Last week, I was hanging out on Facebook, reading discussions in the various groups I hang out in. I happened across a fairly benign question: If your characters are Christians, how much do they express the tenets of their faith?
Since it was a Christian writer’s group, I didn’t bat an eye. Then I started reading the comments.
“My character struggles with doubt.”
“My character doesn’t really believe in her religion.”
“My character is angry at God after a tragedy.”
The entire comment thread was like that. A whole crowd of people writing about characters who don’t really believe their own religion.
I commented about a character I’ve been writing who has unswerving faith in his deity, but this brings about other problems in his social circles, because he goes and does things nobody else would dream of doing, and people think he’s crazy.
Then I asked why there were so many Doubting Thomas characters. I was writing the only character who had any faith at all. I was told that doubting characters are written by doubting authors.
Which is troubling.
Now, I know that doubting the unseen is a common thread in speculative fiction. Characters doubt whether anything spiritual is real, in urban fantasy and paranormal romance and all those. But Christian books seem especially prone to it. Every Stephen Lawhead character is like this, and pretty much all Ted Dekker characters … my reading pool of Christian books has shrunk over the years, so maybe the doubting character thing isn’t as widespread as it was.
Or, judging by that thread, maybe it’s alive and well.
Now, I can understand why you’d have a character struggling to believe some cosmic truth. No character really wants to be the Chosen One, destined to fulfill the prophecy or slay the vampire king or take down the dragon or whatever. It’s a stage in the Hero’s Journey, after all.
But when the main theme of the book is a character who doesn’t believe in their own religion? Come on. If you’re going to bother putting religion in your book, make it worthwhile. It’s got to be either a bad religion, with cultists summoning eldritch abominations, or a good religion that helps people in some way. And have the characters either believe or disbelieve it. The lukewarm dithering thing gets old.
I think what bugs me the most is that any other religion gets represented well in books. If a character is a Buddhist, I see them trying to live out the tenants of their religion by trying to be a good person, eschew material goods, etc. If a character is a Muslim, they observe the holidays, the food laws, the prayers, and so forth. So, why is it only the Christians who whine about “Is God really real? Why should I bother doing any of my religious stuff?”
I think it’s an alarming indication of how lukewarm we American Christians have become. I would love to read a book, even speculative fiction, where a Christian character actually has faith, lives by it, and goes through all the ups and downs of that. Kind of like Father Tim in the Mitford books, which is the only example I can think of. And he’s Episcopalian, which is closer to Catholic, so not even the Protestant branch so many of my writer friends are.
Faith in any religion requires life changes. And in fact, it increases the entertainment value if a character’s faith motivates them to get stuck in all kinds of interesting situations. At this point, in a book, I’d be happy with any kind of fantasy religion, as long as the author is true to the character’s choices about it. The Queen’s Thief series is like that–there’s a pantheon that interacts with the heroes, depending on their actions and beliefs. And those books are tremendously entertaining.
Does anybody remember Testament, by John Grisham? A super rich man dies and leaves his fortune to a niece or something who is down in the jungle in Brazil as a missionary. A troubled lawyer is dispatched on an epic jungle adventure and tell her she’s inherited a zillion dollars. Missionary doesn’t want it, back the lawyer goes to the States to settle the crazy relatives who are fighting over the will. Hugely entertaining. Wonderful presentation of a character who lives by faith in the jungles, and the impact of her faith on the lawyer.
So, I guess my point is, authors, dare to write about characters who FREAKING BELIEVE IN SOMETHING. It’s more entertaining than a wishy-washy character who doesn’t really believe anything and you know will have some kind of cringy “return to faith” scene at the 3/4ths mark.