Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Musings: Oct 4 2015 - Faith/Religion in writing

Hello Musers and Happy Fall

Back in April 2014 we had mused about Faith and sharing it.

But, how does a writer present Faith, religion, spirituality in their their manuscripts/stories. With their characters.

Is it quietly there in small acts, mentions, even the characters' language or actions (I'm thinking when a character may cross themselves during a scene or bowing their head before a meal)

Or is it more obvious?

Thanks for the question, Margaret.

When I started planning "Relocated" and was working on the world-building, one of my big questions was the spiritual values of my aliens, the Aleynis. I ended up making them spiritual rather than religious. Truth and integrity were core values. I ended up writing a series of 30 poems by an an imaginary poet, Raketh Namar. Eight of the poems appear in the text of "Relocated," and I self-published the whole collection through create space.

Here's one of them:

What Our Mouths Utter

Words wander out of our mouths,

pale replicas of what’s hidden in our hearts.

If only we could know each other’s intentions,

and not pale imitations we allow to wander the world.

Let my mouth utter what lies in my heart.

Let my ears hear what your heart replies.

As to the Terrans, like any group of people, they vary. I ended up with Fellowship services, which the main character in "Geek Games" ends up attending. These services ended up looking a lot like UU services. I stayed away from anything like Christian or Jewish services for several reasons:

 --These services are on a military base and would be attended by folks with a wide variety of backgrounds

--I had a very wishy-washy Jewish upbringing, and none of the characters in the novels are Jewish.

-- I have no background in Christianity or Catholicism, so I certainly wasn't comfortable making the services like either of them.

As to other expressions of faith in the novels,  in Relocated the main character ends up studying Namar's poems and elements of the aliens values come up in conversation. In Geek Games, the main character is reluctantly dragged to Fellowship services. Broken Bonds the main character, a goes to the top of a mountain to meditate and ask the spirits for guidance. Discussions of values come up at various points in all three novels, mostly because in all three I'm dealing with the interactions of two cultures and the clash of their values.

In my s-f books, everyone including exoTerran races believes in some version of the Great Creator.  Most of my protagonists and their associates are of North Terran origins, primarily of Irish descent.  They carried their faith and religion with them into the stars. Islaen and Varn were married before a priest of her faith, clergymen, both Christian and Jewish, are mentioned and sometimes play a part.  Thought patterns and moral codes are faith based.  That being said, the reader is not beaten over the head with any of this.  It is simply part of who the people and the societies are.

As for the fantasies, they're set on our world, present time or in the future  Once again, the characters are usually Irish or of Irish descent.  Those in the post-disaster novels have a very strained relationship with the Creator, which I found interesting to write.  It also influenced the tone of the work.

Personally, as a reasonably observant and knowledgeable Jew, i get really annoyed with writers that think they know about Judaism, make assumptions and get most things wrong. if you are going to use a character of deep or even moderate faith, it is worthwhile to check with a few people who are practicing whatever faith it is to try to ensure you get things right.  A good example is Faye Kellerman. Her characters are observant and she gets it right because she is too.

Where faith is relevant to a character I try and show it by their thoughts, language and actions. For example here Sister Agnes has just seen the son she gave up at birth:

Agnes had to hold on to the wall for support when she closed the door. It was a gift from God. She’d seen him, so like his father at a similar age, and if the birth date hadn’t confirmed it, the smile would have. She went to the little chapel just off from the school rooms and got down on her knees. She fervently thanked whatever fates had brought him there. Then she prayed for him, and for Anna, and she wondered what they might be to each other.

 Here two teenage girls sharing a cabin on a ship fleeing Europe in 1938 have an explicit discussion about faith:

“May I ask Emily, are you, like me, from a Jewish family?”

“Yes. That is my grandmother was Jewish on my father’s side.”

“So she married a gentile?”

“Yes my grandfather is Irish Catholic. My mother’s family was protestant, I think. We’re a bit of a mixed up lot as far as religion goes.”

“So you have just one Jewish grandparent but the Fuhrer’s rule says that is enough. One quarter. Do you keep the faith?”

“Not really, not any faith. I’ve not really known any different. My parents are both socialists. I guess that’s their religion. Dad’s very involved with trade unions and workers’ rights. I suppose it’s what you’re brought up with.”

 On the other hand the spiritual side of a character in terms of their inner life, motivation etc doesn’t have to be explicitly in religious terms. Here Lucy has recently found out that her mother hid the fact of her illegitimacy from her:

The ever lively Roseanne was organising a Christmas concert to entertain the patients and persuaded Lucy to take part. That occasion seemed to signal her recovery. I remember she looked beautiful in that blue dress again and Mary noticed she was wearing her mother’s locket, a symbol perhaps that she’d at last forgiven her. Appropriately, she finished her performance with the song Amazing Grace, a sign perhaps that she’d also forgiven herself.

I got a great bit of advice from author Orson Scott Card on this subject.  A number of editors and others suggested I use my own Mormon faith in my paranormal CROSSED OUT.  I emailed Card (who also is Mormon) and asked for his advice on this.  He suggested that if I do use a faith?  It’s better to make one up rather than use a known one as you will almost always not get it right.  In my case, I knew it would offend other more conservative members of my church.  So I ended up taking it out of the storyline all together.  When I was shopping CROSSED OUT around, more than a few editors/agents were very reluctant about it.  I even had one editor at a SCBWI tell me that even though she loved my story, the ‘evil’ pastor was too much.  What’s interesting is he wasn’t evil at all but some ‘assumed’ because he was a mentor for a teen girl, who just happened to help the dead to the Other Side, that equaled being evil.

In my current diverse thriller, I have a girl banished from her cult.  I don’t come out and mention exactly what the faith is as it’s more of a fanatical leader that rules the compound sometime in the not too distant future.  It’ll be interesting to hear more feedback on this.  So far it’s been very positive.  I also received very high marks in a recent YARWA Rosemary awards with all three judges giving me awesome and very supportive feedback.

I have referred to Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Voudoun, Paganism, the Temple of Crom, and ancient Egyptian religious beliefs as recorded in the Papyrus of Ani. My main character's religious beliefs are inspired by Doctor Who. I have no problem with writing about members of these and other faiths, even though I don't practice most of them, because I write about each faith the way I'd want my faith written about.

There are people who do wrong in every faith, and people who do evil, but that doesn't make their faith evil. Some readers might miss that point, but as long as I observe it, I don't worry about offending anyone.

Aside from the standard "it depends on the character"?

OK :-)

As a rule, in my writing, the characters whose faith is more honest, true, and authentic tend to have 'quiet faith'. They don't need to show it off. People who are faithless and false (and that's different from an atheist) make a bigger show of being a believer and often see their way as being the only true one. I was raised Southern Baptist, and I have a lasting aversion to Pharisees proclaiming their holiness in a loud voice.

That said, I have no aversion to divine walk-ons in my stories. David has had three face-to-face encounters with various deities, none of whom he worships. More importantly, none of these encounters changed his faith or tried to convert him. Faith can't be bought, or forced, or stolen. Worship and belief must be earned.

Here's one example, from 'Dragon's Luck'...

It was two feet long, with a heavy, square point on the end. It was the business end of a Roman pilum, and it was old…about two thousand years old, if I was right. I took the key ring off the triangular piece of wood and slid the narrow end into the base of the spear tip. It fit, nice and solid, and the bolt holes lined up perfectly.

Boudreaux fished in a soup can and came up with two bolts that looked workable. I fastened the bolts finger-tight and held up the spear point. In the light, it was easy to see the dark, red-brown stain running the length of the iron shaft. “We need the rest of those wooden pieces.”

Rose cocked her head to the side. “I don’t smell anything special. Are you sure this is what we need?”

“It is a stabby-stabby kind of thing,” Boo said. “But, yeah, what is it?”

“It’s the Spear of Longinus. The real one. The spear that pierced the side of Jesus.” I held it against my chest as though stabbed from below. “Damn…That would punch a half-inch wide hole clear through the heart. This was what killed him. This spear had the power to kill the son of God, and it still has it.”

“Crom’s beard,” Nadia whispered. “Um, try not to poke anyone with it, agreed?”

“So now you got it,” Boo said. “What are you going to do with it?”

I turned the spear, running the light along the length of it. “Kill a demon bitch suffering from delusions of grandeur, thereby bringing an end to centuries of civil war between the Dark Elves of a parallel world and destroying a cult preying on the homeless children of Las Vegas.”

“Guess we better get the car running, then.” Boo looked up at Rose and asked, “Should we hook some tow chains to you, or what?”

My first series of novels features people of faith who are not just hypocrites, as these folks are being portrayed in most modern media. I think it's about time that honest faith got its due in fiction.

I think the worst thing a person can do is to use their platform to "preach" directly, unless you're Frank Peretti, or someone who establishes themselves as a writer of faith-based fiction.

I wanted a wider audience, so I wrote on a more subtle level. I consulted with a young woman of Jewish Faith to make sure I honored the details of her beliefs, as well as staying accountable to my own faith in the way Phoebe shares the good news with Nadia.

I don't want to be the one telling people what they should believe. I do enjoy sharing what I personally believe, and let my readers decide if they want to know more.

In my writing, I rarely portray faith and religion explicitly. I show it in the way a character views the world, how they treat other people, and how they view the value of things in the world. It's important for the author to know their characters' belief system, whether it conforms to a certain belief system or is just pieced together from their life experiences. But unless religion is something important to the story, I keep it as something more of a backstory that is hinted at but not explored fully. Of course, this depends on the character. For some, daily devotions and routines are important features that shape the characters' lives and future.

There's also the problem of portraying a religion accurately, especially if you aren't part of that religion yourself, and especially because this is one of the areas that people are most sensitive about! But no matter what you write, you will always offend somebody, so I don't think this should be a deterrent to writing about religious topics and characters. It's just something that needs to be given a bit more thought.

My Bowdancer series deals with faith of all stripes but since it's a created world, I twist those. I've based my healer, Jan-nell, the bowdancer of the novel, on indigenous and pagan beliefs of which I've very familiar. I have a degree in Anthropology so I'm away of how a belief system pervades all lifeways.

When Jan-nell meets other people on her life journey, she finds they have different beliefs and no beliefs as well. She finds some common ground with them all. I purposely created these new characters to not be exactly what you would think they were in our world today. For example, the sword dancers are these huge dark skinned men you might think would come from a hot country. In fact, I put them in a sea island kingdom that has a mix of beliefs and, of course, musical styles and foods. Some of it is based on African animism and a belief in Spirit in all things. Another group of them has different songs and practices.

The real desert people (and there are three groups) are equally different. Two of them have written languages and huge libraries. I based some of their beliefs on Hinduism and Buddhism--at least one creation story. But nowhere do I ever say that any of these belief systems are ones you would find in today's world. Although you might find someone somewhere who does believe as these do.

You take a risk of offending someone anytime you use a known religion or spiritual system--and sometimes even when you create one. But if the belief system works for your characters and you aren't intentionally offensive, run with it. If you are working with a modern belief, so ask for advice from a practitioner or go read their religious texts.

Oh, my goodness. Not to jump on the holy wagon here, but this topic made me think of something I try to do at church on Sundays. I'm Catholic, so the priest leads us through the Lord-hear-our-prayers as we ask for help for the sick, poor, government leaders, etc. Then he asks us to pray for our own intentions. At that moment, I usually blank a bit because, honestly, my life is pretty darn good. I'm not terminally ill, or in an abusive situation, or anything of the sort. So--before the priest intones the Lord-hear-our-prayer and we move on, I rapid fire pray:
I'mthankfulformymomanddadandsistersandmyhouseandmydogandthatI'mstudyingabroadandmyfriendsandmygrandparentsandmycousinsandthatnobodyissick....whatever I can get out before we move on. Canada's Thanksgiving is a bit before the USA's where I'm from, but on that holiday I'm usually not super...I don't religious the right word? My family drives down into Pennsylvania to my aunt and uncle's house where we eat lots of autumn foods and talk until my cat allergies get so bad we have to go home. My one cousin has actually joined the army since last Thanksgiving and lately he's been high on the list of the Lord-hear-our-prayers. I'm thankful for many, many things, most of them simple: that I live in a safe place, my family, my college, my helpful professors, my friends, my books. I'm even thankful for my lazy disinterest in high school math making me lose out on the salutatorian spot at graduation (one I arrogantly assumed I had in the bag and so barely wasted an iota of my time on the terrifying mathematical functions of Pre-Calc). If I'd been salutatorian, I would've gotten a free ride to a private university I grew to despise from just a few visits, with classmates who, let's just say, I didn't want to be stuck with for another four years. I never would've attended "the Ivy-league of the SUNYs" and met my friends or professors who've spellbound me and helped me onto one hell of an exciting life track. Without that, I wouldn't be studying abroad in Nottingham, England, until December with plans to spend a week in Paris. I was third in the class at a Podunk farm school but last semester I achieved a 3.8/4 GPA, only after nearly losing my sanity from all the work I put myself through. So I'm kind of thankful for everything, the great and the horrible, at least in some tiny facet. :) 

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

1 comment:

Margaret Fieland said...

Wonderful thoughts from everyone which I enjoyed reading. Thanks to all the authors for answering my question.