certainly a tricky line for us all to watch out for – not only in regards to religion, but also with other beliefs. Thanks for the comment!
I think religion is a really tricky subject. My WIP focuses around a church and I find myself trying to be really careful about how I’m saying things, so as to not offend, but still stay true to my character’s thoughts and ideals. I think if it’s not done well, it can really turn a reader off. I recently read a book where the author’s opinion was so strong, it stopped being a part of the character. It was as if there was the character and the author embodying the same person in the story and it really didn’t work for me. Very interesting topic.
Hi Jessica Anne,
“I recently read a book where the author’s opinion was so strong, it stopped being a part of the character.”
Great point! And that’s exactly the line we shouldn’t get near, much less cross. 🙂 We shouldn’t leave the reader questioning if it’s us or the character saying/thinking things. It should all obviously fit with the character. Thanks for the comment!
I’m jumping in a little late today on the discussion! (I’m actually out of town at a writer’s conference!). But I had a minute to read through all of your comments and have to say I’ve really enjoyed all of your perspectives! Wish I had the time to respond to each one of you, but just wanted to let you know I did read all of your thoughts and appreciate them!
I’m glad you were able to stop by (I know how crazy conference days are!). 🙂 Thank you so much for the wonderful, thoughtful post!
Hello, hello! Been away from the computer, email and social media so long I feel like I was stuffed into one of those pods Ripley and her little orange Tabby slept in while they traveled through space. Well, sort of:) It’s good to be back! And reading your blog is a big part of that goodness factor. man, I missed your wisdom. Your list of things writers should keep in mind while considering how much or little spirituality to weave into their work was right on. I agree with each point. I also agree that neither a novel nor social media should become a soapbox for ones beliefs, wether political or religious. Subjects like those are slippery slopes that are better left unexplored. You never know who you might offend, and offending a potential reader or fan is not something I ever want to do. That being said, I’m sure that a little of what I believe in, small snippets of how I feel about friendship, love, hate, etc find their way into my work. I’m human, I can’t help it. But I’m careful not to let those snippets spiral out of control, or beyond the limits of entertainment. This is a great topic. I’m glad you brought it up. I’m also glad to be electronically introduced to Jody hedlund. What a gorgeous cover!! And an intriguing person. Her book sounds wonderful. On a side note I wanted to say that for the last 3 weeks I’ve been tied up… — Read More »
*hugs* I missed you too, my friend! I was starting to get worried. 🙂 (No joke, so I’m really happy to hear from you!)
I agree. And I think much of this same issue applies to politics as well. Do we care if the money we get for selling our work is red or blue? 🙂 This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever take a stand on things, but we shouldn’t be obnoxious about it to the point of offending the other half.
Now for the kick in the pants. 🙂 Have you seen my post about giving yourself permission? You’ve had a busy couple of weeks, so of course you weren’t able to get writing in. But now… Now you need to find a way to get back in the groove. It might not mean picking up where you left off with your WIP. Maybe it means editing something else (or an earlier chapter in the WIP to get the voice down again), or maybe it means doing a quick short story. The important thing is exercising your writing muscles. How’s that? 🙂
I don’t feel that there is any way to keep our worldview out of our writing, it is entwined with our voice as the essential core that gives it resonance. That said, unless I am writing a book about me, then that view should only come out in natural ways. Story is about the characters involved and their worldview, which will varying from mine. I let them have their thoughts and they let me have my voice.
Interesting post, Jody and well-said.
I agree. As I mentioned above, I think our worldview comes through the essence of our stories, our themes and whatnot, but things that are explicitly stated should be from the character not us. Thanks for the comment!
I like a bit of philosophy in a book, it makes it rich, but religion dump or pushing dogma is a real turn off. I am a bit reticent to buy a Christian labelled book because I read one that pushed dogma in an obvious way. I’ve also read books ( not labelled as Christian) with strong Christian characters that didn’t make me feel that way at all, but still put forward views of Christianity. I’m about to read another Christian book, because I read the first bit of it and trust that this author knows what he’s doing.
The soul of a Vampire by Krisi Keley has a Christian Vampire struggling with his christian beliefs. It’s a great book, full of Christianity but you never get a sense of anything being pushed, it’s just who this character is.
There are books that don’t appear to have any religious or spiritual or philosphical basis or theme, so I think writers can just leave that side out, but my philosophy is part of who I am and I couldn’t write a book without that flavour. The danger probably comes when a writer wants to convert, rather than letting their spiritual beliefs just come through in the story without being pushed.
“The danger probably comes when a writer wants to convert”
Great observation! If the author has an agenda more important to them than just telling a good story, there’s a good chance that’s going to come through the writing and overwhelm the story. Thanks for the comment!
Ooo, that book rec sounds up my alley! Bookmarked! Thanks. 😀
I think when faith or questioning faith is added into a book it ups the stakes. When it’s done right and not preachy and part of the conflict there’s nothing wrong or religious about it.
“When it’s … part of the conflict there’s nothing wrong…”
Exactly! Stories are essentially about conflict, a problem that needs solving. I suspect if a religious conflict is external (maybe one group fighting another), there’s more risk of soapbox-ing than if the religious conflict is internal (a character questioning their faith). Something for us to watch out for. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
This is a great topic. I was also wondering about sensitive issues (such as religion, politics, homosexuality) when it comes to the content in a book. In my writing, the character’s themselves have opinions/beliefs and these ideas “below the surface” are somehow indicated in their speech/actions, but they are not making outright statements. I hope that this is a good approach for dealing with these issues.
I also have wondered if agents would reject a query/book that contains one of these issues.
I think showing beliefs through actions is the perfect way to handle it, because then it’s very clear those opinions belong to the character and not the author. As for agents rejecting a query, I think it depends on the agent, the genre, their publisher contacts, etc. In other words, any agent who would reject a query for that isn’t the right agent for your story anyway. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
This is a great post – nice to see people taking on this question. I recently approached the question of religion in fiction from a different perspective, breaking it down into various elements for the purposes of worldbuilders (http://bit.ly/pratiA). Since religion is such an important part of so many people’s lives, it can ring false not to include it in stories – and especially novels. But I agree it must be handled with care.
Yes, I saw your post about it too! I agree, if religion isn’t included at all, it can ring false. Depending on the world-building, I might even wonder if the rest of that author’s story would “wimp out” on other deep issues. 🙂 In other words, I don’t think we should avoid these subjects out of fear. If the subject fits the characters and conflict, it belongs in our stories. Thanks for the comment!
Hey Jami & Jody,
Religion is so personal, and emotional, that it can polarize people if not handled well. In reading “The Preacher’s Bride” I didn’t ever feel the religion was overt. It was a part of who the characters were and the times they lived in. I’m looking forward to reading “The Doctor’s Lady” as it is set in a different time and place than your first book, but I know the characters have religion as a central part of who they are.
Good luck with the book launch Jody.
Yes, I liked how Jody pointed out that even between people of the same overall beliefs, the specifics of how they interpret and act on those beliefs can be different. As you said, religion is personal. Thanks for the comment!
I study sociology as part of my day job, and I’ve found that reading through my past work is like doing a tour of the theory classes I was taking at the time. I can see when Marx bled into my work (my characters starting talking about power and revolution), when I started reading feminist theory, and where I was on the question of spirituality. None of it is overt, but it’s embedded in the way I chose to portray characters, along with how they interact with one another, and the way that they navigate challenges.
One of the things that we talk about in sociology is the importance of recognizing one’s position, especially when it comes to research. As social scientists, we can try to be objective, but they way we approach, study, and analyze our data is deeply influenced by what we believe and who we are. I think the same thing is true with writing.
Great post, Jody!
How interesting! I suppose Anne Rice’s readers could see the same type of evolution in her stories as her beliefs changed. I like the way you point out how a character’s beliefs are revealed through their interactions with others and how they deal with challenges. That’s it exactly – their beliefs are just part of who they are. In the same way, who we are as people will be reflected in the stories we choose to write about. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
LOVE this post! Well said!
Thanks! Good to see you here. 🙂
Well done on the post, Jody! And thanks, Jami, for sharing it with us!! This is a really touchy subject with me…but not for reasons people may initially think. When it comes to religion and beliefs, I tend toward the agnostic side of things, but I’m totally open and appreciative of everyone’s free-will to choose for themselves what they believe in. However, I do disagree with people preaching and pushing their religion or beliefs (really on any subject, not just faith) on me…or anyone else for that matter. It’s completely unattractive. So I have a few things to say on this. While I agree that it’s near impossible to COMPLETELY remove one’s self from their writing, I also think it can be appropriate, or even necessary to write exactly what you want. If a writer wants to write a very heavily religious book? GO FOR IT! Sure, there are going to be certain readers who don’t like that, and won’t read it. Big whoop. There’s also a lot of readers who will. My goal, in writing, is to have many stories within all sorts of different genres. I’m not going to tailor my writing and my ideas to a certain-something just because I want a certain group of people to be happy. I’m not NOT going to write Sci-Fi because there are people out there who hate Sci-Fi. I’m not NOT going to write fantasy because there are people out there who hate fantasy. That’s ridiculous! I guess what you… — Read More »
Tell us how you really feel. 😉 (Oh, and I added an asterisk for you above too. 🙂 )
I understand. In many ways, I’m like you, in that I might have strong opinions about things but I have a very live-and-let-live attitude for others. So the whole thing about banning the Harry Potter books – or other things along those lines – offends me as well. As I stated back during my two blog posts about book ratings, I don’t agree with government censorship. Pushiness, no matter it’s form or purpose, is unattractive. Just look at the authors out there tweet about nothing other than “buy my book.” 🙂
Interesting point about how people should write what they want to write no matter the consequences. And to some extent I agree with that, as we should be true to ourselves. But as with everything, there are consequences for our choices, and we have to make the best choice for our goals. Some authors are out to get as wide a readership as possible, in which case they’d want to ensure they weren’t inadvertently offending anyone. On the other hand, if their goal is to write a religious book, then by all means they should. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for the asterisk. It fits perfectly. *wears it on his head*
*claps* It’s lovely, David! 🙂
The only thing that matters in fiction is honesty. Stories that appear artificially contrived to convert their readers to a religious viewpoint the author hasn’t really thought deeply about are propaganda. They generally lack the ring of truth. But an honest portrayal of human beings and the problems they wrestle with in the inner and outer realms is never offensive. The reader doesn’t have to agree with the character to appreciate his or her sincerity or unique viewpoint.
I’d actually go a step further and say that even if the author has thought deeply about the issue, artificially contrived stories for purposes of conversion are propaganda. 🙂 But as you said, stories with honest portrayals of character’s struggles aren’t usually offensive, even if the reader doesn’t agree with the viewpoint. Thanks for the comment!
Like diet, exercise and work, moderation is key as is fitting any given topic to the correct context. My characters are representative of people, ergo, their beliefs should show in my work to make these virtual folks authentic. My job as the author is to keep it as flowing from them, not some opportunity to cry my tenets or stuff ideas down readers’ throats b/c I’m in a position where I can.
Excellent post, ladies. Thank you!
Yes, as you mentioned, it’s all about the correct context. Some stories (and/or characters/publishers, etc.) will allow for more philosophical content than others. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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As a Christian writer who writes science fiction and fantasy I often balance this issue. Relating to magic as a belief system — which it is for many people — allows me to both be authentic and have characters plausibly address matters of faith within that context.
Sadly, and I have to give the organized church responsibility for a big part of this misunderstanding, many people perceive a conflict between science and faith. As a result, science fiction readers tend to be less accepting of faith in their fiction than fantasy readers. That’s one reason why C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series is more widely read and beloved than his “Ransom” series. (Trivia bit: Space traveler Ransom is based on his friend JRR Tolkien, something Tolkien was very pleased about.)
In my own much more limited career a senior editor at Pocket Books required a rewrite of my Star Trek ebook “Honor” because she recognized the alien pacifists in the story were radical Christians. (I hadn’t set out to do that, but I saw it happening as their culture evolved and did nothing to stop it.) The approved rewrite gave them a Hindu-humanist flavor more in keeping with Star Trek’s values.
Interesting history facts – thanks for sharing. 🙂 Like you, I don’t like the perceived conflict between science and faith either. I hope you’re able to continue balancing them in your stories. Thanks for the comment!
WOW!! I LOVE the discussion! Sorry I haven’t been able to jump in as much as I’d like! But I’m really appreciating hearing all of the diverse thoughts. It’s really giving me a lot to think about. And that’s what I love so much about blogging–it’s such a great way for us all to learn from each other!
And thank you, Jody, for kicking us off on this topic. 🙂
As you may or not know, I love your blog.
My current WIP doesn’t really touch on religious belief. But I feel the story I feel pushing out for NaNoWriMo is going to def touch on that. i don’t feel it is a judgement, just a view from one of the very many views of translating religious views. I don’t think you have to judge to mention, but at the same time, it can be hard not to involve your own views,
Yes, mentioning religion as a topic is very different than being judgmental, so I think you’ll be fine. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and good luck with NaNo!
I love what Jody says about characters wrestling with real life problems. The solutions they employ reflect their character, and don’t necessarily “preach” to the reader. I had no intention of including religious themes in my manuscript, but my character’s fictional upbringing as a pastor’s son (meant to be a small detail) has affected his choices and behavior throughout the plot of my story.
Oh yes, that makes perfect sense. As our characters grow and become real, their motivations and actions work together in ways we can’t anticipate. It’s fun when small details take on a life of their own. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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