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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Limited Vocabulary

When I first began to write seriously, I received one particularly good piece of criticism.

“Your characters sound too modern.”

Nailing down that “timeless” narrative voice is a major struggle for anyone writing medieval-ish fantasy.  Language changes over time.  Words come and go along with advents in culture and technology.  Some words change meaning, and some evolve in spelling and pronunciation.  Others are locked away in a dusty corner of the dictionary, preserved but generally unknown.  And if you are writing about a place that is not on Earth, what do you do about the names of flora and fauna?

First, you must remember that you are writing for a contemporary audience.  Even if your character is technically wearing a “cotehardie”, you might want to call the garment a “dress” or “gown” (or “tunic” or “coat” for a man).  Forcing too many unfamiliar words on your readers is a great way to spoil the flow of your storytelling.  In general, if a smaller or more common word will work, why bother with a longer or less common one?

Of course, there are always times when you need to use the right word, even if your audience may not be too familiar with it.  That’s alright.  Just don’t make them look something up on every page; you’ll only be killing your own flow.

That brings me to “hello.”  I have had actual heated arguments about using “hello” in my medieval-ish writing.  It is semi-common knowledge that “hello” only rose to prominence with the invention of the telephone, but various forms of this attention-getting word have been used all the way back into the 1400s.  Hullo, hallo, holla, hollo, and so on.  While my characters usually great each other with “good morning” or some other time of day, I will occasionally sneak in a “hello” when it seems appropriate.  And I use “hello”, not “holla”, because I’m not writing for Elizabethans.  I’m writing for contemporary English speakers.

There are also common words that I pointedly avoid.  “Shock” is one.  While “shock” predates the discovery of electricity in the English language, the modern understanding of the word derives from the jarring sensation of touching a live wire.  It’s just easier to keep my readers in a world without electric lights if I avoid describing anyone as “shocked”.

“Galvanize” and “mesmerize” are right out, as both of those words come directly from the surnames of 19th century scientists.  I don’t use “earth” to describe dirt, soil, loam, sand, stone, or the ground.  My characters aren’t on Earth and don’t know about Earth, so why would they ever mention it?  “Infection” is another good one to avoid, even if your world has excellent magical healthcare with zero reliance on balancing humors.  My characters aren’t worried about germs and bacteria when they boil dirty water; they don’t want to be poisoned.

Diana Gabaldon has an excellent scene early on in the first book of her Outlander series, where Claire Beauchamp, a WWII nurse, tries to explain that she is a nurse to her new friends in the 18th century.  The word “nurse” originally relates only to the feeding of infants, and so the 18th century Scots think that Claire has just told them that she is a “wet-nurse”, a surrogate pair of milk-producing breasts.  It’s little relativistic touches like this that make me jump up and down and cheer when I’m reading Gabaldon’s work.

Oh yes, I am absolutely that nerdy.

I do like to mix and match a bit when it comes to the names of plants, animals, musical instruments, and items of clothing.  It comes down to readability.  If I was working on a comic book or movie, I might go ahead and invent hundreds of new species because you could actually see them on the page or the screen.  James Cameron’s Avatar and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind both create entire alien worlds to great effect — but how could I ever describe so many strange plants and animals in words alone?

So even though I write about the world of Endrion, it is peopled with humans (and elves and orks).  They have cats, dogs, horses, fish, flies, apple trees, grapevines, wheat, and so on.  I do include several species of monster or magical animal, all taken from the mythology of various cultures.  I will also invent specific species of plant or insect, and give them names that are evocative of their overall form and function.  “Moon leahs” are nocturnal flowers with bioluminescence, and “good eyes” are butterflies with gold-colored eyespots on their wings.  And you can probably guess what “pinstripe ivy” looks like.

As to clothing and musical instruments, these are items that vary in flavor but not much in overall form or function from culture to culture.  I try to use real words for the most part, and so my elves traditionally wear “obis”, those wide belts that the Japanese wear over their kimonos.  On the other hand, I wanted to give my minstrel an instrument to play that set her up as an outsider to the kingdom and culture that she lives in.  So I invented the “vesvel”, an onomatopoeia for the sound of striking the strings of an instrument similar to a guitar.

There are also subtle, grammatical rules at work if you want to sound more like JRR Tolkein and less like Terry Pratchett (no disrespect to Pratchett, his medieval-ish characters sound modern on purpose), but it all comes down to flavor.  Avoid anything too slangy, remember to add “ly” to your adverbs, and read.  Read a lot.  Eventually you’ll have a good feel for how to achieve that “timeless” narrative voice.

Sometimes it is frustrating to stick to my own rules, but limitations spur creativity.  The point isn’t to sound like Chaucer, but to impart enough of an old-timey flavor that my readers can  leave behind our high-tech age for a little while and get in touch with the rawness of the world.

Westeros Doesn’t Work

Infrastructure is expensive, and labor ain’t that cheap.  It’s true!  I know.  I’m a property manager.  And through the lens of my experience with infrastructure, a lot of very famous, very wonderful fictive worlds stop making any sense.

Take Westeros.  How can the lords go around torturing and killing every peasant they find while warring, and not expect the whole continent to starve when that next multi-year winter comes?  Never mind who built that damn wheelhouse from Game of Thrones, or what paved road it traveled on.  And just how wide was that river, that every smith in King’s Landing had to work on that boom chain for the Battle of the Blackwater?  Why didn’t they already have a boom chain for security anyway?  Why didn’t they just keep all of Stannis’s ships out of Kings Landing with that chain in the first place?

And there is no way that anyone would or could ever build a 700 foot tall wall of ice stretching hundreds of miles in length.  Ice is water, and topography is not perfectly flat.  Even if the Wall had been built by magic, it would move, melt, crack, crumble, and otherwise topple within one years-long summer of having been built.

But I can’t really blame George R. R. Martin for not knowing how things really work.  He’s never been a property manager, or a contractor, or a handy-man, and clearly, neither have Joss Whedon or J. K. Rowling.  You probably haven’t been either.  So I’d like to share a few things to think about when building your own worlds.

Giant Sewers and Air Ducts.  I don’t know who started this trend, but my best guess is that it’s Victor Hugo’s fault.  If you ever dare the unabridged version of Les Miserables, at some point you’ll find yourself wading through a 50-page essay on the Parisian sewer system.  There is a point to this.  Two of the main characters (Jean Valjean and Marius) escape from a battle through the Parisian sewers.  That means these sewers are big enough for one grown man to carry another grown man through.

19th century Paris really did have a sewer system that roomy, partly because it doubled as both sanitary sewer and storm sewer, and partly because the people who built it were experimenting and had not perfected the art of sewer building.  But nowadays any modern city is going to build two separate sewer systems, the sanitary sewer (connected to sinks, toilets, and such), and the storm sewer (which drains rainwater from city streets during a storm so they don’t flood).  Contents of the sanitary sewer system go through waste treatment before being released into a waterway, while contents of the storm sewer go directly into the nearest river, lake, or ocean.

This is why I scratch my head when characters hang out in sewers.  Be they the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sunnydale’s vampire population, or the kids from Hocus Pocus, they stand a good chance of getting very wet if it rains.  And most storm sewer lines are not 6 feet in diameter — our property only has 18-inch and 24-inch storm sewers running alongside it.  The sanitary sewer is only 4 inches by comparison, and it empties into a main line that is only 15 inches in diameter.  If you go down just any manhole, you likely won’t be able to journey more than a few feet out of sight of people and the sun.  No one is going to build a 6-foot storm sewer if the engineering calculations don’t require it — it’s too much effort to move all that earth and pour all that concrete.

And while it may not smell good in a storm sewer, it won’t be full of human waste.

Likewise, most air ducts are too small to crawl through.  They do get larger in larger buildings, like skyscrapers, but they’re made out of sheet metal and not designed to support the weight of a human being.  I’d love to see a scene where a hero tries to sneak in or escape through the air vents, and the vent pulls loose from its supports and crashes to the floor.

Basically, neither your heroes nor your villains will get very far if they are doing all their sneaking around within sewers or air ducts.  And no Lizardman or Basilisk is ever going to fit through a 2-inch toilet line (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spiderman and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

Security Cameras.  Considering that homeless spikes (like bird spikes, but for people) are a thing in England and much of Europe, I doubt that King’s Cross Station isn’t chock full of surveillance cameras.  And since the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter series don’t understand AA batteries, I doubt they’d be on the lookout for cameras pointed at their portal to Platform 9-3/4.

Ergo, the secret Wizarding World won’t stay secret for long.

I actually have a lot of problems with the kludgy interaction between The Muggle World and The Wizarding World in Harry Potter.  How do their healers justify letting muggles suffer from broken bones, cancer, AIDS, or diabetes?  When Death Eaters terrorize muggles, why do none of them end up shot by the police?  Why is a AA battery so much more complicated and inscrutable than the Philosopher’s Stone?

And with the advent of security cameras, not to mention satellite surveillance, how does the Muggle World continue to live in complete ignorance of the Wizarding World?

Remember, if you are writing about magic in “the real world”, especially circa today, you not only have to deal with fixed security cameras and traffic cameras, but also everyone on the street with a smart phone.  Sure, you can brainwash a certain number of people into forgetting some show of arcane power.  But the minute that video of your magic user slinging lightning bolts, flying, or stepping through a magic portal hits YouTube, the whole world will know that magic is real.

Infrastructure is Expensive, and Labor Ain’t That Cheap.  So what about if you’re not writing fantasy in a modern setting?  You may not have to worry about cameras.  Your characters won’t be climbing through any sewers or air ducts, but they will be part of a larger society full of tradesfolk and laborers of every sort.  Whatever humans (or elves, orks, dwarves, hobbits, or kender) have was made by someone.  People will be more specialized in cities, and less so in towns and the countryside.  Many people will be farming, because everyone eats.  All goods will have to be moved somehow, be it by road or waterway, by man power, animal power, or with the harnessed elements of wind and river or ocean current.

Houses are still built with the same concerns in mind: they provide shelter and warmth using tried and true methods and materials.  Air and light will need to circulate in this indoor space — even if your characters are using candles or oil lamps at night, during the day they will have opened their windows or doors.  If chimneys are too advanced, there will be smoke holes in the roof.  There will be a water supply, even if it isn’t piped in.  They will need to be cleanable — those rushes you’ve certainly heard of on lordly floors weren’t just strewn about, but woven into rugs and then replaced when soiled.

And if the world is violent (it probably is), appropriate security measures must be kept in mind.

Everything will be made by hand by the people of your medievalish world; roads, wagons, ships, homes, bridges, castles, wells, clothing, tools, weapons, armor, candles, furniture, musical instruments, cups, and books.  A lot of things quickly become too expensive to have, in terms of labor and materials.  Sewer systems are too costly to be built in most cities, which means you have filth in the streets and dedicated individuals who scrape up that filth and cart it out of the city in the nicer quarters.  Most people will have few outfits to wear.  Most roads will be unpaved.  Most people won’t be able to afford multiple rooms in their homes — i.e. they will be used to having no privacy.

And More…  I certainly have more pet peeves about the way writers handle the infrastructure of their worlds, but I’ll leave them for another post.  Until then, just remember that a lot of effort and thought goes into building a world, real or imaginary.  You can have anything you want in your world — lavishly decorated, multi-roomed, hand-dug hobbit holes for instance.  But you’d better figure out what made the hobbits so very wealthy in the first place.