Monday, September 28, 2009

Adding Religion to Your Book

I've got a question about religion in non-inspirational romance. My heroine is from a small town in the Bible belt - it would be in-character for her to attend church on Sunday mornings. However, I am not writing for an inspirational romance line (I love a good steamy sex scene!), and I don't plan to deal with Christianity itself. Is this something that is Just Not Done? In-character I feel I would need a pretty good reason for the heroine not to have a church community, but as a writer I realize that specifying my character is Christian has the possibility to turn off some readers and editors. I guess I can just avoid all mention of Sunday mornings, but I'd like to have the heroine be able to invite the hero to a church potluck or something.

While this particular question is specifically about romance, I think you could easily take out romance and slip in any genre. If you are writing about a spiritual character, does that automatically mean you need to be writing for the religious or inspirational market? I don’t think so, but I do think you need to write in the character’s spirituality carefully (especially for genre fiction). My first thought when reading this is why would you even need to mention that she goes to church on Sundays? In most books I read I never notice the day of the week, let alone Sunday. If I’m a churchgoer I probably assume the heroine heads to church just like I do, and if I spend my Sundays reading the Sunday Times at Starbucks it’s likely I assume the heroine is doing that very same thing.

I think that if you’re concerned about how readers, editors, and agents might perceive the religious aspects of your book, then maybe you’re writing them with too heavy a hand. I guess I’m a believer that if you have to ask it’s likely you already know it’s a problem. I see no problem inviting the hero to a church potluck or watching the heroine interact with the goofy members of her church community in much the same way she would interact with the goofy members of her work community, but be careful that it’s not all that she’s about.

What I would ask you is do we really need to know that she has a church community at all? I think there is a lot about a character’s life in a book that readers are left to assume. Do we really need to know every detail of a character’s life or daily workings, or should the book focus on those things that move the plot forward? For example, what if your character stops at the library every Wednesday night? That might be a fact you know because it helps build your character, but when you really sit down to write the book it might not be necessary to ever add that fact in.

I would also like to add that interacting with a church community is a lot different than an inspirational, which tends to be more about a relationship with God. A church community can be no different than a book club in many ways, about the people and their interactions and not actually about what they're doing or their beliefs.

Jessica

31 comments:

Carol Benedict said...

I wasn't the one who asked the question, but I appreciate your answer. I've been debating whether or not to remove a subplot about my MC's mother, a widow who falls in love with the new minister, since my novel isn't intended as an inspirational romance. From your post, it sounds like that subplot will be appropriate as long as I focus on the romantic aspect, which helps the mother develop as a character, rather than on the religious aspect of her relationship.

Thanks for another helpful post.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Jew and an atheist and while I've no notion about editors' reactions, as a reader I can say that if a character lives in the Bible belt, is a practicing Christian, etc., I'm always v. happy to read about it ... as long as it moves the plot forward.

As a reader, I love that stuff. It's a window into a different world.

Laurel said...

Sookie Stackhouse goes to church!

I live in the Bible belt so church is a huge part of the social fabric here. I doubt I notice a church episode in fiction as much people from less Bible-thumpy parts of the world.

I do notice, however, if there seems to be an underlying message that I should attend the same church as the heroine. If it feels organic in the story then leave it. If it reads preachy, ditch it.

Just my two cents. Adjusted for inflation, worth even less.

Melanie Avila said...

I'm glad you addressed this. In my current wip, my characters go to church but the only time a scene actually takes place inside is for a funeral.

I've considered whether even mentioning church would be too much considering it's women's fiction, but the setting for the book is fairly religious so it would seem remiss to leave it out.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know you could be both a jew and an atheist.

I'm reading a "southern" fiction book at the moment and several scenes take place at church. In that context it fits, right along with the peach cobbler they are eating in chapter two. BUT, if it were in a different book, it would stand out as abrasive in the same way that describing someone as republican or democrat would -- you turn off too many people who are one or the other. Too many sterotypes to overcome.

Mira said...

I like your answer Jessica.

I think it's always good to err on the safe side. If it's not relevant to the story, leave religion out of it. It's risky.

PatriciaW said...

I recently read Mary Kay Andrews' Hissy Fit, a Southern fiction piece with at least church scene, if I recall, and several references. Made sense for that story where churchgoing was part of the culture of the small town. Not mentioning church would have been strange, I think. Wasn't over the top, and neither religious nor non-religious would have been offended. This was definitely not an inspirational.

bethanyintexas said...

Most likely if you make a big deal out of her being in "the Bible belt" chances are readers will expect she goes to Church. However, like they said in the answer, that doesn't mean you have to make it a huge deal over it.

Debbie Macomber has talked about her characters going to Church but she doesn't go into much detail about the service. She uses that to heighten the hero/heroine's awareness of each other or to let the reader know something important is happening.

You can have a "steamy romance" and still mention some form of Religion. Kerrelyn Sparks does it in her "Love At Stake" series. She doesn't go into huge detail about the religion, but she does bring it up every now and again.

Anonymous said...

Sure, my entire extended family are atheist Jews--with three or four exceptions. And many of them attend synagogue, observe the holidays (such as today!), etc. I've met Rabbis who are atheists. Judaism focuses more on what you do than what you believe, so there's no real contradiction there (except, perhaps, among those who claim that they are the most religious...).

ryan field said...

I kind of like knowing about a character's religion in some books. It adds another layer.

Tess said...

I wrote a murder mystery about an itinerant preacher and his family. It is not at all a religious book, but it certainly has some religion in it (given the setting/family).

I didn't have a problem securing a great agent and he doesn't forsee a problem w/ submission to mainstream pub houses. I'd echo your advice to make your story about the characters. If you have a quirky character who plays the church organ then run with it. It can bring a lot of atmosphere and dimension to the work, imho.

Reesha said...

How timely!
I was just considering how to address religion in three of my characters since they live on a different planet in a completely different world.
I also just wrote a blog post about it. I'd put the link, but it hasn't posted yet and is a guest blog psot.

Watery Tart said...

It seems to me church attendance can say some things about the personality and culture of the person. I agree that the perception (of a northerner) is that people in the bible belt are Christian, and as a non-practicer I would only ever take issue with this if it was preachy. I in fact LOVE some of the tension that religion can create--if it's a romance, is she getting mixed messages between what she WANTS and what she thinks is RIGHT? Then again, romance isn't typically my genre and I know romances tend to be shorter, so there may not be room to do such a story justice, or it may detract from the ROMANCE part of the tale.

I guess I would ask what the religious affiliation is doing for the story or character and base your decision on THAT. If it is just background, probably best left out (like Jessica said).

Karen Sandler said...

FWIW, I make it clear in my book THEIR SECOND-CHANCE CHILD that the hero is Catholic. TSCC being a category book means it has even more restrictions on it than a single title would.

That said, I didn't include an actual church scene in the story. I describe them going to a service in summary rather than scene. Also, in the course of the story, the hero reflects on a conversation with his priest. There's not even the least hint of proselytizing in the story.

I think church-going can be a short-hand into the character. It can give the reader an instant identification of who the hero or heroine is.

Serenity said...

I'm surprised by your answer that this seems like superfluous information about a character. Not even the library going seems superfluous to me. I mean, "every Wednesday"? Anything a character does that regularly seems character-defining to me. To the romance author, I would worry more about turning off religious people from your story because the steamy sex scene seems contradictory to the church-going. My ultimate decision as an author there, though, would be to tell the character's truth. You can't please everyone's preconceived notions.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

I sense a bias toward leaving religion out, or avoiding topics that might take writers in that direction, lest the novel be categorized as Christian fiction. I have two novels where religion plays a major role. Neither would be characterized as Christian (or Jewish) fiction, but characters do struggle with their faith as a motivator for their actions. Religion is part of who these characters are, and it advances the plot in both. For instance, in my eco-thriller, a Jewish character is motivated to join an environmental crusade in part due to her belief in "tikkun olam" (repair of the world). Another character returns to her Catholic faith when she sees her life going out of control, but taking her children to Mass further strains her relationship with her Jewish-atheist husband.

Sarah Burrows Winch said...

I wouldn't see a problem with the church scene in inspirational romance or any other genre. For instance, in narrative nonfiction or historical fiction, ( am writing a book based on g-g grandfather's Civil War adventures and enduring love http://atruecivilwarstoryofcourage.blogspot.com/) church was such a big part of that timeframe. It helps set the scene.

Sheila Deeth said...

Anonymous makes a good point. I'm a Christian and love it when a book gives me a window into someone's else's faith.

Nikki Hootman said...

Looks like I'm one of many dealing with this issue in my novel. I'm writing contemporary fiction, and my protagonist falls in love with a woman who, for reasons to do with her past, is a very strict conservative Christian... and who makes going to church with her a condition of their going out. It's been tricky to do this without seeming "preachy" in any way - to be true to the characters and yet not make the reader feel put out. It's a fine line to walk, I think.

Livia said...

Keep in mind that if you include religion, it should play some kind of role in your character's decision making. Is she devout or casual attender? To what extent does she practice what is preached? Would she date someone of a different faith? The answer to that will probably have ramifications on her feelings toward the hero, as well as the number, timing, and occurrence of "steamy sex scenes"

Crystal said...

Love your comment Serenity. I whole-heartedly agree. Anything that enhances the character should be added in the book, reguardless of whether some readers will be put off. anything to enhance the character, and the relationship the reader has with that character should be added to the story.

Thanks for answering that question Jessica. I've been wondering how to add religion in an idea for a book I've had, and your answer helps me on what to consider when writing the story.

Emily C. said...

I'd recommend creating a juicy subplot with lots of conflict that can happen at church, or conflicts with the heroine's religion, or is with a fellow church-goer. That way, you've given the novel more depth, while showing that she is a church-goer. (And not telling the reader that she's a church-goer.)

Anna Claire said...

I'd agree with most commenters that a character's religion (whatever it is) doesn't bother me unless the writing comes across as particularly preachy or evangelistic.

On the flip side, I do get turned off if the character obnoxiously rails against a religion for no good reason. If it doesn't REALLY further the character, a tirade against a religion is going to turn off readers. I'm a Christian, but I wouldn't want to read something like that against Judaism, Islam or any other religion, including my own, unless absolutely necessary to character development.

Cassandra said...

What Anna Claire said.

Also, there are contexts, especially in historicals, where the omission of any religious element is an annoying anachronism. Could anyone possibly write a book set in, say, 17th century New England, and not acknowledge the religious factor? I've read novels in which militant non-believer authors distort history in favor of their own positions (as in, for example, having a marriage performed by a civil magistrate in a period when that just was not done). That's just as intrusive as any other proselytising.

DebraLSchubert said...

Interesting topic. In my novel, MURDER ON TWILIGHT CIRCLE, a lot of action takes place in and around a Catholic church. The mc is a Jewish American Princess from Long Island, and her cohort is a rich Catholic from the Philadelphia Main Line. Together, they're trying to solve a murder. The murder didn't take place in the church, but a lot of the suspects are members. I wanted to be sure the setting didn't trump plot lines and action, but rather became more like a minor character. Using the church for a setting in the book was fun and made way for some great scenes and dialogue that wouldn't have worked as well outside a church.

Francesca Hawley said...

The Bible belt isn't the only place church attendance is fairly compulsory. In small town middle America that's what you do on Sunday mornings. The smaller (and more rural) the town, the more likely that lack of attendance will be noticed - especially by lifelong residents.

I'm writing a contemporary erotic romance right now where my characters have a wild encounter Saturday night and expect to meet each in church the next morning. Some complications arise and the heroine's Sunday morning absence is duly noted by the hero.

Julie said...

Twilight deals with religious beliefs (do vampires go to Heaven/Hell, is Bella giving up her soul to join Edward . . .)

But it's not inspirational- Just thought I would bring up that idea. Lot's of teen books are writtend from the Catholic school girl/boy and I know for sure they don't fall in the inspirtational; category.

Wendy Qualls said...

Wow, I had no idea so many people had the same question! I was the one who sent this in, and I really appreciate your answer (and all the comments). I think I'm going to make my heroine from a different denomination than my own - that way I can be sure I'm not preachy about it . . . Thanks for the great answer!

TLH said...

Thanks a lot for this post. It's really been a big issue for me in my current work, which is somewhat a religious allegory.

As someone who has often been on the offended end of religious discussions, I can tell you that there is a fine line to walk (as others here have indicated) and it's not easy.

But, it's very hard for me to imagine a character in ANY culture or location that doesn't include a religion or spirituality in their lives. It's something that defines us as individuals as well as part of a given community. I expect it in every character, in one form or another. Works that avoid them completely often avoid other topics that could've given them depth and substance that they ultimately lack.

You can discuss religion, and you should in many cases. What you should avoid, as several others have commented, is preaching. Readers are generally open to reading about someone else's beliefs, but they never want to feel pressured to believe it themselves.

~Tara

GhostFolk.com said...

Rule of thumb: use it or lose it. Whatever cultural setting, including church, you create for your character should matter.

Uh: "Witness," For example. If you're doing Amish zombies, I'd except a healthy does of Amish in there.

I like to think of the folklore and folklife of a character's cultural setting as a character itself.

P.S. I love the Jewish atheist dicussion. Thank you, anon. Many of us are culturally a Catholic or a Jew or a Protestant... in important ways that are not always defined by belief, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Don't get all PC on us. If she were a practicing Muslim, would you shy away from mentioning her mosque? Of course not. Why is Christianity such a taboo subject? As long as you aren't preaching in a book that isn't about preaching, let idiots be offended. It builds character, and the publicity is just fine too.

- disclosure: I am not a published author.