Faith and Fiction

Suzanne Francis, author of Heart of Hythea, Ketha’s Daughter, and Dawnmaid, has kindly consented to be my guest today. On the subject of Faith and Fiction, Suzanne writes:

We can all think of a series or two where religion plays a major role in the plot-like the Left Behindbooks by LaHaye and Jenkins or the Mitford Series by Jan Karon. Whether or not you agree with their beliefs, these are authors who have placed their own faith squarely at the center of the books they write.

Should we do the same? I can think of three reasons why we might.

–Spirituality is a deeply personal attribute, part of what makes us individuals. No two people, even two who belong to the same faith, believe in exactly the same things. Our faith, even if it is atheism, is a fundamental part of who we are. That is something we can use to differentiate our writing from all other authors, something that will allow us to claim it as our own.

–Most of us with religious beliefs feel that these tenets make us better people-that is why we follow them, after all. Many authors of fiction-like Ayn Rand or Jack Kerouac-have used the voices of their characters to present their own beliefs to the world. If we have an understanding, something that helps us, should we not also share it with others?

–Every author wants their characters to be multi-dimensional, to come to life for the reader. If we do not give our creations a spiritual dimension, then they are lacking one of the most essential qualities of humanity-the one thing that separates us from all other animals. Even if our character never discusses his or her faith or lack thereof, it must still be in the background affecting everything he or she says and does.

But how do we go about placing our beliefs in the context of our fiction without sounding artificial or preachy?

It pays to spend some time thinking about what you actually believe and how it affects your everyday life. That becomes the starting point. Do you have doubts? Have you suffered for your faith? Do you speak of it with others, or is it private?

Once you have a handle on that, then you can decide how much or how little you wish to include. Maybe you will put a single line in the mouth of a minor character. That might be enough. Alternatively, you can give a main character some of your convictions, and let it emerge little by little through their actions. Or perhaps, like C.S. Lewis, you can write a whole series of allegories around the things you believe. (But I think the Chronicles of Narnia is very preachy!)

In Song of the ArkafinaI gave one character, Arkady Svalbarad, a faith very much like Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist, not really, but I find the some of the philosophy very useful in my day-to-day life. Here is an example from Ketha’s Daughter:

—Nodding, he turned to his pack, and retrieved his tin plate and a small knife. He was hungry, and the rabbit smelled good, though it had been a year since he had last eaten any flesh. That was another thing he learned from his teacher in T’Shang — respect for all living creatures. But Dawa had also impressed upon him the importance of kindness to others, and that meant accepting any gift without complaint or reservation. So he ate the rabbit with pleasure and shared what food he had in return.—

Everything about this character is colored by his faith-both his successes and failures are measured against it. It gives him a genuineness I could never create otherwise.

My own belief system I would loosely describe as Paganism, though probably not the kind you are thinking of. I don’t own any robes, or do any rituals or chanting. But I do believe in the immanence of God in all things, and I hold the Earth to be sacred. I gave my convictions to a group of wanderers called the Firaithi. From Ketha again:

—“Still,” insisted Arkady. “It must be very difficult – always traveling like this. Do your young people not grow tired of your rootless existence?”

“Of course, some do,” admitted Huw. “Perhaps two or three each year decide to leave the Kindreds and make their way in the world of the Gruagán. But we raise our young ones to honor Asparitus, so most come back to us after a few years.”

“Asparitus? What is that?”

Huw stared thoughtfully at his sister Eira’s neatly painted caravan. “I don’t know a word in Maraison that means the same thing. Asparitus is our way of life. It means to tread gently on the Yrth, to use as little as we are able, and put back as much as we can.” He frowned. “We have very little, compared to the Gruagán in their fancy houses. They think of us as impoverished tinkers and thieves, when they think of us at all. But truly, Kadya, few of us would give up our place here amongst the Kindreds for all the gold of the Gruagán. Asparitus is all the treasure we need. Do you understand, my brother?”—

That is very, very close to the heart of my own faith, only lightly cloaked in the language of the Firaithi.

How will you clothe your faith in your fiction?

To find out more about Suzanne, read excerpts, or buy her books, check out her fictionwise book page.

2 Responses to “Faith and Fiction”

  1. elizaw Says:

    I always thought that Tolkien had a good idea about putting faith in books– The Lord of the Rings contained very slight parallelisms and thematic elements, especially concerning the nature of evil and the role of fate and providence.

    Personally, I hate being preached to. What I especially hate is when the so-called ‘hero’ does something reprehensible and tries to explain that in this one case it was good. Case-in-point, every mid-life-crisis cheating spouse story where their unfaithfulness is presented as ‘the right thing’. That kind of book will get thrown across the room if I find it. That also goes for anytime that the prose just stops and you can see the author trying to make a point about something.

    If it’s something that the character is thinking about, that’s fine. If the author tries to explain that the character has got the right idea, you’ve just broken my trust. Let me make up my own mind.

  2. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I don’t like preachy books either. I always though Ayn Rand was laughable for putting 50 or 60 page solo rants in her books, and yet they have sold millions of copies. I think the trick is to make the sentiment seem natural for the character and don’t over do it.

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