Friday, December 15, 2017

10 Tips for Writing Christian Fantasy

Christian fantasy is a mess, isn't it? It's okay. You can be honest. I'm a Christian who writes Christian fantasy and I have problems with the genre, so I won't judge.

Christian fantasy can be horrendous. It's true. But, like every badly-done genre, it doesn't have to be.

To all of my Christian writers: Sit down and take notes. You all (and when I say 'you all,' I mean writers and readers of Christian fantasy alike) have really been messing up what could be an excellent genre and I'm annoyed. As in, Rocket Raccoon you're-making-me-beat-up-grass annoyed. So pay attention and get ready to make things right.

To all my non-Christian followers: Stick around. A lot of this post is actually applicable to regular fantasy, too. That's right. You didn't honestly think it was only Christian fantasy that has issues, did you?
Hannah Heath: 10 Tips for Writing Christian Fantasy
1. Christian fantasy world-building is identical to good fantasy world-building. This means that you can't rely on Christianity to make your world interesting. Slap a Christian religion and origin-story onto a land mass and call it a day? NO. You need to take this seriously. Go deeper. Keep these 10 points in mind. And don't forget about this:

2. Your story needs more than two religions. Having just a Christian religion and a demonic religion isn't going to cut it. Not only is it lazy, over-simplified, and not reflective of real-life, but it closes so many doors that could lead to some really cool places. Think of how much depth you can add to your story and world and characters by having multiple religions. Think about how it would change and deepen dynamics if your characters were faced with belief systems that weren't clearly demonic, but still not Christian. Don't pass up something this important. Also: Don't forget that every religion has an insane amount of diversity. Realistically, your Christian characters won't all believe the exact same thing and act the exact same way

3. Consider the Jesus figure. I'm going to say something that is going to make a lot of Christian writers very angry: Your fantasy story doesn't always need a Jesus figure. *gasps* "Heresy!" you scream. "Shush," I say. Let me explain:

This is a fictional story. Should it be reflective of real life? Yes. Should it be an exact copy? No. Ripping off our salvation story and plopping it into your own world-building isn't necessary. Are you free to do so? Yeah, sure, as long as you're still creative and intentional with it. Do you have to? No. Here's why:

Yes, Jesus is key to our salvation. But who says that a fantasy (you realize fantasy means made-up, right?) world needs to have that exact key? Nobody. As long as your Creator figure teaches the same truths that Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit teach, then you're not committing blasphemy.

"But how can you separate Jesus from the truth," you ask? I'm not saying that you have to separate Jesus out of anything. I'm just saying that his story of coming to earth and dying in a sacrificial way doesn't need to be exactly mirrored in your world. Ultimately, the point of Jesus' coming was that God loved us so much that he provided eternal life with him through faith. So does your story have a Creator who mirrors God in that he gives your characters a new life (both before and after death) if they have faith in him? Yes? Then you're good.

Aaaand here's where you may argue that, without a clear Jesus figure, your religion may not be identifiable as Christianity. And to this I say: If that's the case, then you've gotten lazy with your representation of Christianity. Do better.

*wipes sweat from forehead* To be clear: I'm not saying you shouldn't have a Jesus figure. I'm just saying that it shouldn't be your go-to because you haven't taken the time to consider other options. You're a writer. Act like one. Be creative and think outside of the box.

And that's my two-cents. Can we be done with this topic now?

4. Don't preach. Seriously. Don't. EVER. Read point 8 in this post if you need convincing.

5. Do develop your themes. I have a whole post about how to do that here. You can thank me in the comments.

6. Go easy on the demons. Please. Can demons and demon hordes make for good antagonists or conflicts? Sure. But demon hordes, just like any other type of horde, can easily swing into the cliche, faceless, not-scary-or-deep, ready-made-and-super-lazy conflict. So if you're going to do a horde, you'll need to have at least one face-antagonist. Can that antagonist be a demon or the devil? Yeah, but...maybe don't. This has the potential to feel formulaic and boring. The problem with the devil/a demon as an antagonist is that they're all the same. So either make a massive effort to make it incredibly different than the others or create a villain that isn't demonic. This makes things way more intimidating because here's a force of evil that wasn't born that way. They chose it or were shaped into it and that's interesting, deep, and scary.

7. Avoid the Easy Fix. The "Oh, look, an angel has come to save the main character moments from death" scene. The "how convenient, the protagonist now has insane powers simply for having a bit of faith" moment. The "I know nobody's going to get hurt because clearly bad things never happen to Christians" feeling. Stop. STOP. This is so wrong on so many levels. Let's list a few:
  1. It takes away conflict. 
  2. It reduces character struggle.  
  3. It's lazy. 
  4. It's overdone. 
  5. It's a lie. Yep. A lie. Have you read the Bible? Have you seen all of the horrible things the disciples and prophets and literally every Bible character went through? You realize that many of them led difficult lives all the way up until dying horrible deaths, right? Christianity doesn't fix all of our problems. It gives us the strength to push forward and a hope in things to come, yes. But it doesn't mean that we don't suffer and hurt and have doubts. Be honest. 
8. Don't be afraid of magic. Look. I know a lot of people are wanting to throw Bible scriptures at me right now. Please refrain. I know all of the scriptures you're going to cite and my answer to them is universal: This is a fantasy realm. FANTASY. No, that doesn't mean that you're excused to write all kinds of messed up things. It simply means this: Do you have Christian themes? Yes? Do you have a good and an evil? Yes? Do you make it clear that evil is bad? Yes? Okay then. You're doing well. 

Because this is a made up world, magic doesn't have to be the witch-craft condemned in the Bible. It can be a tool just like a sword: Used for good or evil depending on whether a good or evil person is wielding it. Or it can have dark and light magic where the dark comes from the devil and the light comes from God (though you'll want to be careful with this, since it can easily fall into the cliche and Easy Fix zone). Or you can do what I'm doing and create a brand new and elaborate magic system. The sky's the limit. Why do you think you were given a brain full of creativity and a heart full of Jesus? Use it to create something beautiful and unique. Don't let yourself be stifled. 

9. Grey is okay. A lot of Christian fantasy has a clear good and a clear evil. That's fine. But remember: That's not always true or helpful. There are grey areas all over the place, so go for the big, scary questions and plunge into them. Show the struggling believer. The antagonist with a conscience. The kind unbeliever. Jump in. 

10. Don't pander. Look. Just because your story is Christian doesn't mean you're allowed to type up a half-baked story. Preaching to the choir is a terrible idea. Christian fantasy, when done well, should be accessible to people of any or no religion. Why? Because Christian fantasy is still fantasy and it's still a story. Thus, it should be entertaining and otherworldly and interesting and cool.

Bonus tip: Check out this helpful thread on twitter for more thoughts about writing Christian fiction/fantasy.

Okay. Go ahead and leave your comments now. Have tips to add? Tips you disagree with? Let's hear 'em! And yeah, you're allowed to comment even if you don't write Christian fantasy. All I ask is that you all be kind, thoughtful, and respectful of each other down there. Have fun!

Related articles:
8 Problems in Christian Fiction Genre (And How to Fix Them) 
Why You Should Intentionally Write Messages Into Your Stories
Challenging Writers to Write Honestly

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21 comments:

  1. If someone needs an author example for all of these tips, it's JRR Tolkein. The Lord of the Rings follows a lot of these same principles but still was based in solid Catholic Christian doctrine.

    Catherine
    catherinesrebellingmuse.blogspot.com

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  2. Thank you, Hannah, for another excellent and much-needed post. This is something I've been struggling with lately, and I'm encouraged to see I have been following all your tips. Something I've been wrestling with is how to write Christian fantasy without an overt God character. My world has a God similar to the God of the Bible, but I don't want to make that too much a part of the story - I guess for fear of turning off non-Christian readers? Any ideas on how to write a story with Christian themes without a God or if I should even try? Tolkien did this very well and I'm trying to figure out how he did it - but we can't all be Tolkien, much as we Christian fantasy writers would like to.

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    1. It's been awhile since I've read Tolkien, but his world did have gods. A whole pantheon, actually. They were just never mentioned in the main story (although the elves may have alluded to them at some point...I don't really remember). It is a really interesting choice for Christian fantasy, but I think he pulled off the whole "Sauron is evil, friendship is good" quite effectively. (That's an oversimplification, I know. It's been awhile.) And he did the whole grey thing too. Gollum was good once, and still has that goodness in him somewhere, to the point where I was sad when he died. Sauraman (don't remember how to spell his name at all) is bad, and I think he got his power from the gods? At least originally? He was the original white wizard, after all... (The whole light/dark duality is a trope I really, really dislike, but that's another story.)

      However. Despite all these lovely tropes, I would not recommend that any fantasy writers emulate Tolkien's story pacing or writing style. Tolkien is amazing because it's Tolkien - he's kinda the Batman of fantasy - but as far as I know, no attempts to emulate him have been as good or as successful. It's gotten to the point where I never want to recommend anyone use Tolkien as inspiration, because the fantasy genre is already saturated with Tolkien wannabes.

      I wish I had other fantasy writers to recommend. Maybe that'll be one of my New Year's Resolutions...find fantasy stories distinct from Tolkien that writers would do well to emulate.

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    2. Well the Valar weren't exactly gods but rather angelic beings. Remember, they couldn't create life, even if they wanted to, only Eru Ilúvatar could do that. Furthermore, the vision of the future of middle earth was not their own but rather that of Eru Ilúvatar.

      If I could suggest something, I think the light dark duality can be mesmerizing for some people. I know people who have converted because of Tolkein who showed how awesome it can be to fight for goodness at all cost against evil.


      I was deeply inspired in my own story by Tolkein myself, but rather in a way that was kind of Post-world building. See, for awhile I had a really interesting world, but then I once tried to fit in into the 'Christian' box where things had to happen in the real world with no magic and that limited me a lot. But then I read Tolkein and I thought, maybe instead of limiting myself, I can do what he did and expand my story in my old mythical world like I was doing before.

      What he pulled of that most Christian writers can't is that he could make something beautiful, incorporate the Christian message, and if he wanted to, put it on an atheist forum and get 5 star reviews.

      I would agree that no one can just copy him, especially because few writers can actually understand him. What he did was a masterpiece where theology, philosophy, history, and prose met high fiction and imagination. Some theologians comment how they did not understand the book of Job until they read Tolkein's translation of it and then understood it in Tolkeins work.

      Furthermore, some people jump out of their seat after reading Leaf byNiggle that was written by Tolkein. It's not until then do people realize Tolkeins stories are actually about death.

      Someone who can write about death that beautifully, with every page soaked in reason and purpose, cannot be easily reproduced.

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  3. A really good example of Christian fiction would be Harry Potter, though most everyone doesn’t believe me. The books are full of Christian symbolism, Christian messages, and just awesomeness. “Looking for God in Harry Potter” by John Granger is a good book to read if you’re unsure. I used that to see how Rowling wrote Jesus into the story without actually having a God character. It’s incredible and expanded my perspective.

    Here’s an example for those of you who won’t read the books: In Prisoner Of Azkaban Harry is struggling with his fear of fear because of the dementors (obviously evil creatures). At the lake he sees what he thinks to be his father saving him with a stag patronus- the stag representing his father since he could turn into a stag. Stags are Christ symbols (also seen in Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as they chase a white stag which leads them out of Narnia). So the stag is an image of his father (just as Jesus is the image of his father). Harry finds out later that he was the one who casts the spell (expecto patronum- which means “I await my guardian”. Christ being his guardian, given to him by his father) which sends the dementors away and saves him and Sirius from death.

    And that’s just one example from one book. Seriously, go read Harry Potter and search for God there. You’ll find him.

    Thanks for the post Hannah!

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    1. Hmm...James Potter isn't exactly the person I'd choose as my Christ figure...but to each his own. *Remembers a certain incident involving Snape and a Penseive*

      In all seriousness, you're not wrong. My grandparents were hardcore against Harry Potter, until they agreed to listen to the audiobooks with us during a 14 hour road trip. It was actually hilarious to watch my grandmother get super into them. (She hated Lockhart with a burning passion.) Later, she told my mom that she'd changed her mind about them, now that she'd seen the core of the story was a fight between good and evil.

      So yeah. You can definitely find Christian themes if you want. I'd guess you could also find a way to apply it to most other religions (most religions have a good vs. evil philosophy, after all), and I wouldn't go so far as to say James's stag = Christ, but sure. It works.

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    2. That's an interesting perspective! I also thought of Harry Potter as the Christ figure in the last book, for obvious reasons. There was definitely a ton of Chrisitan and spiritual references in the Harry Potter series, and much we can learn for our own faith.

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  4. It's kind of weird you wrote this now, because I just wrote a post on why I don't write Christian fantasy even though I'm a Christian, as in I wrote it two days ago. Did you read my mind? :)

    Do you have any suggestions for non-preachy, well-written Christian fantasy? People often recommend Narnia, but honestly, I can't understand why so many people like it (waiting to be killed by fandom for saying it). I can think of no reason that Christian fantasy can't be good fantasy, but I've never read any that is. I need evidence! :)

    Thanks for the post. Interesting as always!

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    1. Narnia has a HUGE nostalgia bonus. I like it for what it is, sure, but I can't deny that a part of that comes from it being a big part of my childhood, which is also true for the majority of the fandom.

      Personally, I just like the characters. They're witty and imperfect and act like real siblings and/or friends, depending on the book. Edmund's and Eustace's redemption arcs were my favorite. They've got flaws, but I enjoy the memories they bring back.

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    2. The Remnants by Lisa Bergren is an excellent Christian fantasy/dystopian. Sure, if includes angels and demons, but it also explores gray areas. The MC is an empath, as in she can magically sense other people's emotions, which is awesome and kinda creepy sometimes.

      Also, The Alliance series by L. Nicodemus Lyons is another favorite of mine. It's more historical than fantasy, but it takes place in another world, so yeah, fantasy! The characters are amazing.

      (As a fan of Narnia, you can rest assured. There will be no "killing" on my watch. Seriously, we're all allowed to have different opinions! Narnia is also nostalgic for me, and one of the few books I can actually talk with my family about.)

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    3. I would suggest Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet. They're a very imaginative blend of sci-fi and fantasy and contain some profound theological themes.

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    4. Thanks for the recommendations guys! I'll check them out.

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  5. Hannah!
    I found your website the other day while looking for creatures to add to my story! I love you!I am a 16 year old Christian want-to-be author, but I haven't ever actually finished anything... That is on the to-do list. Anyway, this article is so amazing! I'm 90 pages into a story I am loving, but I needed to somehow add Jesus into it.. I have the magic, the other magic, and then there was Jesus, who is never actually going to be named... This helps so much in adding another layer to my plot! Thank you!

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  6. Yes, yes, YES!!

    I'd also like to add that I think Christians need to think outside the established box. Not every fantasy needs to be all dragons and swords or half-angel kids battling demons in a more urban setting. Why not add a little steampunk to the mix? How about some paranormal romance--but with an emphasis on redemption and HEALTHY relationships rather than jealous werewolves fighting over teenage girls for some reason? Christian ghost hunters (like the kind that I'm writing)? A Christian take on Greco-Roman mythology where the "gods" are human guardians of nature who got a bit too full of themselves?

    Or why not...literally ANYTHING ELSE? It's fantasy! *waves hands around excitedly* There's a reason it's called that! The possibilities are endless!!

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  7. Huzzah!!
    *throws flower petal confetti in the air*

    These hard truths needed stating, Hannah, well done!

    I've been planning out a Christian Fantasy/mythology/Sci Fi/Western novel, and these tips are very good reminders.
    I am planning on having magic wands/staves and hand magic (is that what you call magic that you do by waving just your hand?! I feel silly), as well as plain pistols and rifles.
    It should be fun. ��

    I really like your points about not having to have a Jesus character to prove your book has a Christian theme.
    I was reading the C.S. Lewis book The World's Last Night and other Essays, and he was explaining his thoughts on the possibility of alien life and if/what the Salvation of Christ would mean in relation to them. It was fascinating! And it helped me think about presenting Christianity into my books in several different ways, new ways. If you're writing Fantasy, set in another world or timeline, the Salvation for that world would probably be very different then our world. If it was needed at all, perhaps their world wasnt a fallen world such as ours either. So many plot possibilities!

    And I agree with your points about adding different religions, as well as good people that follow no religion. It's more realistic , and it adds many side issues for your characters--like them desiring to show respect to the customs of the strangers in an genuine effort to show their goodwill and trustworthiness. Like in the Bible verse 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul is mentioning how to present the Gospel of Christ to different peoples and cultures without 'needlessly' offending them. Humbly and respectfully, but firm in your own belief.
    Your actions and treatment of people and respect for what they hold dear speak so much louder then any words you could say.

    And magic! I live down south and everyone I know refuses to read or watch anything that has magic or aliens or superheroes. I'm quite different, though I am also a very strong Christian. I read Harry Potter this year for the first time, and it's Siriusly awesomesauce!! Love Narnia and LOTR and The Hobbit, Star Trek and Star Wars, DC and Marvel.
    Magic is fake, our God is bigger and better than any wizard anyone can come up with and His miracles are the real deal. But magic is a tool for amazing stories and can certainly help the imagination--The Last Battle gave me the first thought I'd had about what Heaven might be like and it's wonderful Beauty and peacefulness has always stuck with me.

    Anyway, these are wonderful tips!
    Hope you're enjoying the Christmas season with your friends and family!
    Can't wait for your new books to be published!! When will that be?!?

    «Paige. :)

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  8. This is excellent. I ranted extensively on Twitter about my beef with Christian fantasy, but here are some Christian fantasies I think are good models(*):
    - Stephen Lawhead is good (I enjoyed his King Raven series and the Hall of the Dragon King) -- not flawless, but good
    - K.M. Weiland's Dreamlander does some interesting stuff and doesn't pull punches
    - As a teen, I ADORED Karen Hancock and Kathy Tyers. Haven't read them recently so I can't speak for my teen tastes, but they made a big impact on my ideas of Christian fantasy and sci-fi.

    *Excluding Narnia and Tolkien and Chesterton because, as other commenters have said, those two were uniquely themselves and in a literary history context that isn't the same today. Take lessons but don't try to copy them.

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    1. Yay! No one ever mentions Stephen Lawhead, but I loved his King Raven series! One can definitely glean good things from his excellent historical fiction and fantasy.

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  9. "7) Avoid the easy fix." Some of my favorite films that use this are The Ultimate Gift and The Mission. Not sure if the first one is Christian fiction, and neither are fantasy, but they are excellent!

    9) Explore grey areas. Writing, I have found, is a great means of discovering what you believe. So not only is exploring grey areas good for getting your readers to think, but it's also good for the writer.

    One of the things I did in my novelette series, Last of the Memory Keepers, was address how monotheists tend to reject fiction if it mentions other gods. Sure, most of the Memory Keepers are monotheists, but their origin story involves the Fae.

    Okay, rant over. Thanks for another great post. I'll keep these in mind for my next fantasy novel. ;)

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  10. These are some fantastic tips. I don't write much fantasy or Christian fantasy, but I do read lots, and I appreciate this blog post. Thanks!

    Hailey
    www.haileyhudson.wordpress.com

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  11. Also good advice for normal Christian fiction, and not just fantasy. Like seriously, it give me a better idea of how to do my Christian fiction.

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  12. I am entirely new to Christian fantasy. I wrote a book about a fictional country, and a literary agent who critiqued it said that it would potentially make a good fantasy story. Christian fantasy is also becoming more marketable now, if that's on anybody's radar.

    Hannah, you have yourself a new follower! I need all the advice I can get.

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