Why Religion in Fiction is So Hard to Handle

A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please.  She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population. 

I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation

She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory.  I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of.  I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader.  So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect. 

Is This Persecution?

However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing.  Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people.  It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there.  This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages. 

When religion does play a major role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil.  That goes double for Christianity.

What is the reason for this?

Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution.  I agree.  I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below. 

Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They don’t know any Christians in real life.  Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular.  One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America.  Another is L.A., home to Hollywood.  If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career.  There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian.  It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people.  And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.

It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good.  Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue.  A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt.  So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain.   The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal.  Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.

Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader.  Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad.  This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.

They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality.  The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart.  These are the tools with which we write fiction.  

Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality.  If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people.  This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt. 

Stephen King, again, is a great example of this.  He is a brilliant writer.  I love his work.  I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other.  After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)   

Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution.  It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction.  It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates.  And some authors do hate Christians.

Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They wish to have wide appeal.   Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people.  It is enough to make people put down a book.  That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity.  After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader.  We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.

They fear being defensive.  If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion.  Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!).  They just want to tell a story.  This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing.  So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.

They fear being unoriginal.  As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new.  Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative.  (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.) 

Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom.  In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry.  Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible.  But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power.  An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around.  The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.

Religion is just too big to control in our writing. 

This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers.  If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God.  We have just unleashed God into our book.  This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose.  It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral. 

What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person.  I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it.  Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it.  My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up.  I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal.  My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.

Dostoevsky can do it.  Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow.  But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.

Female Lord of the Rings Characters Ranked by Relatability

The Bechdel test, a rough-and-ready way to critique a book or film from a feminist perspective, states that a story ought to have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.

One of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, flunks this test. (Though, I should point out that ‘Til We Have Faces does not!) And it doesn’t just flunk it a little bit. Bilbo is a bachelor. So is Frodo. So is Gandalf (more of a monk or an angel, really.) Mothers tend to be dead: Frodo’s. Eomer and Eowyn’s. Boromir and Faramir’s.

But, although they are not seen talking to each other (except the garrulous Ioreth to her kinswoman), the Lord of the Rings cycle has a number of intriguing female characters of all different classes and personalities (and even species), and each plays an important, though hidden, role. I thought it would be fun to rank them below in order of relatability. I have only included female characters that we actually get to see in action. (Smeagol’s grandmother, for instance, is not included, and neither are the Entwives.)

  1. (Most relatable) Rosie Cotton. Rosie, daughter of Farmer Cotton, is Sam Gamgee’s love interest not only in the movie but also in the book. She is a simple, sweet young peasant girl. When Sam returns from Mordor, she first chides him for having taken so long, and then says, “If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?” Pretty frustrating for Sam, but he likes her anyway. She just has no idea what he’s been through … and, really, how could she? Sam later marries Rosie and they go on to become a founding family in the next generation of the Shire. Rosie represents the Shire itself in all the wholesomeness and normality of its farm family life. She represents everything that Frodo and Sam went to Mordor in order to save. She is an ordinary good-hearted woman who makes a wonderful wife for Sam, the ordinary hero. That is why she wins the prize for Most Relatable.
  2. Goldberry, wife of Tom Bombadil, the “river daughter.” Goldberry is a sort of nymph, “slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.” She is a little less relatable than Rosie because of her great beauty, apparent immortality, and because she is a representation not of the farm but of the forest. However, her role is very similar to Rosie’s. Tom Bombadil’s house in the forest is a supernatural refuge for travelers who would otherwise be overcome by the wild otherness of the Old Forest. Goldberry plays a critical role in making this home. She maintains it, she serves food, she beautifies the home with her singing, her weaving, her wisdom, and her very presence there. Tom wanders all throughout the Old Forest, but in the end he always comes back to his home (and invites the hobbits there) because, as he says, “Goldberry is waiting.”
  3. Eowyn. Eowyn is the brave and beautiful niece of King Theoden of Rohan. (The Rohirrim are basically Vikings on horseback.) She feels trapped by the need to stay in the house and care for her elderly uncle. When the elderly uncle revives and goes off to fight against Mordor, Eowyn really really wants to go along. What she most fears, she says, is “a cage.” She disguises herself as a man, sneaks away with the army of Rohan, and ends up killing a demonlike creature on the battlefield, nearly losing her life in the process. Eowyn is generally the first female character people remember from The Lord of the Rings. Her restlessness is something that we’ve all felt, but her Nordic style of beauty, her superior horsewomanship and swordswomanship, and, especially, her extreme bravery are not qualities that most of us possess.
  4. Arwen. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, is Aragorn’s childhood crush. Her role in the series is mostly symbolic. She represents the Elven colony that Elrond maintains in Rivendell, and hence, the whole glorious world of the Elves that is now fading away. She is an aristocrat, a queen, an ideal of beauty, grace and virtue that is completely unattainable (for everyone, of course, except Aragorn, who is himself an ideal of virtue).
  5. Galadriel. Galadriel, I have been told, plays the role in The Lord of the Rings that Mary plays in the Catholic faith. Everything I just said about Arwen is also true of Galadriel, except that in Galadriel’s case, she is not an ideal that we are meant even to try to attain to. Instead, we are (not to mince words) simply meant to worship. Gimli the dwarf discovers this when he enters Lothlorien (heaven on earth) expecting to find a hostile witch. On meeting Galadriel, he has a true spiritual experience and is immediately converted. After this, he carries a lock of her hair with him and is ready to fight anyone who criticizes her. Galadriel, in other words, is a sort of female God figure, a spiritual mother who dispenses wisdom to the travelers and who gives Frodo a light that saves him in the lair of Shelob (who, being a spider, did not make this list). Galadriel would have been the Least Relatable person on this list, but we have one more …
  6. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Ha! You didn’t think anyone could be less relatable than Galadriel? You have forgotten Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the odious relative of Bilbo and Frodo. Lobelia had always hoped somehow to legally get her hands on the comfortable ancestral hall of Bag End. She nearly inherited it when Bilbo disappeared for a year in The Hobbit. She was very annoyed when Bilbo then willed Bag End to Frodo, and made quite a nuisance of herself to Frodo by saying nasty things as only a bitter, feisty, disappointed older relative can. Before Frodo goes off on his adventure, he sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and Lobelia cannot conceal her triumph. She does redeem herself, however, by getting herself thrown in the local jail for defying a constable after Saruman takes over the Shire. When she gets out, she is met with a standing ovation and bursts into tears: “She had never been popular before.” … OK, I admit it, much of Lobelia’s bad behavior is actually very relatable if we are honest with ourselves. But she beats Galadriel because, even more than Galadriel, Lobelia is not a character that anyone would aspire to be.