By Lori Z. Scott & Allison Raymond
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in our three-part series exploring how Christian writers should depict the supernatural. You can read the introductory post here.
Since time began, spiritual beings have played a role in literature, ranging from stereotypical devils with horns and pitchforks to angels with halos and wings. These invisible, mystical creatures can raise the stakes and tension, rescue or endanger their human counterparts, and embody the conflict between good and evil, but since most of us have never laid eyes on one, how can we both accurately and artistically develop them as characters?
Over the past week, we’ve been examining the theme of theophany in fiction, first touching on when writers should attempt such an undertaking and then comparing the pros and cons of various approaches. Although the previous two articles focused on God, the spiritual realm encompasses other, lesser forces that our Heavenly Father and His enemy, Satan, may use to interact with humans. Writers need to understand how to address the existence of these beings too, and answering three fundamental questions can help with that process.
1. Is the Spiritual Being Based on Scripture?
When C. S. Lewis penned the classic children’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, readers met a fantastical representation of Christ in the character Aslan. Like Jesus, the lion lays down his life and rises again, redeeming the land of Narnia. Yet, despite the brilliant portrayal, Aslan doesn’t capture all of Christ’s essence from Scripture. However, neither does he stray from Christ’s mission, and he displays many identical traits, such as mercy, majesty, and mystery.
Lewis consistently demonstrates that Christian writers need to be purposeful in how they handle spiritual beings, whether major or minor ones. The Screwtape Letters is another memorable example. While demons never actually compose letters to each other, the tactics Screwtape recommends for influencing “the Patient” reflect the nature of temptation as described in the Bible.
Similarly, Frank Peretti rocked the Christian fiction market with This Present Darkness, which is inspired by Ephesians 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The plot revolves around the unseen battle for souls between angels and demons. The angels wear armor and carry weapons forged in heaven, whereas the demons manifest as inky shadows or bat-winged beasts that the human characters fight through prayer and Scripture quotations. Like Lewis, Peretti exercises artistic license, but he also stays aligned with the Bible.
Every fictional work takes a few creative liberties. Given how little detail the Bible supplies about angels, demons, and the spiritual realm, you’ll have no choice but to imaginatively fill in the gaps. However, that doesn’t mean you should invent your own versions of spiritual beings either, as Good Omens and the popular Mortal Instruments series have both done. While these books are entertaining, the characteristics of the angels do not line up with the revelation of Scripture.
When author Hope Bolinger wrote a trilogy containing an angel, she had to carefully consider how to show the character living among and conversing with humans. “I based the story on verses that talk about ministering angels and the ones that appeared in the form of humans to the women at Christ’s tomb. I also tried to keep them consistent with Scripture by having them remind the characters of biblical truths whenever they seemed to go wayward.”
As a starting point, pick a specific passage of Scripture related to angels or demons. Brainstorm ways you could translate the dialogue, actions, and other aspects into scenes of your novel. You could even draft out a short story to practice the image you need to convey.
2. Does the Spiritual Being Reveal the Reality of God?
I (Lori) remember the day my grandmother approached death. When I visited her in the hospital, she claimed that an angel had been standing by the foot of her bed all day. “He is next to you now,” she told me. Then her face clouded over, and tears gathered in her eyes. “I see him, but no one believes me.”
I drew her wrinkled hand into my own and held it close. “I can’t see him, but I believe you.” At my words, a sense of peace descended on us both. We knew the presence of her angel indicated that God was near. As Christian writers, all of us long for our stories to nudge readers closer to Him and the same solace.
In C. S. Lewis’s prelude to “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” he confesses how much he struggled to place himself inside the viewpoint of a demon: “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded.” Yet, by doing so, he provided readers with a chilling glimpse into spiritual warfare. From what he calls the “dust, grit, thirst, and itch” came valuable insights, ten of which Katherine Rose unpacks in a post at The Inward Turn. Two noteworthy ones are: “God really does love us, and uses our pain and suffering to bring us closer to Himself” and “we are called to live by faith, not by our feelings.”
Both angel and demon characters can either reveal or hide God. The Screwtape Letters stars two demons, but Lewis doesn’t plunge readers into the darkness of hell. Instead, through Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood, he urges readers to be aware of the temptations that bombard us every minute. As Screwtape trains his nephew, he ponders the human condition and God’s attributes, backhandedly feeding truth to readers: “For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.”
After dealing with real evil spirits through Scripture, prayer, and saying the name of Jesus, Bolinger applied that experience to her manuscript. “I wanted to show the idea that God is protecting us and defending us on all fronts. A spiritual battle is waging around us, and having an angelic character reminds us of that.”
Bolinger had a clear reason for adding an angel to her story, which is important (and a factor we’ll discuss in the next section). However, an author’s intentions can also cause spiritual beings to send misleading, sinful, or anti-Christian messages—such as painting an evil character too sympathetically, or a righteous character too cynically. The cast of angels in Lauren Kate’s Fallen series, for instance, look out for their own interests instead of serving as God’s holy instruments. Even worse, God is presented as neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and pagan concepts like reincarnation are mixed in. No matter how enjoyable and thoroughly researched a story is, if the spiritual characters do not honor and point to God’s Word, they aren’t truly angels and demons—they’re creatures of the author’s own making.
As a reader and writer, you need to be wary of the subtle effect counterfeit imitations can have. When you come across a book or movie featuring angels and demons, pay attention to how their portrayal may push readers toward or away from God. Take notes of where you feel the story succeeds and fails to be honest, then apply those lessons to your own manuscript while keeping God at the center of encounters with spiritual beings.
3. Is the Spiritual Being Integral?
Have you ever heard that you should cut any element that doesn’t advance your story? That tip is relevant to everything from sentences to scenes, and spiritual characters are no exception. Writing them requires extensive effort and responsibility, and if you mess up, your story could distort readers’ perceptions. Do your angel and demon characters significantly impact the plot, or would the events still occur without them? Can you communicate your message more effectively through a different mouthpiece? If your answer to either of these (or similar) questions is yes, press the delete key.
You can imply supernatural activity without ever introducing a spiritual being, because tiny miracles happen every day. You spend an extra five minutes searching for your car keys, which prevents you from being part of an automobile accident. You randomly call a friend to chat, and she has an item you need. You can’t afford to buy food, and someone leaves a basket of groceries on your porch. Are all of these coincidences, or evidence of God’s hand in motion?
In the film Signs, a priest who abandoned his faith after his wife’s death must come to grips with his beliefs about God during what seems to be an alien invasion. Except the extraterrestrials don’t appear immediately. The audience suspects they’re prowling around, but doubt lingers. Could something else explain the phenomena? Is the protagonist just paranoid? The director taps into the power of suggestion, and so can writers. As editor-in-chief Josiah DeGraaf admits, “Even in contemporary fiction, you can hint at spiritual intervention without verifying it to mirror the moments when we’re unsure whether angels and demons have visited us in real life.”
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide whether your story needs to directly or indirectly show how God orchestrates situations to grow and bless us. Try isolating a chapter of your manuscript that involves a spiritual being and either remove or veil the character to determine which strategy is better.
Wings of Truth
In the preface to The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis masterfully summarizes how to navigate this challenging topic: “Belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature… They are given wings…to suggest the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form because man is the only rational creature we know. Creatures higher in the natural order than ourselves, either incorporeal or animating bodies of a sort we cannot experience, must be represented symbolically if they are to be represented at all.”
With our limited human understanding, we won’t be able to portray spiritual beings perfectly, but the Bible gives us a model to follow, teaching us how they behave and why He created them—to glorify Himself. As Christian writers, we should be pursuing the same goal with the impressions we put on paper for the world to consume.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.