Allegory is one of the best friends of any writer of spiritual fiction. As writers inspired by our faith, we have a plethora of history and parables to draw inspiration from, and our subconsciouses are often inundated with symbols and connections. None of this is bad…unless you do with it what I did.
What I Did Wrong
We all have to start somewhere, right? Well, when I first started writing spiritual fantasy about 7 years ago, I was on fire with ideas of how to incorporate allegory into my books. I knew I wanted to write something ‘magical,’ something vivid and exciting and colorful, and something powerful enough to get into my reader’s heads and make them question what they thought about spirituality. I wanted to make it come alive for them and show them that it’s not so much about following a bunch of rules as it is about transformation and love.
And so, I did what many naive, young authors probably do. I started connecting characters to biblical characters, plotlines to biblical plotlines, and my fictional nations to real nations in the world. My pen ran away before my mind could catch up, and fairly soon I had a page full of potential book titles and a chronological timeline scribbled in, describing all the events that would happen in my ‘epic series.’
“Well, that was almost too easy,” I remember thinking then, sitting in my high school’s library. I was so proud of my timeline, my series that I’d come up with. It followed the original story idea I’d thought of, about reconciling two nations at war, and then continued on to the birth of a fantastical character with two golden eyes who was going to be killed for his teachings. Then that was going to lead up to an apocalyptic resolution and a final battle between the forces of good and evil.
Why It Was Wrong
That doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well… what I was trying to accomplish is something called a “one-to-one allegory.” You probably won’t find that precise terminology through Google, but that’s the term that I’ve heard used all throughout my college career. A one-to-one allegory is allegory that forgoes the use of subtlety, and matches the character, setting, or other element of fiction directly to something in the real world. An example of one-to-one allegory would be the character Napoleon from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” who is based on Joseph Stalin.
“Okay,” you might say. “So why are one-to-one allegories bad?” I’ll tell you why.
Writers often write to teach. That might seem like a strange statement, but it’s true. Every writer has a worldview, a philosophy, and a unique paradigm. And that paradigm shines through in their writing, whether they’re trying to let it show or not. After all, writers write what they know. And every writer has a message they want to share with the world. Otherwise, why are they writing?
As opposed to political writers like Orwell, writers of spiritual fiction have the difficult task of balancing the spiritual truths they are trying to express with the task of creating a world and a story that are realistic, engaging, and— this is important— original. But if you’re just creating allegories by giving one character all or many of the qualities of biblical figures, or stealing plot lines directly from Scripture, like I did…well, that’s not so original, is it? It’s easy and tempting to do exactly that. But it’s not very professional, and it most often results in a stale, predictable story.
I realized shortly after that day in the library, as I worked through many drafts and many new ideas that came to me, that holding too tightly to my biblically-based timeline stifled creativity, as well. I didn’t feel inspired to think of new ideas because I already had a map laid out before me of how things should go. I tried to push away the new ideas, thinking I already had it all figured out. In doing so, I stalled a process of transformation and inspiration for that story that could have taken a much shorter amount of time.
And when I let go and let those ideas flow, do you think it made my story any less viable or spiritual? Absolutely not. That story was the first draft of any book I’ve ever finished, and it took 7 years to bring it to where it needed to be. It is nothing like it was, but it is so much better for that change, and in the new ideas I found many new connections to my spiritual theme that made the story that much stronger and more coherent—and as a result, more original and true to my Catholic paradigm, as well.
Learning from the Pros
Many excellent authors of spiritual fantasy and fiction, among them Ted Dekker and C.S. Lewis, have obviously drawn from their faith to weave their themes into their stories, which are read and beloved by many. But their characters—ah, their characters! That’s just the thing. Their characters are unique. They are relatable, realistic human beings (and fauns…and lions…and beavers…you get the idea). And no one would argue that their worlds are unoriginal, simple, or uninteresting. The plot in the Chronicles of Narnia centers around the fight against Jadis and others who threaten the health and the people of Narnia. The plot in Ted Dekker’s “Circle” series centers around a man who is fighting to stop a deadly virus in one world while leading a war in another.
Yet most everyone understands the spiritual themes of both sets of books. Neither author created stories that were nothing but embellished Bible stories set in a fantasy world. Both authors made the focus of their books the human protagonists that have to fight their way through the plot, just like every other book out there logically would.
But both authors also made clever and subtle use of important spiritual symbols throughout their novels to point to the truths they were trying to express. Everything from numbers, to colors, to personality characteristics, and even sometimes to names, pointed to the various roles each character played in the plot and how they related to some spiritual truth in the real world. The reader doesn’t have to be hit upside the head with characters who are obviously real, historical people from Scriptures dressed in different clothes and sporting different names to understand that their books have a spiritual message to bring.
These authors didn’t have to use one-to-one allegory. They crafted a fascinating and exciting plot, along with human, relatable characters, so that we as readers could follow their journey and learn with them what the author intended to show through the world that he created.
So…How Can I Do What They Did?
So now we come to the hard part of this. We know that the pros don’t use one-to-one allegory in their spiritual fiction. It’s unoriginal, it’s unnecessary, and it drives away the creativity and uniqueness that makes your story yours. So how do you incorporate your own spiritual themes without using the tempting one-to-one allegory model?
That’s easy. Avoid allegory altogether. At least, to begin with. Instead, start with your characters. One of my favorite authors, Katie Weiland, talks about character arc and theme in her blog post, “Don’t Know Your Story’s Theme? Take a Look at Your Character’s Arc.”
“Whatever it is that’s moving the characters is what’s also moving your story. That’s your theme.”
It can’t get much simpler than that. Find out what your character wants. Find out what it is he can stand to learn. What is at the heart of his desire? Why is he so adamant in pursuing his plot goal? If you can find that out, you’ll find out your theme. And once you have your theme, whether it be love, sacrifice, patience, etc., you can build on that and determine what in your story can play an integral, symbolic role in illustrating that theme as the character fights his way through the plot.
An Example from the Real World
I’ll give you an example to help illustrate this point. A very popular Disney movie called “Frozen” (you may have heard of it) incorporates its theme directly into the physical elements of the plot, creating a tight, powerful story. Elsa’s plot goal is to keep her sister safe from her icy powers. As this goal is challenged over and over, eventually resulting in Elsa freezing Anna’s heart, Elsa fights to find an answer, a way to thaw the ice in Anna’s heart—and also to thaw her own heart, having been cold towards her sister for so long. She realizes the very thing that she’s been avoiding (showing her love for her sister) through fear has been what’s making her powers increase, and what’s caused her to turn an entire kingdom to ice. Once she begins to fight for her sister, and she realizes her sister is willing to die for her, she learns the secret to thawing the kingdom, something that’s been foreshadowed earlier in the story. She must first remove the ice from her own heart and love without being afraid.
The symbols in the story are integral to the plot, as opposed to being forced in, and though “Frozen” doesn’t necessarily have a spiritual theme, we can still learn from it and use it as an example for incorporating meaningful allegory and symbols into our stories, without the obnoxious use of unoriginal one-to-one allegory. If we can unlock this secret of finding out what the character needs, and deliver that need in well-placed spiritual symbols, we will be well on our way to creating a potent, unique journey that our readers will be happy to undertake with our characters.
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you on the next ship in!
Tell me your opinion: Have you read any spiritual fiction that uses one-to-one allegory? If so, did the author find a way to use it well? Or did you find it unpleasant to read?
Let me know in the comments below!