I deal with religion, magic, faith, or some sort of spiritual belief system in most of my books and quite a few of my short stories. If not the main thread, these form at least a subtle part of the world in which my characters operate.
These are not simple things to write about and there are a number of pitfalls inherent in dealing with matters of faith in a fictional context, whether you’re writing about existing religions (your own or someone else’s) or making one up for a future or otherworldly culture.
Some writers simply avoid writing about religion, faith, or spirituality altogether, but how realistic is a culture that has no belief systems? A glance at our own multi-culture—in which neo-atheists observe Darwin’s birthday, discuss seriously whether to build “churches” and how rituals can be created around science to make it more attractive to non-atheists—should serve as notice to the writer: belief systems are a fact of life, deal with it.
No, I mean it, fellow writers: we gotta deal with it and do it in a realistic way.
So, for the next several blogs, I’d like to look at some of the ways in which I’ve seen writers fail to deal with belief and offer some suggestions on how one might avoid them. I’m going to use the world “religion” here, because it’s shorter and less unwieldy than “belief system”. You can mentally substitute “faith”, “spirituality”, or “belief system” depending on what context this holds in your writing project.
Today . . .
Religion as Scenery
This approach relegates religion to the role of stage dressing. In some cases, the writer has made a deliberate decision to ignore religion and spirituality or is reluctant to write about it due to lack of personal experience, a dislike for the subject, or the opposite—a fear of being too heavy-handed, and that his own strong beliefs might alienate the reader.
Every society has spiritual underpinnings of some sort. If you doubt it, look carefully at history, archaeology, and the place they meet: cultural anthropology. Even in cultures where religion and spirituality were discouraged or forbidden, they thrived underground. In fact, I’d hazard to say that one of the most effective ways to strengthen a faith community is to attempt to control or expunge it. Yet, I see speculative fiction books of all genres—but especially science fiction—that try to do exactly that: posit societies with no sense of the spiritual, the mystical, or the arcane.
This is an especially glaring omission in fantasy tales in which characters are dealing with magic. In the real world, magic has its origins in religion. Historically, faith and magic are inextricably interwoven. In the history of both the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches, for example, spells used by the laity and theurgists (Church-sanctioned magicians) were quite literally prayers. In THE BATHHOUSE AT MIDNIGHT: Magic in Russia, W.F. Ryan notes that in the Russian Orthodox experience,
“The very fine line between canonically acceptable prayers and magical invocations is, as in the Catholic West, frequently blurred at the popular level…” (The Bathhouse at Midnight, p. 164)
In some cases, writes Ryan, the only real difference between a prayer and spell was the identity of the speaker and their circumstances.
“For example the Bol’shoi trebnik (a book of special services and prayers) … contains many prayers which, if uttered by a ‘wise woman,’ would be classed as zagovory…” (The Bathhouse at Midnight, p. 164)
That is to say, spells. These same verses, uttered by a clergyman, are simply prayers.
For the writer, and indeed for the reader, the real problem with eliminating or marginalizing religion and spirituality in speculative fiction is that it weakens the fabric of the fictional world and makes it less than three-dimensional. The form religion or faith takes in a world will grow out of the very soil. It will reflect the collective experience of the people to which the characters belong.
To apply a patina of religion as if it were a coat of paint is to invite the reader to uncover inconsistencies in your world.
How do you guard against this happening?
When I set about building a society, I look at the point in time in which my characters are living and ask how they and their society got there. I may even construct a brief history of the place going back several hundred years or more. I also ask where they are going. Then I look at the forces that have shaped them, paying special attention to how those forces—including religion and spirituality—manifest themselves in and affect the lives of the individuals and their community.
My goal is to create a living society: one with a body, a mind, a heart, and a soul. Every individual—and by extension every group of people—want to believe themselves transcendent in some way. They will live on in their children, their art, their commerce, their culture, and perhaps in some other, more ethereal form. These beliefs will color the way the characters think, speak, act, and interact with each other. It will inform their attitudes and will be reflected in the culture they build.
It’s fine to posit that in a galaxy far, far away, everyone treats each other with love and respect, or with distrust and treachery. But if you posit it, you must be able to explain it.
Next time: Screaming from the Pulpit or How to make your reader cringe.