PART THREE: Simple Rules
So, if this is how I am defining religion and spirituality, what criteria can I establish for exploring those twin issues in science fiction and fantasy (or any work of fiction)?
First, is that while the story may be about religion and spirituality, or it may play a role in the story, these subjects cannot get in the way of the story. Stories are about people doing things – not about people sitting around talking about things. Charters might take the time to explain something of a religious or spiritual nature, or a paragraph or two of descriptive text might be expended on these subjects, but not pages, not whole scenes. Not unless it is integral to the drama and the action of the story and plot. I loved Stranger in a Strange Land when I was a young teenager, but found the long conversations about quasi-spiritual libertarian philosophy to be plot killing when I re-read it a few years ago. The point is not to preach ideas, but to entertain with ideas.
Secondly, since stories are about people and what they do (and what happens to them), any involvement of spirituality and or religion must be grounded in the characters’ lives and experiences. So, if religion and spirituality are going to play a part in the story they need to be grounded in the characters’ lives physically, emotionally, intellectually, and practically. This means we need to see not only how the practice their faith, but why, and what effects it has on them, and how it affects the rest of their lives, or their interactions with other characters. This will be particularly important if trying to contrast the differences between religious beliefs and spiritual practice – how they can be at odds, but how they can also be united.
Thirdly, there must be a sufficient level of depth to the religion and spirituality in the world that the story takes place in; otherwise it’s just set bad dressing – A flat scenic painting dropped behind the actors to give color to the stage. A good set is something that the actors can engage with and which affects what their characters can do (clearly, my theater background is coming out). As with world building in general, the religion and spirituality must have enough complexity and consistence to lend the patina of reality to the story, but without getting bogged down in paragraph after paragraph of description, or worse yet, page after page of dialogue driven exposition. Knowing the history, theology, rituals, and organization of the story’s religions is important, but that doesn’t mean the reader needs to know all if as well. The reader needs to know what will help them understand the character, to better see through his or her eyes, and to understand the plot, what happens and when, so they can enjoy the story as a whole. If something crucial can’t be explained in two paragraphs or a short exchange of dialogue, rethink its placement and connection to the story. Or explain it in stages over the course of the story.
Fourthly, the best way to accomplish keeping the religious and spiritual themes from overwhelming or spoiling the story and characters’ lives is to make it an integral part of the plot. If you want to make something interesting, make it a mystery – reveal it slowly over the course of the story and make the plot points hinge upon the revelations.
Lastly, be clear about why you want to explore spirituality and religion in your story. Are you trying to examine issues and ideas that will be relative to the reader’s life, or are you trying to promulgate a particular religious or spiritual perspective in favor of others? Avoid the latter. People have enough trouble thinking about religion, because it challenges their sense of self. If they are devoutly religious, they can find other religious perspectives an affront to their own sense of being. The various theologies can’t all be right – so, if one accepts the principles those theologies are based on – someone must be wrong, and no one wants to believe it might they might be wrong. Atheists, of course, think all religious beliefs are wrong, but they can cling just as tightly to their perspective and find it just as threatening to talk about something like spirituality. And those who eschew a particular religious faith for a generic spiritual path, may be resistant to paths other than their own. In general, tread lightly, but firmly, and avoid preaching. Try to favor exploring and examining the core issues at the heart of religious and spiritual traditions (and humanist philosophies): What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a better human? Can we be better humans? How? Why should we want to? How should we live our lives? How can we build a better human society? What would it look like? What are our common human values? Are there universal values and beliefs?
Those are interesting questions. Questions we’ve been asking ourselves and each other for thousands of years and will continue to ask ourselves for thousands more years. Hopefully, I can address those questions from a unique and passionate manner that helps readers in their own personal search for the answers to them. That will be my goal in trying to incorporate issues of religion and spirituality (as well as science, history, art, and philosophy) in my science fiction and fantasy writing.