1. pachap
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    pachap New Member

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    Theme Religious Content - Trying not to sound "Preachy."

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by pachap, May 13, 2015.

    Hello all, first post...

    To give some background, I am not a complete writing noob. I've had some academic works published that may seem mundane to many of you, but I'm proud of them.

    For the past four years, as time has allowed, I've worked on what is going to be my first real piece of fiction. It started as a short story and ballooned out to a full novel-length piece. The setting is a sparsely-populated dark fantasy world.

    Without giving too much away, the main character is undergoing an identity crisis of a religious nature. As his faith waivers, so does his relationships. He once defined himself by his faith, but gets to a point in which he really struggles with who he is because he no longer holds to that faith.

    My biggest worry is that I am going to come across as being overly preachy. I don't want to come across as making value judgements about real-life issues in my book. I don't want to seem like I am condemning religion. To some level it is necessary for the plot, but I don't want to go over the top. I want this character to make a graceful transition from faith to a lack of it.

    How turned off are you by what you would call too much religious detail? What is "too much" in your opinion? Any advice or comments would be greatly appreciated.

    For what it's worth, I have no delusions of grandeur. It's not going on the best-seller list next week. I just want to tell a good story.
     
  2. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If you focus on the character's journey, his inner turmoil, and how he survives the problems you throw at him, I don't think it will get preachy. If you, however, step out of the character and use the narrator to explain why there is no God or how believing in God is ludicrous or whatever, it can read preachy. Of course, even character thoughts can seem preachy, but if you stay true to the character, tell his story, not a story of religion as such, I think it'd come off natural, a part of the character, instead of some kind of anti-religion manifesto.

    I'm also writing a character who loses his faith, but I'm not super concerned about the preachiness of it 'cause I try to see the loss through him, not as a loss of faith in general. He is capable of recognizing why he used to lean on faith, and later, why he lost it, but I'm not writing pages on end about it and I've tried to "humanize" the process as much as I can. I don't know if this makes sense, I don't even know if it works, but that's the approach I've used.
     
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  3. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I assume that because your story takes place in a fantasy world, we're not talking a real world religion here?
    I have things in my novel which I've had worries might interpreted as anti-religious, such as various historical events that the religious had attributed to gods turn out to be man made.
    But I think I just need to make sure that my religion is different enough that it doesn't feel like a real world modern religion with a different name. After all most people either think all religion is untrue, or all religion except one is untrue. So saying one fictional religion in a fictional universe is based around misconceptions isn't controversial.
    If your religion is monotheistic, where the deity is a robed bearded fatherly guy, and the ordinary folk worship him by going to church for about an hour every Sunday, then readers might be forgiven for thinking you're trying to make a commentary on Christianity.

    I think the religious details will be more interesting to readers if you do manage to come up with interesting specifics that feel a little unique. Most fantasy readers seem to like to hear about the belief systems of worlds as long as things can be integrated into the story smoothly rather than info-dumped. Religion is so prevalent in most pre-industrial cultures that I find it hard to justify not including it in one way or another.
     
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  4. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have a novel with a (gay) Anglican priest having a crisis of faith, so he thought about his religion quite a bit. In his case, though, it was more the church structure he was disappointed with rather than the religion itself, so that made it a bit easier.

    I think it was also easier for me b/c I'm not at all religious, so I learned enough about the religion to be able to write him convincingly (I was really happy when I got a review from a real Anglican priest who enjoyed the story and the character!) but I wasn't tempted to throw my own sermons in there. So I agree with those who have said it's important to make sure whatever you write is from your character's POV, not yours.
     
  5. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I am reminded of this German film called The Lives of Others - it's not about religion but it is about the Stasi in East Germany, where one of the Stasi officers taps a suspcious playwright's flat and listens to his life, looking for evidence to take him down. I've included the rest in the spoiler cus I don't wanna spoil the film for someone else.

    In the course of the movie as the story tells the playwright's struggles and that of his lover's, we're constantly reminded that he's watched. By the end of the film, the officer secretly helps the playwright avoid arrest because his mind on the regime has been changed through watching and listening to this man's life.

    So maybe you could watch it and see how they did it? It's done through film rather than writing so there will be differences in approach, but it might still inspire you :)

    Actually, Brandon Sanderson's debut Elantris includes a key character who lost his faith in his religion and it wasn't preachy at all. Maybe read it, it's a very entertaining fantasy YA :)
     
  6. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    Since you'll be marketing the book in the Western world, the big question is how closely MC's faith resembles the Judeo-Christian tradition. Unless you want to make a statement about religion as we know it in the real world, I don't see why anyone would take offense. If your genre typically allows such philosophical questions, I don't see why anyone would be bothered by how a fictional character treats a fictional religion. If, however, you intend to make a statement about a not-so-veiled organized religion, it will be taken as polemical, and you must accept any consequeces therein. Since you mentioned the story only partially rests on this transformation it is safer to present the religion as paganistic and unfamiliar so there is no ambiguity about sniping at organized religion. Unfortunately, some will always read into your intentions and I cannot venture a guess about how publishers think about religious themes.
     
    Last edited: May 13, 2015
  7. pachap
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    pachap New Member

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    Good advice. Thanks guys. I am going to ponder and re-read these posts and keep them pinned up on my wall next to my computers as I work through the novel again.
     
  8. ddavidv
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    ddavidv Contributing Member

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    I once read a Christian fiction book that so seamlessly wove religion into the story that I didn't realize it was Christian fiction until I has over halfway through the book. Since I'm a non-believer and still liked the book that is high praise.

    I wrote a book about the existence of a 'heaven' that is markedly different than what religious texts describe. To get my MC there I had to address his beliefs (or in his case, agnostic disinterest). I had him participate in some philosophical discussions with the other MC (his love interest) that fleshed out his beliefs without resorting to an info dump or getting preachy. I kept my scope narrow to discuss only the heaven/afterlife aspect with a one-sentence nod to God and/or Christianity. I didn't want to bash religion but at the same time I didn't want the story to be about someone's conflict with Christian belief vs the alternative reality I created. It is a difficult dance and you're not going to please everybody but remember that no story will have universal appeal.
     
  9. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    In my personal opinion, if a story is about a man who looses his religious faith, I wouldn't consider it to be condemning religion. It's just something the character is going through, and I don't associate it with the author's views. For example, a book can be about murder, but that doesn't mean that it's pro-murder, if that makes sense. Are you writing it with that view in mind?
     
  10. pachap
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    pachap New Member

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    The religious backdrop of the book is "religion as a form of social control and a way to preserve the status quo."
     
  11. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    Try to have a very clear idea about what conclusions the subtext will make. If you don't want to sound preachy, a portrayal of the government that is like ISIS is good. Otherwise you get into the territory of Marx's ideas of religion.
     
  12. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    At this point, my impression is that you are telling a story about a character, and the religious aspect of the book is just the setting. No "deeper message" perceived (at least not by me).

    Here, the impression is radically different. My perception is an anti-religious polemic. Adding the two together, it strikes me that what you are really looking for is to appear to be writing the former, but with the latter lying in ambush for the reader. If that's the case (and the remainder of my post will operate on the assumption that it is), then there are some basics to remember.

    First of all, when making a point, the most effective way to do it is to never mention it directly. The most egregious example I can think of is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, in which she (over)stated everything she had to say by the halfway point of a really bad novel. Almost everything Allan Drury wrote after Advise and Consent falls into this category as well, none worse than Anna Hastings. And, one of the things that made Advise and Consent so effective in delivering its message was that, at the beginning, you actually want Bob Leffingwell to be approved by the Senate, and you regard Seab Cooley as an old crank with an ax to grind. Charles Dickens was probably still the best "advocacy writer" I've ever read, but he had an advantage, writing about conditions that simply cried out for some human decency. But all he ever did was let the conditions of his characters tell the story. You can also find some good examples among historical fiction that deals with past ills - Rachel Simon's The Story of Beautiful Girl deals with historic abuses of people with developmental disabilities, while Christina Baker Kline's The Orphan Train deals with an unusual attempt to place children in foster homes in the early 20th Century as well as a modern day foster child. In both stories, the most powerful aspects are the attitudes of society at the times of the stories.

    Before getting too deeply into it, though, I would point out a few of potential pitfalls that, if not heeded, could detract from your work. By "religion as a form of social control", are you positing that the very fact that a person believes in a higher authority constitutes some form of social control? Because that would immediately trigger the question, control by whom? There are many people who believe in a supreme being and yet do not belong to any organized religion, and many more whose affiliation with an organized religion is tenuous at best, and often in name only. Or is your focus those actively engaged in organized religion? And, if so, is it your contention that any organized religion must always be "a form of social control and a way to preserve the status quo"? If it is, you may want to check the universality of your statement, because I would argue that such is not universally the case. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has certainly been justly criticized for its role in supporting oppressive regimes. However, many of the statements of Pope John Paul II and especially more recently those of Pope Francis cannot be construed that way at all. And don't forget, there are many faiths in which the only relevant organization is the local community of adherents.

    Also, are you prepared to distinguish between genuine religions on the one hand and radical sects and cults on the other?

    I raise these questions, not in an effort to debate your premise, but because they are questions that any reader might raise, and failing to consider them in your writing raises the likelihood that readers might dismiss your premise as unsound. The theme suggested in the first segment I quoted above sounds interesting. Good luck with it.
     
  13. pachap
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    pachap New Member

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    EdfromNY,

    The issue of "local form of worship versus centralized religious control" is a central theme of the book. The governing organization of the religion is seeking to expand political control and eliminate perceived challenges to its tenets. The work certainly isn't anti-religious. It is more about institutionalized corruption and influence that disrupts the life of the adherents of the belief system.
     
  14. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Sounds intriguing. Good luck with it.
     

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