fb
How to Authentically Write Religious Characters without Resorting to Stereotypes

January 20, 2022

In cheap secular entertainment, the value of faith is chronically underestimated and mischaracterized as either irrational belief without evidence or arbitrary adherence to a set of dogmas. On the other side of the spectrum, Christian novels and films sometimes flaunt a cleaned-up, Sunday-best version of faith that, to be fair, is not much of an improvement on mainstream media’s interpretation—which only exacerbates the problem.

 

As storytellers, when we don’t understand or purposely dilute the uncomfortable and comforting aspects of faith, we do a huge disservice to ourselves and readers. If we want to accurately represent devotion to God (or a God-figure) through fictional characters, we need to draw our inspiration from how real people experience a relationship with Him.

 

Defining Authentic Faith

The temptation here, for me at least, is to equate faith with hope. Although the traits have similarities, we need to recognize the distinction between the two before we can effectively craft characters who display one or both.

 

Hope is unshakable optimism that, no matter how bleak our circumstances are, good will prevail over evil. Hope rests in a brilliant, but unrealized, future. Faith, on the other hand, is assurance that God sustains us—now and forever. It’s a bond between us and God that’s founded upon encounters with His character and promises in our lives and throughout history. Faith is not an on-off switch but a dynamic coalition of theology and existential confidence that’s subject to wax and wane.

 

Although faith usually encompasses hope, it does not need hope to exist. Faith, at its core, is the belief that God will not allow the ultimate tragedy to befall us: the loss of our souls. Any dark valley of sorrow or disintegration we pass through—or remain in for a time—cannot push us outside of His reach or make Him abandon us. And this faith extends beyond ourselves. God carries the weight of the whole universe, and everything in it works together according to His design.

 

That is authentic faith. It requires an immense amount of trust that a list of rules and standards cannot conjure up alone. Only the proven track record of Scripture, the testimonies of our ancestors, and God’s continual provision and mercy can coax us to lay our hearts in His hands.

 

Defining Authentic Faith in Fiction

I’ve described faith without mentioning the gospel. That was intentional. Not because I’m recommending that we separate faith from Christ but to ensure that we can clearly visualize how a faith-filled person thinks and acts, apart from any specific creed. Fiction comprises a myriad of settings that may or may not contain an exact equivalent to Christianity. When we’re writing within those parameters, we need to be artful in how we incorporate the evidence of faith, because shoehorning dogma into a context where it doesn’t fit would be counterproductive at best and preachy at worst.

 

I’ve harped on this theme in many articles, but it bears repeating: stories are not meant to be replicas of reality but slanted mirrors layered with signs and symbols pointing toward the truth that runs through both worlds. The “fictional” faith our characters exhibit can be as soul-steadying as the cross we cling to every day.

 

We’re certainly free to weave the tenets of Christianity into our fiction, and we may need to if our stories take place in the real world. But we’re not obligated to do so in every project. Some stories are more effective without any allusions to doctrine, like Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, which is about discovering the true nature of love and coming face to face with God amid a pagan era. Like Lewis, we can eschew stilted, sermonic fiction without sacrificing truth—and characters who emanate an underlying peace are the solution.

 

But even though faith is confident, it’s not unwavering, and that’s a fact Christian writers often hesitate to address.

 

Portraying Characters of Faith

Even the strongest Christians struggle with doubts about their circumstances, their worth, and God’s attributes. But just as courage is not the absence of fear, neither is faith the absence of anxiety. Faith-driven characters will continue to stumble through pitch-black situations, focusing on the single pinprick of light above, in spite of the overwhelming urge to turn back. They may be uncertain that they’re heading in the right direction, or angry and hurting, but they keep moving. Let’s look at the three ways faith demonstrates its resilience when pitted against human frailty.

 

1. Conviction vs. Application

Nobody is perfect, so if a character commits himself to the pursuit of righteousness, he will be acutely aware of how far and how frequently he falls short. While hypocrites conceal their inadequacy through denial of their own culpability and a flawless public image, true people of faith become worn down by their own mistakes and question themselves. But this internal tension is a hallmark of sincerity. Frauds never worry about the schism between their beliefs and their behavior.

 

Anxiety is a prime setup for reintroducing our characters to grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. And as we bring our characters out of shame and into the embrace of redemption, we’ll guide readers along with them.

 

2. Resoluteness vs. Deconstruction

In addition to dwelling on their own failures, people of faith may harbor reservations about the dogmas they profess. Perhaps their culture is largely antithetical to their beliefs, so they’re constantly exposed to opposing worldviews that sound appealing and coherent. Perhaps an onslaught of suffering is threatening to destroy their trust in God. Or perhaps they’re unable to accept a principle that’s troubled them for years. Whatever the reason, faith seems to invite attack.

 

Doubt, however, can be a catalyst for thematic change within a story’s cast. A character with a positive arc will never stop searching until he finds answers, then he’ll begin the process of dismantling lies and restoring his communion with God. In contrast, a character with a negative arc will allow his skepticism to multiply and erode his faith by degrees. The precise outcome doesn’t matter, because the character’s progression will either serve as a warning or as a source of encouragement to readers.

 

3. Journey vs. Stasis

Faith emits a glow, yet when it’s filtered through flesh-ridden humans, the shadows of anxiety and doubt seep in. Because of the shifting and sifting that faith stimulates, a character who claims to be spiritual but remains static is probably either confused or wearing a façade.  

 

The more stages of belief and disbelief that we place our characters in, the more we’ll be able to explore the effects that faith has on their development. One of the most revealing tests is a character’s reaction to tragedy. Someone with strong faith will grieve without needing to process other emotions first, whereas someone who is barely keeping a flicker of faith alive will have to wade through hopelessness and bitterness before achieving healing.


I’m not criticizing anyone with weak faith, as I’d count myself among that number. But if we’re using misfortune to gauge where our characters are at, we need to honestly depict the complexity of human beings and their flaws.

 

Portraying Nonreligious Characters of Faith

Faith is not an exclusively religious mindset, although it manifests the most obviously in that arena. Many atheists and agnostics put faith in mankind’s capacity to overcome evil and advance toward goodness without divine intervention. Utopianism is based on faith in an idealistic social structure. And even evolution promotes faith in the upward trend of natural selection.

 

While we need to be conscious of the dividing line between religious and nonreligious faith, the broader concept of faith in something is an equally important part of crafting authentic characters. Every character should hold to an ideology that transcends their current reality and bodes well for them and their world. Even the Marvel villain Thanos is convinced that genocide will stabilize his overpopulated universe.

 

Once we’ve established our characters’ philosophy, we can show its influence on them similarly to how we would handle a religious character’s habits. When they break their own moral code, they’ll feel shame or remorse. When a catastrophe impairs the legitimacy of their convictions, they’ll struggle with doubt. Although the packaging will differ from overtly religious characters, the patterns of humanity follow the same courses.

 

Stay Faithful and Write on

As Christian storytellers, we fear being too heavy-handed with religious themes, but some form of faith propels every human being, and portraying that will make our stories richer and more compelling, not less. When we lean heavily on religious protagonists, and the innate conflict that arises from their faith leads to growth, we offer readers an opportunity to examine the various shades of their own faith and grapple with the supernatural.

 

And after we type the last word and close the document, we must remember to have faith that God will use our stories to challenge and build up readers. It’s insanely freeing.

 

3 Comments

  1. Brian Stansell

    Very insightful article, Martin! Thank you for this!

    There is one line I do wonder about:

    Hope is unshakable optimism that, no matter how bleak our circumstances are, good will prevail over evil.

    I think as Christians, in our internal war between the old flesh and the new man (that inner conflict that Paul speaks of in Romans 7), we sometimes lose sight of that “hope” and it can seem to be “shakable” and we can lose “optimism” in those times of struggle. That doesn’t mean that the “Hope” we have in God’s promises fail, but only that when we are bombarded by the doubt and distractions that weaken our ability to see it clearly, often our responsive feelings of optimism. Does that mean they have no hope? No. I think that we sometimes lose sight of it and need to be reminded.
    The supernatural enemies arrayed against us are masters of distraction.
    A Christian can very often find themselves near the precipice of despair, but it is only in prioritizing our fellowship with Him that we find empowered strength. I think the struggle in that is looking to our own worthiness, which causes a stumbling block. We somehow mistakenly think that we must clean up to be worthy of a bath. That God’s desire to fellowship with us is based on us being good little Christians, worthy of His attention. But that is not “unconditional love” is it? We have a desperate need of Him to be our savior, not just for a future in heaven, but even to get through the crap we walk through each and every day. We need a savior that walks through the darkness with us. That doesn’t let us get lost in it. That keeps us out of even the evil of our own willfulness.

    Hope is the knowledge of the guarantee based upon the credibility of the guarantor. Faith is the willingness to act upon that conclusion. As James states in the second chapter of his book, “faith without works is dead”. Living faith, therefore, gives evidence of its viability by outward works.

    Does a Christian character lose sight of these from time to time? Certainly! I am not a finished work, but one in progress. I don’t need the facade of piety, because it does not have compassion for my brokenness. That is why Love is the greatest of these elements. Loves make them possible. Divine Love lifts me into a capability that my humanity could never achieve.

    I am very glad you pointed out that “non-religious” characters have faith, though I might say they actually do have a religious dogma, but it is not in something we recognize as a “traditional religion” in the strictest sense.

    The most diabolical villains believe in the “rightness” of their objective, often to the point of obsession and perhaps with an even greater religious fervor than the hero does.

    I don’t know about you, but I want to see a faith-based character that I can personally relate to. I am desperate to see it. I have read too many of the secular author’s books, which have value, but so many Christians find it hard to find authentic faith-holding characters that they can relate to. It actually breaks my heart to see Christian authors who have so much to offer, trying to pander to the secular world market. We have a glut of their books. We need stories that inspire and give real meaning and hope. That bridge the world of fiction to create that slanted mirror to glimpse the real points of orientation to hope. But let’s be clear, the Hope must be anchored in the reality (the True Myth as C.S. Lewis and Tolkien termed it) of our world, even if it may be veiled in symbolism. I think Christian authors need to do some real soul-searching and ask themselves what they really believe and then write from that authenticity asking the Lord to grow them through the vicarious journey of crafting their characters. To show them insights into aspects of themselves as they work out who they are and who their characters will be.

    I want to see the struggle of a believer contending with a secular environment and worldviews that authentically bombard them.
    I want to see them find meaningful and personal victory not in prudism or in trite maxims, but in the way, even Job and David did when they just did not understand God when they went through suffering and tragedy.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Thank you for this comment, Brian!

      Lots of good thoughts here. Thank you taking the time to share your thought processes and what you want to see in Christian fiction. Hopefully articles like this, in additional to everything else we do at Story Embers will help trigger the kind of storytelling that you’re looking for. And who knows, maybe it’s you who will write the story you desperately want to see…

      Blessings.

    • Brian Stansell

      Thank you, Martin! I always look forward to your articles. They are always rich and thought-provoking. Keep them coming, sir!

      [Salutes]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Article Categories

Pin It on Pinterest