Faith and the novel: how much is too much?

The other day our local pool shut down for a few hours after someone mistakenly used it for a toilet.

Right now, I’m currently involved in a debate between several writers  regarding religion in mainstream fiction: is it okay to mention it, and if yes, to what degree? After all, we don’t want to push our audience out of the pool by filling our stories up with too much…

Well, you get the picture.

But seriously, for writers with faith who are not writing inspirational novels, the question of how much is too much can cause us to question our stories and our characters. Will the very mention of God make readers toss our novels?

I am a Lutheran by choice. I pray for my friends and family, though not all of them believe that prayers matter. I do this because I love them, not because I want to convert them. I don’t back down and hide the fact that I’m a believer, but I try very hard not to shove it down anyone’s throat. I respect that everyone has their own set of core beliefs and values and that we are free to live our lives without being heckled because of them.

Yet sometimes when I write, my characters are believers as well. They live their lives with their faith as a part of who they are. Quite simply, religion is a part of their make-up, be they flute-playing short girls going into the tenth grade or muscle-bound seventeen-year-old boys who play soccer, eat an entire pizza for snack and attend church on Sunday with their families. My references to religion fall within the scope of my MCs’ personalities and experiences. They are most definitely not a sermon.

So my question to you, as readers, is this: how does the mention of God, faith or religion enter into your decision to read a book or keep reading it? Do you read books that challenge your beliefs, or do you try to read only those that align with your core values?

In other words, if my MC says “a quick prayer”, would this be considered too much reference to religion to be mainstream? If it is mentioned that he goes to church, would this change your impression of him–make you like him more or less? Or doesn’t this type of faith reference impact your overall feelings?

Curious minds definitely want to know.

*As a side note: Healthy discussion is encouraged and all beliefs and responses are welcome as long as they remain respectful and contribute something useful to the discussion. Those that attack–either for against religion–may be edited or deleted altogether. Thanks for adhering to this policy.religi



10 responses to “Faith and the novel: how much is too much?

  1. I think religion is a perspective worth recording. If faith is a steady part of your characters’ lives, then mention of “a quick prayer” isn’t going to tip the scales. People live that way and characters will, too. The presence of faith might dissuade some, but there are still many readers who will appreciate it.

  2. Howdy, Cat. Great question.

    First off, I assume we’re not talking about the use of religion in fiction that would obviously qualify it as “christian fiction” or cause a bookseller to place it in the “religion” section. I assume we’re talking about the use of a character’s religious faith or actions within the context of a typical literary or genre work.

    And in that context, I say that the author should treat religion the same way she treats any other character trait – if it’s relevant to the plot or character and moves the story forward, then use it. If it isn’t and doesn’t, then don’t.

    I suppose a character’s faith plays a role in our forming an impression of him, so a mention here or there that he says a prayer for someone might help us with that – but if that aspect of his character does not play a role in how that character reacts vis a vis the major conflict(s), why mention it at all?

    Well, for the same reason we might mention that a character has a habit of whistling in the shower or a compulsion for bing cherries. It’s just a piece of the character puzzle that adds dimension and depth.

    As far as the risk of alienating potential readers, well… assuming the writing is done right, any potential reader that reflexively turns off because the word “God” is mentioned is not a reader I really care to court anyway. Still, this is a good reason to weigh the use of such concepts in light of their relevance and utility in moving the story.

    That’s my two bits!

    • Your assumption in the usage is exactly right, Pete. Thanks so much for your thorough and well-thought out response. I happen to agree with everything you said and believe this to be true of any other aspect of a character’s personality: drinking, drugs, promiscuity, sexism, racism, etc…

      They all have the potential to offend, yet if they are pertinent to the character and his reactions to the story, they need to be given appropriate page time.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  3. I don’t hide my faith or flash it in any body’s face. Yes, I believe in Jesus Christ so what! I want every piece I read to be authentic (as well as the ones I write.) No one likes a phoney. One needs to write as honestly as they can. It is always about sincerity and clarity.

    • So true, Siggy. I love how you wrote this: I want every piece I read to be authentic. No one likes a phoney.

      Either way. Truth rocks. Especially when it’s a personal truth that shines through the character in a multi-faceted way.

  4. christinarodriguez0

    For myself, it depends on the quality of the writing. I’ve read some terrible books in the Christian genre before and was surprised by how light the religious references were. If they had been preachy I would’ve stopped reading for sure. However, one of my crit group members is writing a Christian novel and while it has some heavily religious scenes, it’s still a great read.

    • Quality and authenticity, Christina. You make a great point about the way things are written and how we respond to them. Thanks so much for joining the conversation.

  5. I think it makes a difference how important faith/religion is to the character. If the character’s prayer has no bearing on the storyline or the plot development or the illustration of character, then there’s no need to mention it–any more than you’d specify their favorite brand of toothpaste. But if faith IS important to that character (as it is, in its various forms, to LOTS of people) then it belongs in the story. 🙂

    • Oooh, interesting thing to keep in mind about using references to illuminate characters rather than build brands or as tools for character connection when there’s no bearing on the story itself.

      I love you all and your wonerful insight!

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