October 10th, 2012

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Character Dimensions: Faith

I'm still struggling with that ending. I discovered that the most logical ending isn't all that satisfying. I figured out a fix for that and then realized there was a problem. But I think I figured it out on the way to ballet class last night. Now we'll see if I can write it.

In my writing posts, I've been talking about dimensions of characterization that are generally forgotten about unless they're central to the plot but that can really flesh out a character and help you know how the character would act in various plot circumstances. This series was inspired by a panel at WorldCon on using faith in fiction and how it needs to be part of worldbuilding and characterization but seldom is. I've talked about some other dimensions, like finance and relationships, but now I'll get around to the inspiration for the topic and discuss faith.

Faith is a touchy subject, and that may be why in fiction it's usually either relegated to the "inspirational" category or ignored unless it's somehow central to the plot. But faith or spirituality is still a big part of American culture and even not having a faith is a worldview. One of the audience members asked the panel how faith could be incorporated into a book if the plot wasn't about faith -- in fantasy that tends to be the evil bishop trying to take over the kingdom -- and we got a good start on that, but I think it goes even further.

To begin with, think about what your character's belief system is, and how that came about. Did she grow up in a religious household that observed their faith, was it a nominally religious household that observed major holidays but mostly ignored faith the rest of the year, was it a non-religious household where it wasn't even an issue, or was it an anti-religious household, where the lack of religion was almost its own kind of religion? What was the character's attitude toward this upbringing? Was she actively involved in the religious youth organizations, actively rebelling against her parents' religion or going with the flow without really having a strong opinion or personal belief system?

What about now? Has the character continued with the belief system she was brought up in? Was that out of inertia or guilt or has she really made a conscious decision that this is what she believes? Has she changed belief systems while still maintaining one (changing denominations, converting to another religion)? Why? If the character was brought up in a religious home but now has no religion, was this a conscious decision or drifting away? If it was a conscious decision, when and why did it come about? Is the character neutral or hostile to religion? How does the character practice her faith -- regular activity, major holidays, it's something she thinks about and hasn't actively rejected but not something she really does a lot about?

Some ways that faith may affect a character's daily life (drawing some from the panel answers):
Prayer and/or scripture study as part of a daily habit (the phone call comes while the person is reading the Bible, for instance)
Instinctive quick prayer for help in crisis or thanks after a crisis
Observing dietary restrictions -- fasting at certain times, avoiding certain foods (though this varies by individual. I have had Jewish friends who were fairly active in their temples who still ate bacon, and I've had Jewish friends who aren't observant at all who wouldn't dream of touching pork)
Observing certain holidays or rituals
Observing a Sabbath
Scheduling around religious activities (Wednesday is choir night, it'll have to be Sunday afternoon because there's church in the morning, can't do anything after sundown on Friday)
Charity or volunteer work (or guilt about not doing something)
Sexual behavior -- saving oneself for marriage or having to make rationalizations to justify not doing so in order to avoid guilt ("we're married in our hearts, but we just haven't had the ceremony yet")

Some of these things can be pretty deeply instilled, so someone who was brought up in a faith may still unconsciously (or even consciously) fall into some of these behaviors even after leaving the faith, especially if it was more of a drifting away than a conscious rejection. If you haven't developed a new belief system to replace the old one, you'll likely fall into the old one in times of crisis or you may find yourself feeling surprisingly guilty about doing things your old belief system was opposed to.

A lot of the effect of a personal belief system shows up in little ways that come from having that kind of worldview, though again that will vary by individual and how and why the character believes such things. This can be positive or negative. Religion can make people judgmental or compassionate or sometimes even both at the same time. It's a really complex issue, which may be why a lot of authors don't even try to address it, especially if they come to the topic as an outsider. If you've never had a faith, it's difficult to see how it might permeate someone's daily life, and so you might either ignore it or paint it in really broad strokes. If you want to research it, look for memoirs by people of faith who talk about how their beliefs affected them. That's a good way to get inside their heads and see the world through their eyes. There are also memoirs and books of essays by people who've rejected religion that would be good research for people of faith who need to write characters who have a different perspective. Really, I recommend reading memoirs and autobiographies in general because they're a great way to get into people's heads, and that helps you write better characters.