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.

The Disruptive Force in the Story

Photo by Daniel on Pexels.com

The protagonist of my first novel, Nimri, has a personality that in real life would be Kryptonite to me.  (Whichever kind of Kryptonite it is that saps Superman’s strength.  Green, I think.)

On the MBTI, Nimri is an ESTP:

Extraverted

Sensing (i.e. concrete)

Thinking (no special desire to please people)

Perceiving (adaptable)

ESTPs are observant, energetic, and crude.  David Keirsey, in his book Please Understand Me II, calls them Promoters:

Witty, clever, and fun, they live with a theatrical flourish … Promoters have a knack for knowing where the action is.  ESTPs have a hearty appetite for the finer things in life … Promoters are so engaging with people that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case.  Rather, they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language … ESTPs keep their eyes on their audience, and with nerves of steel they will use this information to achieve the ends they have in mind – which is to sell the customer in some way.  Promoters can be hard-nosed utilitarians … they can keep their cool in crises and operate freely … although they ordinarily have little patience with following through and mopping up.

Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, pp. 64 – 65

How Did This Guy Get in The Story?

I’m an INFP.  I have little natural sympathy for this type. Thus, I didn’t set out to write an ESTP character.  But I also didn’t set out to write a likeable character, which perhaps helped open the door to a temperament I wouldn’t normally consider.

When I began writing the novel, I only knew that Nimri was smart, strong, snobbish, and involved in building the Tower of Babel (the ultimate project to promote).  I knew I was going to put him in a difficult situation where he’d be humbled and have a chance at redemption.   Once I put him in this situation (paraplegic, being cared for by people he once looked down upon, and unable to speak their language), ESTP is the personality that naturally emerged.

At first, Nimri behaves like a jerk, which is what we would expect of anyone in such a situation but especially of this personality type.  He first yells at his rescuers and attempts to order them around even though they can’t understand him. He then falls silent and begins to observe them.  Later, he tries to assault one of their young women, at which point they start treating him like a prisoner.  (ESTPs, remember, are crude and utilitarian.)

At this point, Nimri’s Promoter gifts kick in and start to serve him well.  He is energetic and adaptable, so instead of brooding, he starts a diary and occupies himself with things like arm exercises.  His ability to read people’s body language helps him as he observes his captors and begins to figure out their names and who is related to whom. When he eventually picks up a little of their language, he begins joking with them.  His concrete nature helps him find tasks he can do, such as music and weaving.

By the end of his time with his captors, Nimri does find redemption … but not by turning into an INFP.  Instead, the positive aspects of his Promoter personality start to shine.  He becomes what you might call a “good” ESTP.  Still a source of energy, but energy that’s a bit more positive.  Red Kryptonite.

Yet whether using his talents poorly or well, Nimri is a disruptive force in the story. 

Some People Are Like That

Perhaps you know a person like this.  Some people need only enter a room – or just walk by it – and chaos immediately breaks out.  Disruption follows in their wake.  They don’t even need to do anything (although they usually do).  In Nimri’s case, he causes a stir even when sitting imprisoned in his room not talking to anyone.

And We Need Them

Though I started out to write Nimri as an unlikeable character in need of redemption (as are we all), I actually needed his maddening nature more than I realized.  A story needs a disruptive force to keep things moving.  Jordan Peterson would say, speaking his language of archetypes, that we need a balance between the forces of order and the forces of chaos.  Too much chaos and society falls apart, but too much order can be stifling, enslaving.  And so in a novel.  You need a steady source of trouble or nothing will happen in your story.

(By the way, Peterson relies heavily on Jung for his archetypes. Concidentally, the MBTI is also derived – distantly – from Jung’s work.  I realize there are problems with the MBTI and there would certainly be problems with trying to draw solely on Jung for your complete philosophy of life.  However, both are useful when talking about stories.)

The disruptive force in a story is often the villain.  It can be that character that readers love to hate.  Or it could be something more abstract, like Nature.  In some stories of the sane-man-in-a-crazy-world variety, almost all the characters are colorful and disruptive, and only the protagonist is vainly trying to hold things in order.  This is true of Dave Barry’s novels, of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and of the TV series King of the Hill (all of them comedies).  It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing a “serious” novel and wish to have a number of admirable characters.  You can’t make them all admirable, or no one will cause trouble, and then where will you be? Still, stories can accommodate more than one disruptor.  It’s often best if you have several, including some outside force and one or more characters closer to home.  In Beowulf, Grendel is the monster but Beowulf himself disrupts Hrothgar’s court by his arrival, and he is also challenged by Hrothgar’s designated mocker.

What’s a favorite story of yours and who is the disruptor in it?

Yes, I’m a Luddite

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But I don’t know how to get there from here.

The Dream

Many years ago, a friend and I got talking about what Utopia would look like to us.  I ended up producing a fairly extensive write-up on utopia according to me, dubbed “Jentopia.”

Jentopia turns out to be a very decentralized, low-tech society.  I sketched a vision of people living in a scattered network of mostly self-sufficient farmsteads.  They subsisted on agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing, or whatever combination of these best suited their immediate environment.  Government was local. Crimes were handled at the community level by a tribal or community council.  If a major military threat should arise from without, communities would get together and form a temporary militia to repel it.  All art was folk art, all music folk music.  Things that require a specialist, such as medicine, midwifery, and metalsmithing would be handled by local experts or by traveling specialists with whom gifted young people could apprentice if they chose.  Young people, when they came of age, could travel to other communities to find spouses or seek work.  Or they could simply go explore their world.  Because of the low level of technology, it was unlikely that any one group could completely wipe out another.  The low tech also limited the speed and range of travel.  The world was connected, but loosely so.  Families and communities were largely self-sufficient.

The only thing wrong with this cover illustration is the boots. Almonzo goes barefoot in the summer.

The closest I have ever seen historical conditions coming to Jentopia is the description of Almonzo Wilder’s boyhood in the book Famer Boy, written by his wife, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I suppose that this book, plus the Noble Savage myth, is where my mental picture of Jentopia originated.

The Wilder family are prosperous farmers living in upstate New York in the 1880s.   They raise cows, sheep, pigs, and horses.  They have fields and a big garden.  The sheep produce wool, from which Mrs. Wilder weaves and then makes all the family’s clothes.  They have their own woodlot, from which they get (as needed) wintergreen berries, nuts, and timber. They have their own lake, from which they cut ice to store for the summer.  They achieve all this by working nonstop.  By the time he is nine, Almonzo is plowing all day in the early summer.  He makes up for it by eating his weight in food at every meal.

The Wilders are as near as a family can come to being completely self-sufficient.   Nevertheless, they are connected to the outside world.  A shoemaker and a tinker each make an annual trip to the area, selling the family what they need.  A buyer from New York City comes by once a year to buy Mrs. Wilder’s butter.  Mr. Wilder trains horses and sells them.  And they are not completely safe from crime.  A neighboring farm family is robbed and severely beaten in their own house one night.  Also, the Wilder’s whole lifestyle would vanish if one of them were to become disabled by an injury or a serious illness.

Mrs. Wilder weaving a boarding school uniform for her older son

We All Want It …

Despite not being perfect, the “Farmer Boy” lifestyle is very appealing to me in theory. And not only to me.  It appeals to many people for different reasons.  Some are survivalists who want to have more security by having more control over their food supply.  Others are environmentalists who would rather not contribute to the problems of pollution and industrial farming.

These are not unusual feelings.  I think most people, if you asked them, would rather be as self-sufficient as possible.  And nobody, if you ask them point-blank, wants to pollute or create huge piles of garbage or exploit other people in sweat shops or indirectly participate in cruelty to animals.  We all would like to live in an ideal world where we don’t harm anyone or anything else by our lifestyle. We are all trying to get back to the Garden.

The Resistance

So why is it that most people resist the call to suddenly enact a low-tech, environmentally friendly lifestyle?   As a fellow blogger put it, “people don’t like environmental rants.”  His theory is that we are all just too lazy and selfish to give up our luxuries.  But I don’t think it’s that.  I think most people resist “environmental rants” due to good, sound psychological reasoning. 

People are willing to do something if they believe it will provide them some kind of tangible benefit.  It’s best if they start seeing this benefit right away.  If we tried to plant a garden and nothing came up, we might try again next year, but we would certainly be discouraged and might give up.  This effect, by the way, is the reason that Dave Ramsey advises people who have a lot of debts to tackle their smaller debts first.  It would make more sense mathematically to start with the larger debts, which rack up more interest. But Ramsey has discovered by trial and error that people need the early sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing a debt vanish.  This gives them hope that paying off their debts is possible and further motivates them to keep saving. 

Occasionally you meet a person who is so disciplined and mature that they can work hard and sacrifice for a very long-term goal, sometimes for years before seeing any results. But this is not the norm.  In the real world, people give up if they don’t believe their efforts are having any effect. 

That is the problem with asking people to make changes in their lifestyle for an abstract environmental goal.  There is no obvious connection between our actions and the end result.  We are told that the world is ending and that it’s because of our lifestyle.  However, we are also told that even if we completely changed our lifestyle tomorrow, it’s possible the disastrous trend would not reverse.  And even if everyone in our city – or state – or country – managed to completely change our lifestyle, China would still be out there polluting.  Our actions wouldn’t make a dent in climate change, if it is even mostly human-caused.  If it is even worse than the alternatives.

In the end, the actions we are urged to take are so tiny that it’s hard to see how they could do anything.  Use a different kind of light bulb.  Produce less trash.  Don’t eat meat.  Whoopee.  I don’t take environmental end-times prophets seriously unless they ask us to move to the wilderness, go full Wilder, and stop using electricity altogether.

And some of them do.

The Hard Way

I hate to pick on the Green New Deal, but it’s out there, and I have heard people say that we are selfish, anti-science, anti-future dunderheads if we object to it.  So, let’s talk about it.

The basic premise behind the GND is to enact a sudden, universal switch to a sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle from the top down, by force. There are two problems with this.  One is the tyranny problem.  The other is the death problem.

The Tyranny Problem: The problem with enacting radical lifestyle changes from the top down is that this is, not to mince words, tyranny.  It is tyranny any time a government tries to force large segments of a population to give up their livelihood, move to a different place, raise their children in a certain way, have more or fewer children, or any other major changes to the elements of our lifestyle that are the proper domain of families.

Mao Tse Tung tried this in China.  It was called the Great Leap Forward.  He basically outlawed white-collar jobs and forced millions of city dwellers to move onto collective farms.  Millions died in the famines that followed.  (Top-down control of farming >>> crop failure >>> famine.)

Any time a government tries to force major lifestyle changes on its populace, whatever else the initiative may be it is also a power grab. 

Actually, the advocates of the GND admit that it’s a power grab.  They say that radical, tyrannical steps are necessary now just as they are (arguably) necessary during Total War, because we are all going to die unless we do something about this environmental problem.  They say tyranny is justified because they are saving us from death.

So let’s talk about the death problem.

The Death Problem: Besides the fact that it’s tyranny, there is another huge problem with trying to get an entire population to give up electricity, plastics, and motor vehicles essentially overnight.  The problem is that these modern luxuries have enabled us to build up and sustain a population that is much, much bigger than subsistence farming could support.

We all depend on electricity (hence coal) and on oil for things like our city sewer systems; our clean, processed water; our garbage removal; our heat in the winter; our healthy, abundant, affordable food.  We also depend on these systems for medical technologies that keep many of us alive.  Many people are dependent upon medicines that have to be refrigerated and that can only be produced with our current technology.

If we suddenly gave up petroleum and coal, all these systems would collapse.  This scenario has been explored – frequently – in sci-fi and dystopias.  It always ends in huge die-offs.  Often, the die-offs have an additional cause such as zombies.  But if you want to read a detailed exploration of what would happen if the lights simply went out, I recommend Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling.  At the beginning of that book, all electricity, motor vehicles, and gunpowder (!) suddenly stop working.  There is no bomb, and there are no zombies.   Lights out is all it takes to kill off most of the population. If you don’t have time to read Dies the Fire (a doorstop of a book), try the much shorter One Second After by William R. Forstchen, in which gunpowder and motor vehicles continue to work, but the power goes off and communities no longer receive goods from the outside world via trucking. This is even closer to what the Green New Deal would bring us.

Anyone who seriously wants the United States to stop using coal and petroleum within the next ten years is asking at least 50%, probably more like 75%, of us to die in the cause of environmentalism.

I honestly don’t know whether the advocates of the GND realize this or not.  Maybe they think there would be a way to find another source of power, such that it would not cause massive die-offs.  Maybe they think the die-offs would be a good thing.  Or maybe they don’t actually expect the GND to be enforced as it is written.  In any case, I don’t think they’ve thought seriously about how bad it would really be.

The Possibly Not Fatal, But Still Extremely Hard, Way

The only nonfatal way that I can see for a Luddite dreamer to get from city life to Jentopia is to move there voluntarily.  Buy some land, build a chicken coop, plant a big garden.  Become a homesteader.  Have a generator or a wood stove or whatever you need in case the power goes out.  Dig a root cellar.  Stock up on any necessary medicines. 

This is good, as far as it goes.  It is something that I would like to do if so positioned.  That said, there are a few caveats.

Not everyone is in a position to take up the homesteading lifestyle.  Some people can’t afford to move or can’t afford to buy land.  Some are taking care of a sick child or elder.  Some are committed to an important, demanding career that ties them to a city.  (We don’t want all our doctors and firefighters to go full Luddite!)

Even supposing we do take up the homesteading lifestyle, it is going to be very demanding.  Farming is difficult to succeed in if you didn’t grow up in it.  (For example, you need a lot of wrist and hand strength that has to be developed in your youth.)   For most people, their homestead would end up being only partially self-sufficient.  They might have a large garden and keep chickens, perhaps even a cow … but a portion of their food, all of their medicine, and probably the bulk of their income would be coming from elsewhere.

Even to take up a partially self-sufficient lifestyle, here are the skills you might need: construction (fixing your house, and building barns, chicken coops, etc.).  Plumbing.  Gardening, including knowing what varieties of garden crops do well in your area and how to handle pests and plant diseases.  Animal husbandry (if you want your own milk) and butchering (if you want your own bacon).  Food preservation (canning, pickling, and maybe a smokehouse).  Water purification. Home cooking from scratch.  Camping skills such as how to start a fire in a fire pit or in a wood stove – and, not unrelated, fire safety.  Knitting, sewing, and – if you are hard core – spinning and weaving.  Sheep shearing.  Soap making.  First aid and possibly more advanced medical knowledge, if you are living in a place remote enough that it would be hard to get to medical care.  Home dental care (tooth extraction?).  Home haircuts.  Vehicle maintenance (or horse breeding).  How to maintain the road into and out of your place.  And finally, if you are preparing for the lawlessness that would follow a social or environmental apocalypse, you will need self-defense skills, shooting skills, and gun maintenance (or sword skills if you are living the world of Dies the Fire).

Obviously, living in an environmentally friendly way is going to be a full-time occupation and then some.  You will have no time for art or leisure.

Let me be the first to say that I do not have all these skills.  I do not have a green thumb.  I have a tiny yard that is not set up for chickens or gardening.  I have a modestly stocked pantry and one lousy rain barrel.  I have a fire place but no wood pile.  If the power went off in our city in the middle of the winter and stayed off for a month or two … maybe my family would survive.  That’s leaving looters out of the equation.

Maybe I should start calling myself a Hypo-Luddite.

It’s a really big club.

Sources

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, first published 1933.  Shows the Wilder family’s lifestyle by following Almonzo through one year of his life.

The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed my Family for a Year by Spring Warren.  Seal Press, 2011.  Warren decides she personally (only she, not her husband and sons) is going to eat only what she grows on her own property for one year.  (She has to exclude beverages from this, or she would have to give up all drinks but water.)  She works her tail off, but she does it.  Her learning curve is delightful to read.  Note that she lives in California, which has a good growing climate, and when the book starts her yard already boasts fruit trees.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.  Chang chronicles the life of her grandmother, her mother, and herself.  Her parents were both dedicated communists early in the movement.  Her family survived being separated and sent to collective farms during the Great Leap Forward.

See thesurvivalmom.com to get a sense of the range of skills that homesteading requires.

“The Green New Deal as America’s Great Leap Forward” by Clifford Humphrey, The Epoch Times, March 31, 2019

“The Climate Case of the Century” by Edward Ring on American Greatness. The web site is kind of annoying in terms of ads and pop-ups (sorry about that!), but in the section of the article called “Critical Questions,” Ring asks a series of great questions about the extent and nature of climate change and the relative harm and benefits of trying to switch to solar and wind power.

The Nomadic Lifestyle

I will have to take a blog hiatus at some point this summer, because our family will be moving house.

Of course, I have moved before …

On an airplane with a baby
On a moving truck with a toddler
In an airport in Asia with kids who have taken their shirts off because they both threw up on the plane

I do not relish it.

The nomadic lifestyle is one of those things that sounds really romantic when you first hear about it (Gypsies! Mongols! Pirates!), but that in real life kind of stinks.

I put my characters through a nomadic lifestyle, and they don’t particularly relish it either. Here’s what the main character of my first book, Enmer, has to say:

“It is always a confused time, departing for a trip, and also a time when people are rubbed raw by the many things they must of think of, and the many things they are leaving.  So they are quicker to excitement, sorrow, or anger.”

Enmer, The Long Guest

The other problem with being on the move is that while it lasts, it makes you very vulnerable in terms of … everything. Food, water, medicine, normal routines. Security. This is especially true for families.

Just being forced to move can itself be a form of oppression. There are many historical examples of cases where groups were forced to move and it did not end well. Maybe I’ll post about those some time.

But for now, don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining. My family and I are not being forced, and we have had plenty of warning about this move and will also, I trust, have plenty of help. I just wanted to give you a heads up about it, give a little plug for my book (one of the points of the this site, after all), and post some of my funny old pictures.

Do you have any tips, cautionary tales, or fun moving stories?

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.

“Haven’t You People Ever Watched Any Sci-Fi?”

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The following is a rant.  Enjoy.

There is a type of sci-fi that is triumphalist.  In this kind of sci-fi, people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal, enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and all goes well.  This is welcomed as a good thing. 

Then there is another type of sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased out.  This is what sci-fi is for, after all: thought experiments.  “What would be all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but routine?”  This thoughtful strain of sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.

It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers.  All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well.  I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”

Here are a few examples …                   

Think it would be great if all parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?

Go watch Gattica.

Predicting people’s behavior and assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions?  Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?

Gattica again.

Interested in “designer babies?”

There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that created them.  They are understandably bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their genetically edited strength and smarts.

How about perfectly executed plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.

Creating a human/animal hybrid?

The movie Splice.

Storing all our important personal information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?

The Net.

Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?

1984.

What if we take this wonderful stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it at any time?

Back to The Outer Limits.  In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies.  The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace.  Poor guy.  (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)

How about “smart homes,” where our electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much more?

I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can function.

Really smart AI?

The Terminator.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised communally?

Logan’s Run and The Office of Mercy.  Oh, and Soviet orphanages.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised in families, but these families are assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?

The Giver by Lois Lowry.

How about we find or create a portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it?  Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …

Event Horizon.

(But actually, we shouldn’t need a movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything through a portal that we don’t know where it goes.)

OK, OK, you’re right … no one is seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes.  Not that I am aware of.  Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:

“I know, let’s bring back an extinct creature and create an ecosystem for it to live in!”

The Jurassic Park franchise.

Post your own examples below.

The Ship of Theseus: Or, What Makes You, You?

This post is a response to the following May 2018 article at Tor.com: The Ship of Theseus Problem Reveals A Lot About SciFi. (And by the way, good job, author Corey J. White, for getting “a lot” correct!)

The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:


The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this:
A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced.
Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship?
Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?

Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at Tor.com

The Essence of a Thing – Or Person

White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”

Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.

Changes to the Body

I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.

Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)

Cloning

It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.

A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness

I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.

White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.

The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.

Would it Work, Though?

It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.

This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.

Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.

If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.

Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.

Some people agree with me. The theory is called embodied cognition. In fact, AI developers are finding that maybe they have to give their robots the ability to move around in their physical environment in order for the robots to learn certain things and develop anything approaching common sense. (Not that I am an advocate for this either, but that’s another post. Total Luddite, that’s me.)

When Your Mind Changes

Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.

This is a great mystery.

On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.

I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.

To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:

“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”

Don’t Tell Me Your Story is About Misfits. Because That Tells Me Nothing

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I say this without any snark. This line – “I like to write about misfits” – has been used by some writers I really respect. They are not stupid. They are good writers. But I don’t think it’s a helpful way to describe your work, because it tells me so little.

Common “Misfit” Tropes in Fiction:

  • the girl who is plain or fat
  • the boy who is small, weak, or nerdy
  • the orphan or stepchild
  • the sensitive, misunderstood artist
  • the misunderstood villain (or werewolf or vampire)
  • the unremarkable teenager who discovers s/he has secret powers
  • the person who stands out because of their race
  • the gifted cop/soldier/agent who is forced to go rogue
  • the courageous person who goes against received wisdom (whether that is political, scientific, religious, artistic, or whatever)
  • the drag queen

That’s just off the top of my head.

When you tell me that your writing is unusual because you write about about misfits, my mind immediately goes to these tropes. There’s nothing wrong with these tropes (I like them), but stories featuring a “misfit” are not unique.

Using the word could even mask the uniqueness of your writing. For example, my eyes glazed over when a fellow writer described his novels as having misfit main characters. I was not expecting what he said next … that one of his books has a dragon as a main character, and another has a teddy bear. (These are books for adults.) The word “misfit” actually alienated me, for reasons I will describe below. The phrase “teddy bear main character” got my attention.

We Are All Misfits

Listen up, fellow writers: Everyone feels like a misfit!

It is rare to meet someone who has always felt comfortable in their own skin. That goes double for writer types.

In fact, that’s the reason that misfit characters are so appealing. Because the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they belong, misfit characters make them feel understood. But this isn’t just about people’s inner feelings: misfits feature in many stories because belonging and exclusion are major, enduring problems in this fallen world.

So, telling me that you are a misfit – as if this is unique to you – can be unintentionally, subtly insulting. The implication seems to be that you are pretty that sure I, your interlocutor, have never struggled with this. It’s similar to when people say they have a special concern for “justice,” as if this is something that most people don’t care about.

To be fair, I don’t think anyone who says this means to be insulting. They may honestly feel as if they are uniquely excluded. That’s the nature of feeling like you don’t belong. But trust me, if I am a fellow writer, then no matter how I may appear on the outside, I do know what it’s like not to fit in.

Characters Who Are Comfortable in Their Own Skin

In thinking about this, it occurred to me to wonder whether there are any novels that feature a main character who is comfortable in his or her own skin. And if there are, does this destroy the dramatic tension?

The first one I thought of was Where the Red Fern Grows. Then I started to realize that there are, in fact, many more. While there are many, many books for for both adults and children that explore themes of exclusion and belonging, there are also many that don’t. Often, a simple adventure story doesn’t need this dynamic.

Talking of characters who are comfortable in their own skin, I was reminded one of my own main characters, Nimri. Outwardly, he is certainly in a “misfit” situation: he paraplegic, and is being cared for by a group of people with whom he can’t at first communicate. Nevertheless, though he might bemoan his situation, Nimri is still happy to be Nimri. He is comfortable in his own skin. He is just not the personality type to experience much angst.

Outward vs. Inward Misfittedness

This brings up the distinction between being in an outcast or disadvantaged position, and feeling like we don’t belong. Which of these makes a character a “misfit”?

Of course, most people and characters have feelings that match their position. But not always. This can be a function of personality. Bilbo Baggins, for example, is a character who is small, weak, and has trouble getting the dwarves to take him seriously. Yet he is spunky and comfortable in his own skin. On the other hand, we can think of characters (often teenagers in coming-of-age-stories) who “never felt like they belonged,” even though outwardly there might not be much visible reason for this. This second option mirrors the experience of many authors.

I am not taking sides here, by the way. I like both kinds of story. I am fine with adventure stories where the hero or heroine never seems to experience any doubt (as long as the rest of the story is good), and I can identify with characters who don’t feel as if they fit. In my opinion, the really brilliant novels combine the two, and the main character’s inner turmoil becomes important to the outward plot. A really great novel of this kind is ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

So what about you? Is being comfortable in your own skin something you once struggled with, or is it an ongoing issue? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much patience do you have with fictional characters who experience identity crises, exclusion, and angst? (10 = I won’t read a book unless the main character struggles with belonging; 1 = I have no time for that touchy-feely stuff in my adventure stories)