Being a Better Writer: Getting Religion Right

Hello readers! Welcome back to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! I hope that all of you had an enjoyable weekend!

Mine was a bit of a mixed bag. Loved the new episode of Wandavision, but also spent more time determining some of my PC issues (the power supply is looking more and more like one culprit). I’ve got some replacement hand-me-down parts coming so we’ll see if that introduces some stability.

Oh, and here’s a real mystery for all of you out there. Axtara (fantastic book if you haven’t read it yet), a book about and starring a dragon, does not come up on Amazon’s selection of fantasy books involving dragons. At all. For reasons I’ve yet to find an explanation for.

No joke. I spent some time today looking at Axtara‘s keywords. Yup, dragon is in there. Genre? It’s in the right slot. But for some reason, if you go to Amazon’s selection of fantasy books (kindle and otherwise) involving dragons … Axtara is curiously absent.

The amused author part of me wants to joke that it’s some form of speciesism, that clearly Axtara is “not a dragon book” because the “dragon” in question isn’t being ridden (in either sense of the word, judging by some of those covers) or mauling people to death as a mindless beast, and therefore isn’t eligible.

The less-amused author in me is both annoyed and alarmed, because this means that people looking for books specifically about dragons on Amazon won’t find Axtara in their search or genre results, and that’s definitely negatively impactful to me. I’ve messed with some genre indicators and I hope that this fixes it. Next step will be an e-mail to Amazon directly, because what the what, if there ever was a book that was more suited for the “dragon” category, I haven’t found it.

While I’m on this tangent (and before we get to today’s post), is anyone else overly tired of dragon-rider books? Especially the ones where the mount is sapient and intelligence, but is basically treated like a horse that can talk? That’s one rut I’d rather see fantasy climb out of. Or, for all the talk of avoiding “problem issues” in fantasy, I’m surprised “keeping sapients in stables as mounts” hasn’t drawn more ire from readers. I guess the idea of equal rights only matters if they’re humanoid? At least Temeraire wasn’t afraid to tackle this, but most other generic dragon-rider fiction just kind of ignores it … and I’m getting too off-topic. That’s my mystery from the weekend.

So, let’s talk about today’s hammer of a topic: Getting Religion Right. And I’m pretty certain that already some people are going to have issues simply based on that title alone, because some folks get ready for a fight anytime the words “religion” and “right” are in a sentence together without the word “not” or something similar.

But whatever. We can’t shy away from this topic, and it’s an important one. Which is going to come with a hefty lead-in. So we may as well hit the jump and get started. Get to it.

All right, so where do we star with a topic like “Getting Religion Right?” Well … some of you may disagree, but if there’s a common trend that I’ve noticed in fiction (especially modern), it’s getting religion wrong.

Yeah, you read that correctly. I think a lot of modern books get religion completely wrong. They might get some of the nuts and bolts of the concepts behind it correct, kind of like saying that a scientist “does things with numbers and chemistry” … But that’s it. To a lot of books out there, characters that are religious, even seriously so, often don’t come off as characters that are to those that are actually religious. Their religion is treated like … a shirt color. “This is Ngata, and she wears a blue shirt.” Occasionally the character will comment on their shirt being blue, like an observation. The other characters might all be wearing red shirts, and maybe they’ll note how different the blue shirt is. The blue-shirt character might make a half-hearted justification of their blue shirt that’s just kind of thrown together, and that will be that.

But not always. As I started thinking more and more on this topic (it’s been off and on my mind for over a year), I started to pay closer attention to the authors behind a lot of the portrayals of religion I was seeing in fiction, and I started to see that there were authors that were addressing it with more depth than just a “shirt color” and digging into the reality of people’s faith and belief on a wide array of subjects. But there was a difference, I noticed, with most of these authors as well.

By and large they tended to be authors that either were or had been seriously religious. The books where religion was basically a changed shirt, or (very often) an easily dismissed topic? From authors that hadn’t been.

Now, I’m not trying to single those authors out. Not exactly. I’m not pulling out names or anything. The point is that I noticed a stark difference between those books that handled religion well and those that made it a shell that lacked any real nuance or understanding of how and why religion existed in people’s lives. And that difference was that the authors who presented religion in a way approaching seriousness in their stories understood it.

I’m going to make a note here. When I say that they understood religion, I don’t mean that they believe in it. I’m not talking “understood” in those terms. Nor do I mean “understood” in the sense that they had all the nuts and bolts of the religious belief figured out (though this bit is certainly true; they do make an effort to know and portray the ins-and-outs of the particular religion, be it real or one that exists in a fictional setting).

No, what they understand is the mindset of faith and belief that goes into it. And because of this, they’re able to approach religion (and religious characters) in a way that other authors cannot.

There was a panel I attended at LTUE that made this distinction quite clear. This panel was looking at the subject of religion in the works of Brandon Sanderson and discussing how it was approached and treated in a way that made it distinct. One of the points the panelists kept raising was that in addressing religion of all types (from atheism to various fantasy religions in his setting) one thing that Sanderson’s work did was question strengths and not weaknesses. In fact, it was the admitted atheist on the panel who time and time again mentioned that books written by folks addressing religion—for or against—often built a strawman out of the weakest, flimsiest argument the author could find, and would then throw it at the strongest argument from the other side.

Sanderson didn’t do that, they noted. He pitted strong argument against strong argument, and both sides were given the space and room to say what they wanted to say. He wasn’t afraid to let the strengths of each viewpoint be debated … and he also wasn’t afraid to make characters on all sides right and wrong, allowing personal experience to be part of it. Nobody in his stories was perfectly right or wrong, but a common thread in their discussions of religion was that they were all working to find the right moving forward, even on a personal level.

Both aspects made Sanderson’s work a far cry, the panel noted, from quite a few books where one side is right or wrong, and the author wants to make that clear.

So what am I getting at here? Am I saying that this is what it takes to write religions and religious characters well? Yes and no, actually. Certainly you should make note of the above if you want characters to engage in a theological debate, or even just present them in a way that seems real. But Sanderson’s titles are also uniquely about faith and gods (if you’ve read one, you know exactly how important the question of divinity is). What about representation of a character that is devoutly religious in a work that isn’t going to dive deeply into the topics of divinity, gods, religious opinions, etc?

You can still have a character that exemplifies their beliefs there. Take, for example, the character of the reverend from Schlock Mercenary. The story of Schlock isn’t there to discuss or comment on theology, not in the way that the work of Sanderson or other authors is. The reverend is simply one character among many in the Toughs. However, when the reverend does take the “stage,” his beliefs, faith, and even questions are given proper consideration.

Again, like above, the reverend is allowed to both ask and respond to tough questions with tough responses and questions of his own, thereby showing his own conviction and reasoning. As well, he’s allowed to be wrong, and have blind-spots or troubled areas of his own. One example that does come up in the story is is his grapple with whether or not AI-sapients have a soul or are just mindless affronts to life. The question comes up several times over the course of the story, and the character of the reverend not only evolves, but even suggests that he himself is searching for answers to this question he now has, complete with the reverend noting different treatise and beliefs from various faiths that he himself is studying in an effort to further understand and conclude his own beliefs on the matter.

And again, this isn’t part of the plot arc. But it’s a part of his character arc, and its treated with seriousness.

Earlier I said that understanding was the key component I noticed in works that did religion well versus those that did not. Understanding is also key to both of the example above. Indeed, to segue back to the Sanderson panel for a moment, one of the things that was noted by the panelists was that they felt the writing handled religion so well because Sanderson himself had a wide degree of exposure, not just to different beliefs and theologies, but to people that lived and believed them. Which in turn allowed him to understand the faith at work in their choices and beliefs.

Which, tying back to my own thoughts on this topic over the last year, seems to be one of the strongest determining factors for a book presenting religion well or falling flat on its face: The author’s understanding of faith. Both what it is, and how it influences someone’s life.

This is why books I found by people that were formerly religious usually handled the topic with far more realism and weight than by those who were just largely atheistic from start to finish. Those that had been religious understood what kind of belief and faith those who believed shared, even if they no longer did for their own reasons, and were able to accurately portray it, with its struggles and successes while those who didn’t have that experience couldn’t replicate what they didn’t know or understand.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to do so. There are books here and there by those that have never, at least publicly, been religious that still accurately portray it. But those are rare (even the LTUE panel noted this) and usually come about from the creator doing an extremely deep dive into the understanding of religion and faith with lots of research and attempting to understand religion(s) from another’s perspective. Which a number of authors just … don’t do. They skim the surface or build a strawman. They don’t bother to understand, and so their work comes off weaker for it.

“But wait,” I can hear a few of you saying. “What about the opposite? Surely the opposite is true as well?” Well … yes and no. As in yes, there are authors that approach the topic of atheism with the same problem of building a strawman to batter down (and I’ve battered that practice before as well). But what does make for a difference is that those with a faith in something know what the inverse is like because they’ve started there. So often religious writers are quite capable of writing characters that are seriously atheistic, because they themselves remember that position, and how their faith grew out of it.

Okay, so what does this mean for you. You specifically, as a creator and writer? Well, at the end of the day, whether you are a person of faith or not, if you’re writing a book where religion plays a part, either in characters or in setting, it needs to be given the same respect we give other aspects of our character and setting. And to be able to do that, we need to understand it. And yes that takes work. Religion is a complicated topic, involving a lot of study, thought, philosophy, and a unique angle in that it is a species’ link to the divine. But if you’re willing to approach it with the idea of seeking understanding, and a thoughtful, committed eye to why and what someone’s faith is, the religions you write, be they based in our world or another, can be evocative and thought-provoking reflections of the human experience.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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