We’ve covered a lot of territory in this series of blogs. This week, I’d like to sum up by revisiting some ideas that seem, to me, critical to writing a fictional religion or writing fictionally about a real religion that seems real and not a piece of cardboard scenery or a parody of faith.
- Every society has spiritual underpinnings. In cultures where religion and spirituality were forbidden, they thrived underground. Yet, despite this reality “on the ground” much speculative fiction posits societies with no sense of the spiritual, the mystical, or the arcane. There are a lot of reasons for this—discomfort or unfamiliarity with the subject matter, or just the (to me) surprising idea that religion doesn’t “belong” in science fiction.
In reality, even a highly industrialized and technologically advanced society will have a substrate of principles and possibly even traditions bequeathed by religion. This might appear in the form of aphorisms or values statements—take, for example, the prevalent directive in our own secular societies that we should “do as you would be one by”. Or it might appear in the form of a community holiday (which word itself is a concatenation of “holy day”) that is celebrated by the society at large with little connection to its religious significance. Christmas is the most obvious real-world example of that.
- When you read about religion or interview someone about it, be sensitive to a speaker’s or writer’s choice of words. How does a believer talk about his faith that is different from the way a detractor or neutral non-believer would talk about it? What “in” words and phrases does he use? When you construct a fictional faith, you can make use of this terminology or construct one of your own based on the key concepts of the fictional religion. When I wrote The Meri and the trilogy it spawned, I created a faith that was supposed to be many generations old and that was renewed by revelation roughly every 100 years or so. It had an extensive canon of works with a distinct hierarchy and that readily yielded a terminology of faith for my characters (many of whom were ecclesiastics/wizards in the prevailing order). Of course, I had to invent that canon, first, and I based it on existing sacred texts in the real world, just as I based the political system on the clan-centric government of Scotland that began in the time of Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth McAlpine).
- When you speak or write, be aware of your own word choices and how they bias the reader toward or against a particular interpretation of events. It’s important to be aware, I think, of the impression you want the reader to come away with, but…
- When a writer has an agenda—a particular belief system to promote, an axe to grind, or a point to make—their use of religion can become heavy-handed. They may resort to satire and mockery or create straw characters—believers or non-believers—who are either entirely virtuous or entirely not.In non-fiction this sort of polemic approach can result in unsupported, dogmatic statements. In fiction, it can involve characters in verbal warfare; the characters don’t have dialogues so much as they trade dissertations … and the “good guy” always wins. This can sway readers toward seeing events and characters as you do or it can make them feel they’re being preached at.
- Sermonizing—especially in fiction—sounds good to the choir, but lay readers may put the book down once they realize they’re listening to a sermon. Why is this a problem? Because the point of language is to communicate. Alienating people is not the best way of doing this. If you scream your message, the listener will cover her ears. Religion is not, of course, the only subject about which this is the case. I’ve edited several manuscripts recently by authors whose intent was to chronicle the heroism of the protagonist. Both the narrative and dialogue preached the virtues of the hero—other characters regaled him with commentary on his own handsomeness, courage, battle-prowess, etc.
- When you consider the language of a belief system, try to see past the words and phrases to concepts within them. This can help avoid the sense that you’re using a language you don’t quite understand and hopefully prevent you from using terms incorrectly.
- “Deconstruct,” simplify, and clarify any religious concepts you introduce or invent, for clear communication in your writing. Stories are a collaborative experience—one goal of a writer is to convey, as clearly as possible, their own vision and sense of their characters and their world. If the reader comes away with an understanding of a key element such as the character’s relationship to her faith or spiritual path —which is often the source of magic—it can create communication problems. Everything from misunderstanding a character’s motivations to not getting a critical plot turn.
- Ask questions. 🙂