How to bring cults to life in literary fiction


16 June 2023
Beth Lewis, aauthor of the acclaimed Children of the Sun,

So you want to start a cult? What do you need? There are the basics – charismatic leader, devoted followers, extreme belief system and a bad end – but how do you turn a potentially pulpy, even cliché collection of ingredients into something gripping, believable, and original?

When writing about cults in fiction, we have the luxury of being able to plan ahead and design a cult around what we need narratively but that is a double-edged sword as we also need to make the cult believable to a reader at its most unbelievable point.

In Children of the Sun, I wanted the cult to resemble a Heaven’s Gate style doomsday group, who based their belief system on something so out of this world, it needed a strong promise from the leader to convince his followers to go through with it. It also needed a universally relatable theme to convince readers and perhaps have them question whether they could be sucked in to such a group. Grief and loss are those universal themes and I focused on a moment of regret for each follower. A turning point in their life where if they had made a difference decision, their loved one might still be alive, they would not have lost their business and family, they would not have lost their career and dream. Whatever the basis for your cult, it needs to have relevance to a reader.

The other aspect of a cult and arguably the fun bit to write, is the belief system itself. Heaven’s Gate believed they would leave their earthly bodies and ascend to live on a spaceship. Scientology believes there are dead aliens in our heads. Countless other cults believed in nuclear Armageddon or biblical end of days. In Children of the Sun, the followers believe their leader will open the Golden Door on the day of the eclipse and they can walk into a new life where their past decisions didn’t end in tragedy.

It’s important to understand that cults rarely start as they end. NXIVM began as a life-coaching system, after all. So your belief system should be intriguing and relatable but also have room to move into the extreme, so have an endgame in mind, whether that is mass-suicide, a terror attack, or sparking a race war, it needs to have high stakes.

There are many different types of cult, from the sci-fi doomsdays of Heaven’s Gate, to the fundamentalist religious cults of Branch Davidians, to the communist utopias of Jonestown and then more besides. Life-coaching, multi-level marketing schemes, online conspiracy groups. There was even a cult in Russian who lived in a cave for six months. Nothing, it seems, is too far-fetched for real life but in fiction it’s important to make your cult as grounded in reality as you can.

The last thing you need to consider are the followers of your fictional cult. Each one needs to have a compelling reason to be there. There are reasons some people are more susceptible to cult recruitment than others. Often people who join cults have low self-esteem, are vulnerable or are missing something in their lives. The cult needs to offer them what they’re missing. When constructing your characters, bear that in mind. Who are these people who have joined this group? What is it that the cult offers them that they cannot get elsewhere?

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And most importantly, try to leave the reader wondering, ‘would I join?’

Children of the Sun by Beth Lewis is published by Hodder & Stoughton


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