Here’s my shortlist—though there certainly are others.
First is the the Straw Man portrayal of faith in which the writer exaggerates facets of a religion that he finds irrational or contradictory, and uses them to define a particular religion, or worse, ascribes them to all religion. This can occur whether the writer is using a real world faith or making something up out of more or less whole cloth.
The flip side of the Straw Man portrayal which shows the religion—real or imagined—to be all sweetness and light. No conflict; no questions; no dealing with real world issues.
Related to this is the creation of a religion that is only a cardboard cut-out of a religion. The writer may tell us the characters are of this or that faith, but fails to make room for it in the story. There are no feasts or holy days, no places of worship, no prayers, no household shrines or even thoughts related to the faith, etc. We hear about the religion, but we don’t see it. Least of all do the characters give it internal consideration.
No religion at all, period. It’s hard to imagine a culture that has no vestiges of faith, no cultural philosophies, no great spiritual leaders, no curiosity about what’s “out there” (or “in there”) that demands storytelling and, in the case of fantasy, no ritualized magic or sense of the sacred. If it is not part of the culture (and thereby the characters) in the present, it would be part of their past and would, therefore, inform their present.
How do you avoid such pitfalls? Research, for one thing. Understand the dynamics of historical religion and it will be easier to use it effectively in your fiction.
Second, put yourself on the ground in your character’s shoes and hearts. The nasty ones and the noble ones alike. In what way does their faith (or lack of it) shape them, motivate them, or guide them? Does a character with a horrific temper need to call on sacred verses to help him maintain control? Does a timid soul remind herself of the great heroines of her faith to guide her through trying or dangerous times? If you say a character has a faith, what does that faith look like on the ground?
The people with whom I first shared the ideas in this sequence of blogs had faiths of various denominations as a given in their lives, so when it came to how faith manifests in private thought and life, they had themselves and their confreres as examples of what that might look like. If you don’t have that sort of personal connection to religion, consider finding someone who does and asking them, “What would you do in such and such situation?” or “How do you relate to this or that religious holy day, personage, ritual, or teaching?”
Understanding religious motivations can be equally important whether you’re writing a protagonist or a villain. If your “villains of faith” are to seem real and complex, you have to understand why they think what they’re doing is heroic or merely okay or expedient or “the will of God” or politically necessary. And if your protagonists are to be three-dimensional, you need to be able to give the reader a visceral account of what moves them.
I was recently hired to edit an historical tale in which the protagonist converts to Christianity and ultimately pays for his new beliefs with his life. The writer either had not experienced such a conversion themselves or at least lacked the ability to articulate it, so the story was riddled with modern Christian aphorisms that not only did not exist at the time the story takes place, but had little or no meaning in context with the character and the action. There was no sense of what was going on inside the character with relation to his radically changing set of beliefs—and in this case, that was precisely what the story was about.
If you give a character a faith, you’ve created a potential gold mine of influence: loves, hates, fears, strengths, philosophies, dogmatic beliefs. It’d be a shame to just let lie there underground. 🙂