On Religion in Fiction

In honor of my cousin Eli’s Bar Mitzvah, this post is going to be about religion.

No, I don’t care what religion (if any) you practice.  But if you’re writing a novel, chances are that at some point you are going to write about religion.  And if you aren’t writing about religion at all, you should be, because religion is a big part of the human experience.  Wherever you fall on the spectrum, from fervently religious to mildly spiritual to militantly atheist, religion touches your life.  The religion of your society is going to affect your thinking, whether you ever set foot in a place of worship or not.

There ARE atheists in foxholes, but they’re going to cry out “Jesus Christ!” or “God!” just like everybody else when the gunfire starts.

To pick on J.K. Rowling a little more, the lack of religion in the Wizarding World puzzled me.  Her wizards and witches remember that the Burning Times happened.  Okay, so what is their relationship to Catholicism or Christianity?  Good, apparently, because they celebrate Christmas.  Alright, so when do they go to church?  Never?  That’s odd.  They do make a big deal over Halloween too, maybe they’re Pagan, or Druidic?  But Pagans and Druids celebrate Yule or Solstice, not Christmas.  Maybe the wizards and witches of Great Britain are all just pointedly secular.  After all, they’re little gods themselves with all that power.  All right, then why are they celebrating Christmas?

I know that plenty of secular Americans celebrate Christmas.  The culture of Christmas is so overwhelming, my choices are to be an anti-social jerk or celebrate it along with my non-Jewish and generally non-religious friends.  But without a long-standing tradition of Christianity in this country (Christianity being the majority religion), they wouldn’t celebrate Christmas.  They’d have Solstice, or Kwanzaa, or Chanukah, or Festivus, or no big late-December celebration at all.

I understand that JK Rowling likely wanted to keep religion out of her novels.  Religion is a messy thing that certain individuals get very uptight about, and so religion is frequently left entirely out of popular media.  Sometimes that’s appropriate.  Something light or irreverent or especially artsy won’t always be attempting to depict real life.

Except that religion isn’t ever left out, it lurks like an elephant in the room.  The disregard for reality leaves a created world feeling flat.  That works with Looney Tunes, but something as meaningful as Harry Potter is cheapened by avoiding the subject.

If I’ve convinced you that religion is a theme worth including and exploring, the next question is how.

I actually think religion is something that George RR Martin does well.  Martin writes about multiple religions, and also about individuals who are more or less religious.   He frequently has characters participating in religious rites or festivals, making oaths, and taking the names of the gods in vain.  He leaves the true nature of the gods ambiguous.  Characters discuss religion, and are motivated by it.

Ultimately, Martin doesn’t have very nice things to say about religion.  R’hllor seems inclined to give his power to the brutal rather than the beneficent, and that generally holds true for the many gods of Westeros and Essos.  If you’re interested in a more nuanced and even more complete exploration of religion in fiction, I would recommend Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.  The story is set largely within a monastery, and it proves to be a very good vantage for exploring 12th century England.  While there are plenty of scheming, power-hungry clergy and bad guys taking advantage of pardons for their sins, there are also legitimately good priests and monks to be found in Follett’s medieval England.

I would also recommend Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Small Gods.  Here again religion is the main theme of the story, and we see both the good and the bad in it.  But the book retains the light, comic tone that Pratchett uses throughout his Discworld series.  Religion doesn’t have to be so very serious.

Of course, your characters may live in a more modern and secular society, and religion may not be a theme you want to explore all that deeply.  That’s fine too.  Perhaps the best example here is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon.  Several times throughout the film, the titular character lists the few things in life that are really important to him;  “My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.”  I love how, “My church,” is just another thing in that list.  The audience may not spend much time in church with Don Jon, but we don’t need to.  We know he goes regularly, along with his whole family, and that tells us a lot about the character and the world he lives in.

It’s really a matter of what you want to get across.  Merely acknowledge religion, or explore it deeply.  Damn religion, praise it, or fall somewhere in the middle.  But do yourself a favor, and write about it.

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Taking Critique/Giving Critique

I first started writing back in high school, with some coaxing from my friend Christine Carter.  We wrote anime fan fiction and original stories using a shared universe of characters and places.  At one point I started writing a longer work (the characters and general premise of which has been recycled into my current project, Proper Magic) that was loosely connected to our larger cosmos.  I became very serious about it, and asked Christine to critique my work.

She was brutal.  And I am so grateful.

Learning to take critique is rough, but it is a necessary step for any serious culture creator.  It means putting your work before your feelings.

If it will make your work better, do it.

If it is a matter of a difference in personal taste, if it is non-specific, or if it won’t help the work, ignore it.

If it hurts, ride that burn like the ache in your quads during a long warrior pose.

(If it hurts too badly, it’s okay to ask to hear what’s good about your work too.)

I’ll admit, developing this attitude early made me a bit vicious when I went on to college.  I started taking a lot of art classes (more on that in another post) and wound up graduating with a BA in Studio Art.  A central part of all the classes was critique, and I wasn’t always nice about it.  I went there.

One fellow student was an anthropology major who only did female nudes of conventionally attractive women in conventionally attractive poses.  To justify this, he said the female form was more expressive than the male.  I asked him, as an anthropology major, could he see that maybe his opinion that the female form was more expressive was not a universal truth but a product of our culture.

Apparently, he couldn’t.

But the failing was on me too.  I critiqued poorly.  I did not look at his work, and consider how to make his work better.  I tried to get him to change what that work was on a fundamental level.  And so of course he didn’t listen (and of course he didn’t like me much either).

That is the most important thing to remember in any sort of critique.  You are helping to refine the work of another person; not co-opting it and making it your own.  You’re always welcome to not like what it is, but that’s not critique.

When it comes to critiquing a work of fiction, I recommend that you begin by asking any questions that come to mind that the manuscript left unanswered.  My husband recently supplied me with such a list for my own fantasy manuscript, and it included questions about population density, the daily habits of clergy, and the structure of the governments within my world of Endrion.  The behavior or characteristics of characters, the timeline, or the use of various mythological elements are other good things to ask questions about.

You should also express what you want to see more of.  Does it need more romance?  More comedy?  More action?  More unbridled awesomeness?  Was there a particular scene that stuck in your mind?

Remember, critiquing is not the same as editing.  Don’t try and fix all those punctuation errors or passive sentences (though you might mention any common problems).  Do advise if a scene is unnecessary, or doesn’t further the plot.

Another thing to look out for is boring characters.  Not every character can be Darth Vader or Princess Leia, but you don’t want a Qui-Gon Jinn to wander in and waste your reader’s time.  I would also keep an eye out for boring or otherwise unmemorable settings.

Last but not least; identify what you like.  Don’t lose focus on the good stuff.  If there isn’t any there, why waste your time critiquing it?  Critique with love.