What a Reader Believes
Certain works of fiction are designed to appeal to readers with strong belief systems. For example, most large religions have enough followers so that a few storytellers can become popular enough to make a living writing to people of that denomination. But not all “religious fiction” need be religious.
For example, there are people who write books that appeal only to people of certain political ideologies, or prominent economic ideologies, and some adherents to such philosophies exhibit an almost religious zeal.
In my book Million Dollar Outlines I talk about some of the powerful emotional draws that pull people toward certain types of stories, and while working as a greenlighting analyst in Hollywood, I studied these draws heavily. We looked at emotions like wonder, humor, horror, adventure, romance, mystery, drama and erotica to figure out how well movies might do.
But the draws that I mentioned above are not the only ones that attract audiences. Religious fiction can be extremely powerful. In fact, most people are unaware of just how popular religious fiction can be.
Years ago, the television show Touched by an Angel was the biggest hit of its time, with some 28 million weekly viewers at the height of the show. I was having dinner with some producers in Hollywood at the time when the discussion turned to Mel Gibson’s venture with The Passion of Christ. One of the producers noted that it was being written in Aramaic, and another said, “Oh, god, I hear he’s spending $24 million dollars on that thing. Why doesn’t he just stick it in my pocket if he’s going to throw it away?”
I then suggested that the movie would do at least ten times better than the other producers thought, based upon my own observations of the size of the religious market. The movie went on to gross $600 million in the US box office, becoming one of the top ten bestsellers of all time (at that given time).
At about that time, I was introduced to Bruce Wilkinson, a minister whose little book The Prayer of Jabez had sold 10,000,000 copies so swiftly that he followed it up with several others that sold just as well. Bruce at that time had a whopping 60 million sales of his books—and that was more than eleven years ago.
At the same time, the Left Behind series—which deals with the Second Coming—was doing just as well—selling more than 65,000,000 copies.
It’s Not Quite the Same
What I want to say about religious fiction is that it doesn’t quite function in the same ways as other stories do. In fact, things that a writer thinks might work often don’t.
For example, years ago I met a gentleman who wanted to write science fiction for the Mormon market. He wrote a good book set in the future, but it did pretty miserably. He was trying to add a sense of wonder and adventure to a story of faith, and it didn’t quite work. Why?
By setting his tale in the future, he was hoping to create a sense of wonder. But I suspect that such tales too often challenge the reader’s own views of the future, and religious readers usually don’t want to be challenged. Religious literature is comfort literature. It reinforces, strengthens, and builds up the reader’s own belief system. That’s the draw. So anything that negates that will tend to disenfranchise readers.
So, when this author asked me how to handle future novels, I suggested that he go to the past, that he write historical novels about the early leaders of the Mormon Church, so that he could bring their lives to life. To my surprise, he did just that: and his next series of books became the all-time bestsellers in Mormon literature. His sales on that series outsold that first book by a factor of, I believe, some 300 copies to 1.
So what popular emotional triggers might negate sales in religious fiction.
The first thing that I look for is what I call wonder, but what others might call “science fictional” elements. The reader is trying to engage in voluntary suspension of disbelief. Anything that acts as a barrier to that is a red flag.
So, for example, if I were to write a story in which Jesus is simply a young man with a time machine who goes into the past and quotes teachings from the bible, a lot of religious readers might feel that you’re making this harder to believe than easier to believe. Similarly, if you were to write a story in which Jesus was a master magician, and Peter was his young apprentice, you’re likely to get yourself stoned.
Making jokes about faithful characters or about the reader’s belief system will disenfranchise readers.
Taking romance to extremes, being erotic, or just showing poor taste in descriptions of your character’s body parts might well drive away readers. Of course, it goes without saying that nudity is a taboo for many religious cultures.
Many religious readers have made it a long habit to avoid polluting their minds with violent or disgusting imagery, and so will have a lower tolerance for horror than your average reader.
But something that terrifies religious readers is the introduction of a power system that is greater than their own cosmology. For example, let’s say that I write a story in which demons seem to be more powerful than God. Do you see how terrifying that might be to a teen who has never had to grapple with that idea? That’s why the movie The Exorcist was so powerful. It scared the britches off a lot of believers.
It’s true that people use profanity in real life, but in my fiction, most New York Times bestsellers keep it toned down. Of course, the use of profanity doesn’t come just with words. Often, it can come in the form of behaviors.
So when you approach a story that might offend religious readers, just be careful. The ones that challenge reader tend to bomb big time. The ones that best strengthen the audience’s belief system and help deepen and broaden it are the ones that will become bestsellers.