Writing About Characters with Religion
By Charles Ott
I’m about to kvetch about how religious characters are treated in fiction, especially science fiction, so let me start with some exceptions. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz is a wonderful science fiction novel and, IMHO, one of the finest treatments of the Catholic Church in fiction. Really, if you’re writing about Catholicism in any genre fiction, you need to find a copy of this. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is an SF novel that’s not only scientifically interesting, the plot turns on obscure points of theology that will delight the geekiest fan. And of course there are many other examples of SF that treat religion well.
But in general, religion in science fiction is a red-headed stepchild without respect for either the faith or the character who holds it. I decided this created an opportunity for me, and I wrote a novel in which one of the main characters is a black Christian man from south Chicago. “Brian Covington” is a scientist who’s not only a Christian, the novel opens during service in a church where Brian is singing in the choir, whapping his tambourine and beltin’ it out like a natural man. A number of friends, all science fiction fans, who read it remarked to me that they would never have gotten past chapter 1 if they hadn’t known that I wrote it.
But I did write it, and along the way I came up with some thoughts about how you can write about Christian characters too.
One: you’ve got to have some critical distance. This can tricky if you are a Christian, but the truth is that this applies even if you’re writing Christian fiction intended for an audience of believers. You must step back and consider how this character will appear to readers who are not of the same faith. As my old pastor used to say, “Folks don’t read the Bible. They read you.” Your character’s inner life must show up in what he does rather than what he believes.
Two: There’s no use writing about a Christmas-and-Easter-Christian. Who cares? If your character has faith, then it must inform everything that he does, and in particular, it must be central to all of his quiet, thoughtful moments. As with anything else in character development, it must show up in what he does during your story.
Three: Having your character proselytize other characters (or even worse, the reader) will explode your story instantly. Don’t even go near this – and this applies even if you’re writing Christian fiction. I mean, seriously, this applies even if your character is a missionary and it’s his job to get converts. Show, don’t tell, and especially don’t preach.
Four: God is not the answer to any problem in fiction. Faith in God might be the answer, but the Big Guy must not take any active part in your story. For my taste, I’d avoid angels, too, but I realize there’s a lot of precedent for angelic intervention in stories. In the world of your story, however, God is Right Out.
Finally and most important: religious faith should not be a “funny hat” that gives a character mannerisms but says nothing about his inner life. As CS Lewis said, “Christianity is not a way of looking at certain things, but a certain way of looking at everything.” If you can describe your character without his faith, then he probably shouldn’t have any.
Check out Charles’ novel, The Floor of the World, available from Amazon.