WORLD-BUILDING & RELIGION: Literary License vs Reality

This is the second in a series built around Q&A sessions from an online Catholic Writers Conference I was invited to participate in as an honorary member from a different faith. I’m a Baha’i, and was actually the only participant who wasn’t from a Christian denomination. It was fun! 

Today’s question deals with literary license.

Q:  How or where do you draw the line between literary license and portraying a current religion truthfully and accurately? That is, how far can you stray from current doctrine before you’ve borne false witness against the religion?

I think if you’re writing in the here and now, you simply must be as accurate as you possibly can. This means putting your own prejudices and biases on the shelf and trying to get to the reality of a faith before you lift your pen. 

Girl with Qur'anWhat this means, in part, is getting any doctrinal facts you use in a story from the horse’s mouth. In other words, to write about Islam, read the Qur’an and works by writers who are Muslim to find out what that faith teaches and how an individual believer relates to their faith. If you’re going to portray a devoutly Muslim character, you must have some understanding of why that character is Muslim. Especially if they converted from another faith. If you know someone who fits that description, consider interviewing them about how their faith impacts their everyday life.

If you want to provide counter arguments, by all means, research the work of detractors so you know what they’re saying, too. But if you can’t honestly understand why someone might become Muslim, I doubt you can write a convincing devoutly Muslim character. 

By way of example: I critiqued a short story in which the writer had portrayed a young Muslim convert from Catholicism. He made it clear that part of the reason this young man converted was perceived abuses within his family’s church. Yet, at the end of the story he has the young man cavalierly sit down to have a glass of wine with someone. He didn’t do his research well enough to realize that a devout Muslim would not drink alcohol and he’d established that this character was devout and observant of Islamic Law.

This sense of “fair play” I think, must extend to writing about one’s own faith, as well. Be factual, be truthful, be even-handed as a narrator. By that, I mean that I think it’s okay for a character to have polarized views on faith. Even to the point of preaching doctrine or embracing a heresy. This is history. This happens. 

But I think that, in my role as Narrator, to project polarized views as a fact of a faith would do a disservice to the story and to the faith I’m portraying in it. I’d also be doing a disservice to the reader, who may take my words as representative of the faith and spread my false witness around.

If you’re writing about a real faith in the future, you might want to project where you think the faith might be heading given world trends. For example, what happens to a religious doctrine that’s built on time-bound prophecies that fail to be fulfilled as expected? That might project that the doctrine is simply replaced, or it is interpreted differently, or the group dissolves, or it tries to make the prophecies come true with funny or frightening results.

As long as you’re not presenting your own prognostications as prophetic, a literary license can make for a thought provoking read.

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