I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.
This month we’re reading inspirational fiction. I’ll admit, I have very little interest in this genre, though I know a lot of the big name writers because it’s extremely popular among patrons at my library. I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed my book for this month, which was Christian fiction but didn’t feel preachy or specific to Christianity. Yes, bible verses were quoted, but they were universal quotes about struggles and overcoming difficulties. And I learned a few writing lessons along the way.
First, when crafting characters, you should know what their religious/spiritual beliefs are. The fact that your protagonist is Catholic or Buddhist or Pastafarian may never be directly stated in the narrative, but it will influence the way they see and interact with the world. And if your character isn’t religious, that’s still an important part of their identity. As an agnostic Jew living where the Church of God is based, my lack of religion is a huge part of who I am. I’m the “token Jew,” but I don’t go to temple, even on the high holidays, which leaves me feeling guilty and a little fraudulent when I explain Jewish traditions to the Christians I interact with. For me, Judaism is more of a cultural identity than a religious one. But at the same time, I was raised Jewish, so I know what religious beliefs are Jewish even if I don’t share all of those beliefs, and I feel a duty to answer questions and correct misunderstandings about Judaism. So, I’m not religious, but religion is always a part of my life. Perhaps I’m a more extreme example, but my point is religion, or lack thereof, should be a part of your characters’ identities.
That said, religion should be just one part of your characters’ identities. Even if your main character is a priest, they may also be a sibling, a painter, a sports fan, etc. Though the protagonist of my book club read was Catholic, I found common ground with her and all the main characters of this month’s book club read. The protagonist was a musician, and I understood the pressure she felt as she prepared to audition for a spot at a conservatory. And while I couldn’t directly relate to her frustrations when she struggled to hear god and feel his/her/their presence, I could relate to her fear that something she had thought would always be the same was changing. I think readers should be able to say the same thing about the conflicts in all good books — they may never have experienced the exact situation your characters are in, but they’ve been in situations that have elicited comparable emotional responses. If I can connect with a character on an emotional level, I’ll go a long way with them. Have I mentioned how much I loved Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction or Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King? Both have characters whose strong beliefs are very different from my own, but I was invested in those characters and their struggles, and I wanted them to win.
So, those were my takeaways from reading inspirational fiction. What have you learned from this genre? Any books you’d recommend?