Faith in Fiction 4: Writing Belief Systems
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Neutrality, Ambiguity, Humor, and Affection

An aspiring writer once asked me how he might write about religion “safely.” He had collected an array of anecdotes and stories from his business dealings but was afraid that if he fictionalized them, he’d be accused of mocking someone’s beliefs.

I had never really thought about it before. As I said, most, if not all of my work has religious or spiritual elements in it, and I’ve been praised by readers and reviewers alike for the way I handle the subject. What did I do that worked?

When I dissected my work I found several common elements.

Authorial Neutrality

I don’t write about religion in a way that says “This belief is good; this belief is bad.” I write as if the characters believe things are right or wrong, but I try very hard not to manipulate the “antagonistic” characters so that they are spouting straw arguments. This practice leads to the insupportable: “He’s evil because he’s evil.” Even the character you’ve set up as antagonistic to your protagonist believes his viewpoint to be valid and correct. Only if you remain neutral as a writer, can you make the reader believe he believes it.

Ambiguity 

Ambiguity is my personal writing “shtick.” I’m intentionally ambiguous about things like religion and magic. Two people reading the same story may come to different conclusions: One will say that the story was full of magic and spiritualism, and another will maintain there was no spiritualism or magic in the story at all — it was all in the minds of the characters. I love it when I get that reaction — it’s what I’m striving for.

A number of the pieces I’ve had published in Interzone share this trait. In The White Dog, which was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Association award, my protagonist, who was a Bahá’í by faith, believes herself to be hideously ugly. She also comes to believe she has “a Way about her” — special psychic powers that allow her to influence the way people see her. When a man falls in love with her and asks her to marry him, she is driven to discover how he really sees her.

In the story, I give a vignette from the history of the Bahá’í Faith to illustrate where my protagonist got her personal icon — The White Dog. I do not try to make the reader believe that this vignette is a Divine Parable, I simply ask them to believe that my protagonist believes it. I also ask them to believe that the protagonist believes she has “a Way about her.” Whether or not they believe it themselves I leave completely up to them.

Humor and Affection

Humor is always part of my writing. I find the humor that arises when different world views collide especially poignant and telling about the human condition. However, humor should never be confused with mockery. I make a point of simply presenting situations without commentary and letting the reader decide how to respond, whether I’m introducing an article of faith, an apparently magical element, or the merely surreal.

A mystery novel I recently completed, for example, is about a young private eye named Gina Miyoko. Her Mom is a professor of Russian folklore who also happens to be a devout Russian Orthodox and a closet volkovnitsa (witch). She keeps Holy Water in the fridge for blessing things and is constantly sneaking oberegi (good luck charms) into her daughter’s pockets. Gina’s Dad, a Nichiren Buddhist, also contributes his ideas about religion and magic to the whole. Her best friend is a Hopi undercover agent with the National Park Service who has her own personalized set of beliefs.

While the situations that arise out of this mish-mosh of belief systems are sometimes funny (Gina catches her mom blessing her Harley-Davidson and later finds that both parents have snuck charms into her pockets), I treat them very matter-of-factly and — most importantly — with affection. I want the reader to see both the pragmatism of Nadia Miyoko’s belief that her houseboat is inhabited by a domovoi (a house spirit) and the rationality of her daughter’s skepticism.

woman with open hands pages fluttering digital backgroundKnow What You Write

Beginning writers are always advised to “write what you know”. A more ambiguous statement about writing is hard to imagine. I’ve seen it hamstring new writers, leading them to believe they can’t write about anything they haven’t experienced personally. I propose that the maxim should be flipped on its head: Know what you write.

Where it concerns religion — which can be a volatile topic — this is especially critical. I would propose that the writer approach developing a religion for his fictional world as he would any other foundational element — technology, politics, arts, magic, etc. This calls for research, thorough consideration of how this element will fit into the plot, and careful execution. I believe the writer who does this will be able to portray religion that is more than just a piece of scenery, a straw system, or a plot device.

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About Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort. Author of The Mer Cycle trilogy.
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5 Responses to Faith in Fiction 4: Writing Belief Systems

  1. The great Dorothy Sayers described it as theater. Every character is the hero of his own play. In his own mind, Osama bin Laden was a patriot, freedom-fighter and hero.

    • If I might go off on a tangent, that, to me, is what makes a “villain” three-dimensional–understanding that he’s not evil just ‘cos he’s evil. There are reasons that people do what they do. Sometimes it’s a pathology and sometimes it’s a matter of viewpoint.

      I had a marvelous time exploring those ideas in my first four books. Especially in the second and third books of the MERI trilogy. There are several antagonists in the piece and they run the gamut from irretrievably messed up to capable of grokking that they’ve been misled by their own hubris or dogmatism.

      In the trilogy and my fourth book, THE SPIRIT GATE, one of the main issues was religion (so I guess it’s not such a tangent after all). In the trilogy, I make up a religion wholesale, but I’m dealing with a recurring historical reality–the appearance at intervals of a person who claims a special connection with the Divine–in a word an Avatar or Prophet.

      In THE SPIRIT GATE, I use an alternate history version of the Holy Roman Empire, and there the dynamic is even more pronounced. Both of the major antagonists of the book believe with all their hearts that what they are doing is best. One character is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself and the people he legitimately loves to his cause, the other is in it for his own power, but fails to reveal that even to himself.

      I love writing complicated “villains”. :)

      • Sarah D says:

        Complicated “villains” are the most fun to write, and making them sympathetic is, in fact, not all that difficult when you honestly consider their beliefs. No-one (outside a cartoon villain) wakes up and says, “How am I going to be evil today?”

        I had the most fun writing a Christian woman turned android, who honestly believes her soul is transferred whenever she gets a head change. Her quest for immortality stems from her belief. After years of bitterness and depression, she’s convinced she’s going to Hell should her soul escape its digital prison before she has the chance to redeem herself.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts. I’ve stayed away from writing much religion in my tales, and now I wonder if that was a mistake. Yes, in my world people have a religion, but it’s mostly not relevant for the plot. It’s just part of their lives. However, you made me think that religion might be something I could have more fun with. Thanks!

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