Fictional Political Correctness

Pat Rice here, asking how do you feel about political correctness in fiction?

I once had a reader ask how I balance my religious beliefs with the demands of the romance/fantasy market. And I told her I did so by inventing my own religion.

But as I developed the romantic fantasy Mystic Isle series, I discovered even inventing a religion is tricky. I may not believe in organized religion, but I still have a strong personal faith and part of that faith believes the Ten Commandments are an essential building block of civilization. Attempting to avoid the vernacular so I don’t “take the name of thy Lord in vain” becomes difficult since people throughout time invariably invoke the name of the deity in times of trouble, and usually not in prayer.

I thought I could avoid that in my series by giving my Mystic Isle characters several deities and referring to them in general as “the gods.”  As I progressed further into the books, though, real religious issues started popping up, and I had to determine if I needed to be talking about the Gods and They, capital letters, to offer respect even if they’re made up gods, or if religious readers would be offended by my offering respect to pretend gods.

If I could waffle over just capitalization, can you imagine what I went through when my Catholic and Protestant protagonists ran up against my multiple-god-worshipping Mystic people?  Just dealing with wedding ceremonies had my eyes crossing. Worse yet, since the books are set during the French revolution, the French government had pretty much abolished the church. In my second book, I had my agnostic French heroine thrown together with my high priest from the island.  Want to try writing those arguments?

Considering political correctness while I write would make me even crazier than I am. I simply write my characters as they need to be.  I always love a good argument, and even I can argue with myself about religion, so proselytizing my questionable faith isn’t happening either. My books are stories I have to tell about a time and place in history and characters I want to explore. If those characters have feelings about religion, that’s fine, because religion expresses a great deal about a culture and time period.  I won’t pull punches because of the market, but on the other hand, unless religion is part of the book’s conflict, it won’t take a major place in my story. In my stories, that generally means religion will have a role along with history, costumes, and customs. I have no more difficulty writing about it than I do about garments like farthingales and knee stockings.

I know there are people who have objected to the Harry Potter books because some readers believe that “magic” is sinful.  Since I don’t believe in magic any stronger than the magic of a baby’s cry or a dramatic sunset, I don’t understand their rationale and don’t concern myself with whether something that doesn’t exist can be evil.  The characters in my Magic and Mystic books go to church, believe in their religion, and just happen to have “gifts” beyond the normal. That they’re God-given gifts is completely reasonable to them, and to me.

Now, if you want to start a discussion about the gender of God, we may be in trouble…
The Mystic series is available in e-book format and the first book of the Magic series is available in both print and e-book at all major distributors. EVIL GENIUS, my BVC mystery, has everything except religion in it and is available in all electronic formats at http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Patricia-Rice/Novels/

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Fictional Political Correctness — 11 Comments

  1. I think it is impossible to make everybody happy, even if your work is as bland as cream of wheat. And the minute you throw in historical aspects, you’re going to offend. (Cue up the causes of the Civil War here!)

  2. The only thing that really bothers me about religion in fiction is when its used as shorthand, like having evil priests for no other reason than that anyone entering the priesthood must be greedy and sinful and malicious. In the middle ages, ok, that was a trope, but medieval literature was not known for its depth of characterization. Nowadays it’s just lazy.

  3. Religion is like having aristocracy in a modern culture — some people see it as ridiculous, no matter how you express it, and are contemptuous of your writing as a result. One of my editors liked the Nuala books because of the spirituality in the stories. A writer thought the concept of a constitutional monarchy was absurd — despite the fact that if you compare the quality of kings and queens of England to US presidents, in effectiveness, intelligence and corruption, the Royals actually had a higher percentage of quality. (Of course, when they had useless rulers or stinkers, they were pretty bad, too.)

    But then I also had a spectrum of people, believers and non-believers, in the culture that had created a new religion. I just tried to figure out what some of the most important, enduring tropes would be for people stranded on a new world, fertility diminished and threatened, when they came from the remnants of different cultures and religions.

    I would think that Ana and her sibs would have been raised to understand that religion was another way of channeling and controlling people, as well as comfort for people when they could not accept the random chance of the universe. Ana’s mother would be quick to point out that they did not need this false comfort, and were too intelligent to be channeled or controlled by religion? The kids would probably have to come to their own understanding of spirituality.

  4. When I wanted to invent a religion, for an early fantasy novel, I realized that form follows function. American churches have pews that face front, because all the action is taking place at the altar or pulpit; they have high ceilings to accommodate organ pipes. If Christianity involved dancing, wouldn’t buildings be round, to let us all hold hands and allemande left? If it involved swimming, would it look more like your local Y?
    And that means you can work it backwards, the other way. If you want your folks to wear long silken robes at their religious worship, you can make the theology demand it: “Though I be dead in sin, yet I am clothed in the garments of righteousness”, etc.

  5. Having been, as I have occasionally said, raised by wolves in terms of religion, this is a hard one for me. I have my own spiritual beliefs, and I’m also fascinated by the theatre of religious practice–if I let myself I could get more involved in designing a ritual than in thinking about what that ritual is designed to invoke.

    When I was writing The Salernitan Women one of the huge challenges for me was to remember the pervasiveness of Christian faith in Europe–and certainly in Italy–in 1200. On every page I had to remind myself, put it in, then sand off the top 70% so it felt rubbed into the grain, not just grafted on. The process was exhausting but ultimately satisfying.

    As for satisfying the needs of the reader to believe or not believe, I’m afraid I get very stern. If I manage to get my facts straight, then…there they are. You don’t like the facts, I cannot help you

  6. One danger with inserting religion into fiction is that you will, inevitably, piss someone off. Another, IMO more serious danger, is that it becomes shallow, or perfunctory, or as Cara M noted, a crutch. A truly human religion has a range of adherents and beliefs; it’s complicated and messy and most authors don’t want to deal with it. I applaud your efforts to do so. All I can recommend is that you be honest, damn “political correctness”, and write what you believe. You won’t please everyone anyway, so don’t try.

  7. Interesting that you started this post off with the question, “Pat Rice here, asking how do you feel about political correctness in fiction?” and then segued rather quickly into religious PC-ness, which you spoke to rather sanely I thought, but I would like to read your views on all those other PC tropes out there just waiting to be torn apart by a well-wielded quill.

  8. Sorry I was out of contact yesterday but thunderstorms, travel, and a very bad internet connector made it difficult. I’d love to have come into this discussion, and yes, I have lots of ideas on other political correctness but the blog doesn’t leave room for a book length of opinion. “G” The comments here are all on the intelligent, thoughtful side and give cause to think. (Love the idea of a religion about swimming based on a pool!) And for the Mystic books, I did try to build the religion from the inside out since we were dealing with a volcanic island which necessitate volcano gods and henceforth from there. And yes, Ana in Evil Genius would be basically raised by wolves. “G” Should I do a follow up book, she may have to consider how much instruction her younger siblings need!

  9. There is lots, lots of room for creativity here. Remember Valentine Michael Smith in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, for whom cannibalism was core to faith? We have not yet seen that utterly convincing fantasy novel with a religion revolving around, oh, say COBOL programming. Although Esther Friesner has started a Church of Chocolate, of which she is the Mome. It is of course a dark faith; white chocolate is apostasy.