If I had a fancy suit for every time I’ve heard about the struggle of writing God in fantasy and science fiction stories, I would have a walk-in closet full of fancy suits. I’ve read many a blog post and forum thread hashing out this subject because some young writer is desperate to figure it out. They want to write fantasy, but subscribe to a strict version of Christianity that gives them anxiety about including magic. I would know because I was one of them. I once believed that any story I wrote had to be overtly Christian in order for it to be “acceptable,” so sometimes I tried to “redeem” my stories by squeezing God in somewhere. I thought that Christian stories, especially if they were fantasy, had to be some sort of allegory to the gospel, which is actually a very limited way to bring Christianity into fiction. To me, “Godly fantasy” required a Christian protagonist, or whatever name I gave Christians in my fantasy world. This meant that my protagonists had to adhere to a certain moral code because they were supposed to be good examples. Sometimes, I became so concerned that my story ideas weren’t Christian enough that I prayed really hard for God to tell me that a certain ideas was okay to use.
Thankfully, college helped me relax and my classes gave me something I had never had before: an academic approach to Christianity. Between my required bible and theology classes and my school’s overall focus on social justice, I began to understand that being a “Christian writer” doesn’t mean writing copy-pasta salvation fantasy narratives or creating protagonists that are supposed to be good examples of Christians.
There’s no correct way of writing God in genre fiction because a lot of that depends on your own faith and I’m not here to dictate any rules about that. What I would like to share, though, are some ways that Christians writing genre fiction can understand how to write a deeper Christianity into their narratives.
Like it or not, we Christians have 2,000 years of theology, hymns, iconography, and sacraments that, when understood well, can really add depth to a fantasy setting. We also have a history stained with colonialism, oppression, division and outcasting. As Christians, we’re already interested in learning about God, so it should be a natural instinct to do some level of research on our own tradition. After all, we do research for every other aspect of storytelling, right?
I’ve seen one too many mediocre stories that arbitrarily slap a very basic understanding of God and/or salvation onto them to fit the bill as “Christian.” Instead of being sewn into the seams, it’s super glued as a patch to make an otherwise “bad” story about magic be okay. The sense is that as long is something is overtly about Christianity, it’s acceptable and God is pleased. Honestly, this leaves out a lot.
I think a lot of Christians have an aversion to studying any part of their faith academically. When I’ve brought this up to more conservative folks, the response I usually get is “well, there’s such a thing as studying God too much, you know? Like you start to lose faith that way.” I guess the idea is that only studying the Bible is sufficient.
To me, a faith that’s threatened by gaining more knowledge of said faith isn’t really a faith, but a fear. I think many people intrinsically know that doing any amount of research can challenge everything they’ve come to believe is true about the world. This also goes for Christians that are hesitant about studying Christianity.
I mean, if you’re going to create some form of Christianity for your fantasy world, you, the author, need to understand how your fictional people understand their God. Do they believe in the trinity? Then you the author would do well in studying how the doctrine of the trinity came to be and what it actually says. How and when do your fictional people get baptized? You the author would only give yourself more creative options by researching how different denominations understand baptism. On that note, it wouldn’t hurt to look into what caused the divisions between different denominations in the first place (besides just Catholic and Protestant).
There’s a lot to learn, and I’ve found that learning about Christianity in an academic sense has only helped me weave it into my stories. They won’t ever be shelved in the Christian fiction section of the bookstore, but they will have benefitted from drawing from a rich tradition.
Drop the notion of a “Christian” protagonist
Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean your main character has to be. If that’s a natural part of how they come to life in your head, then that’s fine, but if you feel obligated to make your protagonist a Christian, you’ll end up with a flat character. I tried pulling this off a lot when I was younger, and I always ended up not writing certain things because I thought “well, a Christian isn’t supposed to say that or do that and my character has to be a good example.” So, I always ended up with these morally “perfect” characters that didn’t struggle with much.
I’ve found that determining what my main characters think of God early in the game has often prevented me from fleshing them out the way they should be. My main character in one of my WIPs is expressly non-Christian. Her life circumstances up to the point where the story begins pretty much don’t allow her to be one. However, she goes to a Christian college (in some vain hope of trying to understand something about her older sister) and will definitely grapple with some deep questions about what exactly she believes as the story progresses. This doesn’t mean that she’ll have some youth group-esque altar call salvation type of character arc—in fact, I find that to be a cliché and sort of a cheap way to tie up all the loose ends of your character. Also, the struggle of figuring out faith isn’t even the main plot of the story.
In another, smaller WIP, it’s not clear what my main character thinks of God, but she has a very road-to-Damascus-type encounter that she can never fully comprehend and it will never be fully explained. The story actually ends with this sense that even having more knowledge about these things doesn’t answer any questions, and it doesn’t change anything about her world at large. This story turned out the way it did because I just let it develop naturally and the connections to faith happened on their own.
If you force your character into Christianity because you feel obligated to do so, you may ultimately end up compromising a deep message in your story. You may also end up creating something that only presents Christianity as simplistic.
Avoid the “edgy atheist gets saved” character arc
I’ve seen a handful of Christian attempts at writing atheist protagonists who will eventually come around and become passionate Christians (e.g. that manga Serenity). These people are typically “edgy” with dyed hair and/or leather jackets, and they don’t have very compelling reasons for not believing in God, which then makes it easier for other characters/the author to convert them. They’re depicted as angry people, and their anger supposedly comes from the fact that they’re atheists and don’t have the peace of Christ within them. These stories are resolved when these characters finally come to believe and reject their old ways.
To me, this is neither good writing nor believable. I guess the idea is that a “Christian” story must always involve someone getting saved and what better narrative tension than a straw atheist who is easily converted? It’s a cheap ploy that usually doesn’t do the intended work of getting actual atheists to read the story.
Sometimes, Christians come at this whole fiction writing business with the primary purpose of evangelizing as opposed to telling a good story. I think that need to evangelize can stem from a place of anxiety. “If I don’t write a story that’s about salvation and is overtly Christian, then I’m failing God.” That’s not a healthy place to be. It’s never a good idea to compromise good storytelling for the sake of declaring your message, whatever that may be. If you truly believe in it, your message/worldview will weave its way into your story without any predetermined thinking on your part.