First things first: I’m an atheist, so my perspective on convincing religious characters is going to mix a large bit of that in. Also, I was raised by atheist parents—although I did attend a Catholic school for kindergarten and have theistic relatives—so I don’t have the experience of being religious at one point in my life and then changing my mind, either. I suppose that might actually make me calmer towards religion in some ways than someone who deconverted, but I’ve experienced my share of disgust towards and from theists. All of the following is influenced by that, and is therefore very picky, to the point of nitpicky. It’s very, very hard for an author to create a religious character who’s convincing to me, much less in many fantasies, where the religion often feels superficial and tacked-on in the first place.
Ready, then? Here we go:
1) You MUST know what his or her faith means to your character. You need not imagine them devout. I would actually like to see more authors attempt to create characters to whom their religion matters only in one area of their life, or who were raised devout and then kind of wandered away from the church, or who pretend to be pious in order to please others. Those aren’t actually easier than a character of deep faith, not if they’re done right. What is a cheat is the author telling me that this character is pious, deep, devoted, thinks only of her religion and would no more betray that religion’s tenets than she would bite off her own hand, and then writing nothing to support that impression. It’s as bad as an author telling me that a character is a genius and then showing her acting like an idiot. You need showing to back up the telling. They’re stronger together anyway, but the telling alone usually reads like an author trying to create a “deep” character without the actual work.
So. How much does her faith mean to her? How does she express it? How does it blend and mesh with the other aspects of her personality? Contrary to the impressions that my first paragraph may have produced, I don’t think a religious character should necessarily be without hypocrisies (though I find reading about hypocritical people annoying and want to slap them upside the head if the author doesn’t do it for me, but that’s a personal quirk). But if she does have hypocrisies in the way she expresses her faith, however unconscious she might be of them, you should know about them. If you don’t in the first draft, then know it by the time you revise the story. Like I said, this is a subject that I believe—heh—most authors don’t handle well because they don’t pay enough attention to it. It should get far more attention than it receives.
Yes, yes, the rest of your character’s personality is important, too. Once again, not saying it isn’t. But the religious faith should be at least equally important, and if you do intend to make it central to the character’s life, then treat it as central to the character’s life, hmmm? Don’t tell us it’s important and then show us it isn’t, or toss it aside because your plot absolutely demands that the character forget her scruples in order to help the story along.
Yes, about that.
2) Religious characters should stay religiously in character. This truly applies to any character, of course. No tossing aside important parts of their personalities because you’ve written yourself into a corner. Your characters should not be weathervanes pointing in idiotic—or, for that matter, smart—directions because the winds of plot are blowing that particular way right now. At their best, character and plot are the same thing, one springing out of the other and feeding itself back in until you truly can’t separate them.
With religious faith, again, the problem comes with authors not giving the weight to a character’s faith that they do to, say, their sexual orientation. So the chaste priestess vowed to virginity suddenly has sex, and justifies it by saying her goddess won’t mind. Huh? How does she know that? More to the point, why doesn’t she feel guiltier? I could see a woman forced into this priestesshood without her consent not feeling guilty, but if she’s taken up this service and this vow of her own free will, and especially if the author has used it as part of the plot before now with luring of unicorns, etc., then why is a simple platitude enough to soothe her conscience?
Ah, yes. Because of that idea that love, or at least the hormones of love, conquers all. Not on everyone’s watch. Show me why it does in this particular case. Don’t just assume that because it’s sex, and you personally think vows of virginity are stupid, of course it’s perfectly justifiable for this character to turn her back on her beliefs.
Now we’ll take an example from the opposite direction. Damien is a younger son sent into the church who doesn’t really want to be there. He ignores most of his lessons, to the point that he still doesn’t know the most basic tenets of the storm god’s worship. Then a ferocious storm comes in from the sea, but that’s all right, because there are plenty of priests to hold back its wrath. But the storm god chooses Damien as his avatar, and speaks through his mouth to turn back the winds and the rain—something that’s never happened before. And Damien declares afterward that he’s always been faithful and known all the religion’s tenets, but never wanted to reveal it.
Again, it’s understandable if the author represents Damien as saying that because he doesn’t want other people to think he’s unworthy of being the storm god’s avatar, or because the experience changed him. But for him to say at one point in the story that he doesn’t care about the religion and then that he always did…what the fuck? Come on, author, we’ve been in this character’s head. You’ve made his apathy and his ennui quite clear to us. How the hell did we not notice this “hidden belief?”
Stop manipulating your characters to make them look good, or closer to what you think of as “normal.” Either be willing to show what kind of change they’ve gone through, or make them “normal” in the first place and follow through with it. Giving them incipient multiple personality disorder in the middle of the story is just a sign that an author’s level of commitment to consistent characterization is very low
3) Trappings are useful—to a point. Censers, candles, stained-glass windows, altars, bloody sacrifices, white robes, bowls of salt, wells with the moon reflected in them—all those can create a sense of mystery. Maybe. Past that, they become exotica.
And exotica are no substitute for characterization (the reason that those fantasies that just tack on some odd food and clothing to a homogenized setting don’t convince me that they actually have a “Japanese” or “Native American” or “Celtic” flavor).
I don’t care that your character wears white robes and dances on full moon nights. And? So? Why does she do that? Show me that she thinks about those things for one bloody second when she’s out of the white robes, that they matter to her, that they influence the way she thinks. If they don’t, then show me why she keeps doing them—the key to creating a successful character who’s only intermittently religious, or committed to this faith against her will. Otherwise, what you’ve got is a shell. And often, it’s a shell that the character almost immediately sheds once she’s past the beginning of the book. The author introduces this dramatic scene of her dancing on a full moon night, and then the goddess chooses her and sends her on a quest, and off she goes. She never dances on full moon nights again. She prays, but only for help, and she gets help the moment she needs it, turning the goddess into a plot convenience. She might as well be a farmgirl or a kitchen scullion or from any other one of the dozen interchangeable backgrounds that the author creates for a character she’s mostly interested in handing a quest and a destiny.
For a story’s beginning, objects and clothing and rituals can work to draw the reader in. The only way that trappings really work past the beginning of the story, I think, is not to make them trappings, but linked to the character in indissoluble ways. Readers will vary on how much they’re willing to put up with this, and I have seen plenty of stories convince other people that have not worked for me. (The Mists of Avalon is number fucking one; it obviously works for a lot of people, and I hate and detest it, the preachy bitter thing). But I do think that characterizing people solely through these things doesn’t make them religious characters; it makes them characters-with-altars/bowls/sacrificial knives/[insert object here].
4) If you’re going to make some characters’ beliefs a farce, be willing to do the same for other beliefs. It’s very, very noticeable that, when a religious character becomes shaken in his faith and turns to a new one, the author doesn’t treat the old faith and the new one the same. Even before the protagonist loses faith, his destined-to-become-former religion is presented as laughable and stupid. (Not the best tactic; how is it that you want me to believe that this character is intelligent, and yet he’s never noticed all these self-evidently stupid things?) The tenets are obviously self-contradictory and make no sense. The priests and priestesses are openly corrupt and cynical, often child abusers, making ridiculously cruel sacrifices that are the usual means of “opening the protagonist’s eyes” to how wrong they are. The laypeople are either in collusion with the evil priests and priestesses, or sheep who shiver and give up their children in fear of what could happen to them. The gods turn out to be evil or not to exist. Magic is either feared by this religion, or used by them for evil purposes, or both.
Then, of course, the protagonist finds a new faith—often, it’s going from a conquering religion to an older one that’s female-dominated/closer to nature/peace-loving/mingled with witchcraft—and everything is absolutely hunky-dory. All the priests and priestesses are faithful, and of course none of them have ever committed a crime in their lives, and they’re ready to die for their Mother Goddess or their Triune Goddess in the next breath. The beliefs make absolute and perfect sense (we know this because the author tells us so, no matter how much they sound like foofy psychobabble to me). The laypeople are content, peaceful, and smarter than the ones who follow the evil gods. The goddess/es show/s up and is/are wonderful and gentle and maternal. The magic is only ever used for good purposes, even if it kills people (we also know this because the author tells us so).
Really, one of these is just as much a caricature as the other. But the author treats one as a caricature, and the other as real and to be taken seriously. No go.
I’ve heard this kind of thing defended as the author representing what the religions appear like to the character changing faiths. However, in that case, there needs to be more acknowledgment of POV pollution, instead of the character’s perceptions matching objective reality, never a good idea in the first place. If you do work with opposing religions, try to make the people who follow them convincing, too, not just plot devices to disgust or heal your protagonist.
5) While you write this character, believe. One of the best ways to write a highly emotional scene is to be able to call up the emotion that your character is feeling: sadness, joy, irritation, glee at getting one over on a personal enemy. It doesn’t mean that you’d feel the same thing yourself in a similar situation. It does mean that you’re able to jump fully into a character’s mind for a short time and share that emotional space with them, that you feel that way while you’re writing.
A similar situation pertains to beliefs. If an author can lay down her own beliefs or non-beliefs for at least the period of time needed to write a religious character’s intense thoughts or communion with his or her religion, then I think the scene will be all the better. Keeping it at a distance results in pale imitations of transcendence and immanence.
I realize that not all authors write this way, so I’m limiting my audience here. However, it would not take a great effort for most authors to regard religion more seriously than they do, which is something underlying all the points in this rant. If you can’t take the beliefs into your own head for as long as you need them, then at least give them the same respect and consideration you would a character’s secular philosophy or personal moral code.
And, frankly, I think practice in slipping in and out of minds like that is beneficial. It cures people of the tendency to write passionately only when characters’ beliefs coincide with their own, and it prevents long sections of the book in which the author rants through a character’s mouth about environmentalism or feminism or love or, for that matter, religion.
6) Give religious morality a context. Personal time again! I’ve been told constantly, both to my face and via print, that I cannot possibly be moral, seeing as I’m an atheist. Many people seem unable to conceive that a sense of right and wrong can exist outside of religion.
As a topic outside of fiction, that’s complicated and not something I can offer advice about, being mostly entrenched in my own viewpoint. Where it touches on fiction, and especially in fantasy where authors plant made-up religions of their own in the most convenient spots, I feel qualified to rant about it.
I hate it when an author presents a character as “good” because she worships something—and then goes on to do the things in the points I’ve listed above, having her ignore her religion for long stretches of the story or use it as a plot device only, while she judges right and wrong by secular principles that have no basis in her faith at all. Or a character is “evil” because he believes in human sacrifice, but no attempt is made to give that belief a context. There’s no showing of how that sacrifice impacts a population, why other people allow it—most of the time, they “know” it’s evil and do it anyway, which is as stupid as saying that atheists know God is real but refuse to worship him even though they know they’ll go to hell for it—why the sacrifices are killed in this particular way, what the sacrifices themselves feel (they’re just innocent victims for the protagonists to rescue), why the gods demand that and what other principles in the religion it connects to, nothing. This is strongly connected to point 4, as a matter of fact, because quite often it’s the secondary characters who just believe in their religion blindly, doing stupid things without a reason, and to point 3, because sacrifice is used to characterize a faith without being integrated into it. Meanwhile, the protagonist cannot possibly be an atheist because the author would be uneasy writing a character without some kind of faith, but she cannot follow the tenets of her religion, either, because that would require taking the made-up religion seriously and possibly abandoning principles the author holds dear, like, say, the sexes being equal or it being wrong to hurt children. So out comes this half-assed compromise, a “faithful” character following the “good” gods who acts mostly according to secular philosophy.
Damn it, why does someone even want to do that? What’s the fucking point? You could always have a character who really is only half-faithful, or has wandered away from her faith. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Not every convincing religious character has to be a full-on believer. (I would cheer for more atheist characters in fantasy, but I know I’m not going to get any anytime soon, unless you count the ones who briefly scorn the good gods until the protagonist shows them what’s what).
That was very snarly. Well, what can I say? This topic makes me snarly.