Monday, July 1, 2013

Writing and Your Religion

Sometimes I see authors getting criticized for including in their fiction religious or spiritual messages that reflect their personal beliefs. A good example would be Twilight, for which Stephenie Meyer sometimes gets trashed for supposedly pushing Mormon ideals (I guess the "abstinence until marriage" one?), though I have not read the books and don't know how overt it is. I think this sort of thing can be problematic, but only if it becomes preachy or begins to take center stage at the expense of the story. If I start feeling more like you're trying to "send me a message" than tell me a story, you're overdoing it.

That said, I think it's natural for authors to include perspectives from their own spiritual or religious world view, and I thought I'd reflect a little on how I've done this in my novels.

So first off: What are my beliefs? It probably comes as a surprise to very few people who know me, but I identify as Pagan. Ta-da!

I was not raised in a Christian family (though I lived in the Bible Belt for some of my youth, and being the only kid who didn't celebrate Christmas--insisting on drawing Old Man Winter instead of Santa for arts & crafts--did cause me some issues). Cognizant of how mainstream Christianity was in my culture, and being aware from an early age that I shouldn't make my protagonists simply avatars of myself, the first two main characters I invented actually were Christian. But I didn't really know what that meant. In the novel I wrote when I was fourteen, the only sign that Cristabel was Christian was that she listened to Amy Grant. (Haha.) And in the second novel I wrote, Skyler's family went to church. (There was even a scene that happened in church.) I had been inside a church like twice at that point for weddings, so I didn't really know if I was doing it right, but I guess I just wanted to prove that my characters weren't me. They also both had brothers while I had sisters.

In college I didn't write any novels except for a series featuring a character who didn't have a religion. Ivy was doing her own thing pretty much outside of society in many ways, so it's not surprising that she didn't really identify with any religion, but there was some religious discussion here and there in the books. She babysat for Jewish kids and discussed their religion with them. She talked with her best friend about his nature-worship religion and has a couple of New Age pals, one of whom believes in predestination. One of her friends is strongly Christian, but it comes through as a little bit over the top because she's afraid of witchcraft or something. She's really got no concept of mainstream religion, and at one point she asked someone, "So Jesus is the guy who invented Christmas?" She doesn't really know what she believes.

And then from that point onward, it seems like every novel I wrote includes pretty overt Pagan undertones. Finding Mulligan features quite a few casual references to spellcraft, especially when Cassie is trying to cast spells she learned in her dreams. Joint Custody (my unfinished Middle Grade book) features a Pagan character, though her religion hasn't really shown up yet in the part I've written. (The protagonist is Christian--and I only know this because he got a rabbit for Easter--but he has been in the Pagan character's house and doesn't know what it means when they walked though the family's workroom and it contained "weird artifacts" and "smelled like someone had been trying to cook flowers in there.") My novel Stupid Questions features the protagonist's love interest trying to explore her relationship with religion after religious extremists harassed her because they believed she was in league with the devil, and she ends up finding some attitudes she can relate to at a Unitarian Universal church. And Bad Fairy is loaded with Pagan symbolism. The fairies' nature rituals are full of stuff that would seem very familiar to most Neo-Pagans, and their magick school lessons encompass herbal symbolism, lore associated with wands, deity attributes, elemental studies, and even circle-casting techniques.

Some of my short stories include religious themes as well. My short story "Bloom" (which I want to turn into a novel one day) features a nature-based religion with a Goddess culture. My short story "Derika and Emily" actually involves a character being upset that her best friend has left the church and has become both a Pagan and a lesbian. (The story tells both their sides.)  My short story "Goodbye" includes an atheist perspective. "Grace" is set in a culture that uses elemental magic and unconventional mating practices. "Modern Goddess" is a pretty horrible little story about a religious prophet of sorts who commits blasphemy. "The Mother" is explicitly about a Wiccan woman who lives on another planet and misses her "Mother," the Earth. "On the Inside" involves more elemental magic and a Goddess-oriented culture (though it's polytheistic).

Very rarely did I write with a specific intent to comment on or advocate/criticize a religion, and if the characters did it in the context of their stories, it wasn't presented as a message to the audience about what they should accept. I think there's no reason authors should leave their spiritual or religious perspectives at the door when they write, because these elements of our lives are part of who we are and we can't expect everything we write to leave them out in the interest of not alienating anyone, but I would recommend that unless you are explicitly writing a frame story designed to introduce a philosophy or spiritual message, you should avoid actual preaching in your stories.

Anyone want to share perspectives on how they use religion in their stories?


  1. I don't usually have a problem with authors writing things that reflect their religion or are influenced by it (as long as, like you said, there isn't any unnecessary preaching). I will admit, though, as an atheist who never gives religion much of a thought unless in specific circumstances, I never really write characters who are religious. That's not to say they're all atheists until proven otherwise, but the discussions of religion very rarely come into play in my work.

    There are exceptions, of course. When I was planning a sequel to my first serious novel, I had two characters who were very religious--one was Catholic while the other one was a Buddhist--but I never bothered figuring out the religious views of the other characters.

    However, I think I still worry I'm being preachy sometimes regarding atheism. In one of my stories, the religion of the characters is very important. It plays into the holy war taking place throughout the novel and the way certain characters interact with each other. I would say there are three main characters, two boys from one branch of the religion and a girl from the other one. I stay pretty ambiguous to whether or not the deities are real, and in the end, the girl and one of the boys have gone through so much in the war that they've found they no longer believe.

    My main protagonist never loses his faith, but I still can't help but feel a little preachy with the other ones. I don't portray the protagonist as being a fool while the other two are completely correct, but I guess I'm not sure how it could be interpreted in the end.

    1. I know what you mean. There have been a few times when I felt like I wanted to be "preachy" about something and threw it into a story, but I knew when I was doing it that I was doing the "character as mouthpiece" thing, and I wouldn't do that in a serious work or a novel. And what you said about deity ambiguity is interesting. I kinda do that too in one of my books, and the conclusions people come to tend to be as varied as they would be in the real world. I think people will interpret your characters as putting forth a message no matter what you actually write, based on what they want to see, so you might as well write the way you think is most authentic for the characters. :)

  2. Confession: I really am writing this comment to talk about the religion in Twilight, which is super annoying I KNOW. I'm sorry. That hooked me though! I'll answer your question at the end.

    The Mormonism in Twilight shows up in more ways than abstinence. Bella/Edward being soul-mates smacks a bit of "God ordained this." Them marrying at a young age is very Mormon when contrasting it with America at large -- which is fair I think, because Mormonism began as an American religion. The idea of being married forever is VERY Mormon. (And very explicitly not protestant Christian.) Mormons are big on having kids because God has already made the child's soul and it's just drifting out there, waiting to have a body... or something like that. So Bella/Edward popping out a baby immediately is Mormonish, as is the child being their salvation. Mormons have a lot of theology involving the family...

    I'm sure there's more than that, but frankly I hate Twilight and stop caring at this point.

    I'm a (liberal) Christian. I tried to work Christianity into my last fantasy novel, but found it awkward and eventually cut it out. I really enjoy working in older religions... Greek, Egyptian, etc. Which I do by setting the novel in ancient times. The next one I write will likely be about monotheism vs. polytheism under Akhenaten. Well not ABOUT that but, you know, involving it.

    1. Interesting thoughts on Twilight. I have heard most of what you mentioned before in other discussions but I didn't want to go into a lot of detail at the beginning of the blog post since I knew I would kind of end up digressing. (I have a little problem with that. Haha.)

      I think it's a sign of a good writer if you realize the integrity of your story is compromised by certain elements, even if they're dear to your heart. You tried it, you thought it didn't work very well, and you cut it out. That's how it should be--stories shouldn't be made to carry aspects of the author's religion or philosophy when it's a real stretch to make it fit. :)