Friday, August 10, 2012

Use With Care: Religion in Worldbuilding by Bryan Thomas Schmidt


A while back, I interviewed this week's guest, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, about his book The Worker Prince, which combines a science fiction setting with political and religious conflict to create an exciting story. (You can read that interview here.) This time around, I've asked him to talk a little about how he incorporated religion into his worldbuilding and plotting for the novel, and his thoughts on how to include spirituality into your writing without being preachy. Here's what he had to share.

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Book 2 in the Davi Rhiiuniverse is now available.
Ideological warfare is a key element in my Saga of Davi Rhii space opera novels. One group is trying to oppress another, and the roots of that conflict stretch back centuries. In this case, I chose to use real Earth religions for reasons I’ve already blogged about, but thanks to Michele for inviting me to discuss how to incorporate religion into worldbuilding without being preachy and how to keep it in proper balance with the story and other elements.

First, you can’t be determined to sell religion to anyone.

Yeah, that’s right. If your goal is to evangelize, you’re going to be preachy. It’s unavoidable. No matter how smart you think you are, you are going to preach. It’s inevitable. Elements like religion are controversial and, thus, must be used with care. There’s a reason people often use real religions but make up fake names and terminology to disguise them. And one of the biggest complaints about “Christian” or religious books is preachiness. People don’t like it. So, keep this issue in mind when you go into writing a story with religion in it.

Second, you must employ any worldbuilding element as organic to character and world.

In other words, it must naturally fit and be a part of the fictional world and character you've created in word and deed. If the religious element is forced by you, it’ll seem forced by your characters. The religion has to be part of the worldview not just of characters who practice and engage in it, but others around them must also reconcile their beliefs and worldviews with that religion in some way. And that reckoning shouldn’t be because men in suits on bikes are riding up to their homes to preach but because to live in harmony as a community, the various worldviews must interact and dialogue in some way. It may be oppositional and confrontational or there may be a begrudging peace. It might be indifference. But the people in your novel must understand what separates them from their neighbors and why they make different choices, and that knowledge will inform their decisions and the way they think about themselves and their world.

Third, depending on genre, religion has to be balanced with the needs of the story.

Religion is just one element of a larger picture, not the most important, dominant element. It’s tempting to put your passions front and center when writing by incorporating your ideals with those of your characters. It’s tempting to have them talk about what you care about, and to say things the way you would say them. But it doesn’t make your story better. It makes it obvious and preachy. That’s why I said it has to be organic (item 2). Spiritual beliefs must seem such a part of the people and the way they understand the world and live that it doesn’t stand out with flashing lights like you’re drawing attention to it. It must not overshadow other areas and concerns, and that’s why having the right goal is so important (item 1).

Borali crest from
The Saga of Davi Rhii
For my books, I employed agnostic and atheist beta readers on purpose. When none of them brought up the religious content, I felt good. When they mentioned it as standing out, I knew I had to make some polishes. Mostly, they said nothing. They weren’t offended or put off by it. It was just there. Knowing my own values and how I live and my fondness for spiritual things, they expected it, yes, but they also didn’t feel put upon by the presentation, and that’s important, because it detracts and distracts from the story majorly when elements stand out above and beyond their place in the world and role in the story.

Good storytelling involves creating something wherein readers can immerse themselves, suspend disbelief, and visit a place that’s different from their contemporary one yet feels believable. While yes, it’s true that people allow religion and faith to dominate and manifest in their lives in different ways and that can be true of characters, nonetheless,  since not everyone does it the same, you can’t expect readers who don’t to find your presentation less than overbearing if you do it in your work.

One key element of good writing and storytelling is showing, not telling, which involves knowing when to exposit and when to let characters’ actions, dialogue, etc., demonstrate something instead. It requires a balanced concern with how much and how soon to include elements and when and where to draw the lines. In writing the Davi Rhii books, my rule of thumb tends to be to try and experience these things through characters’ eyes, so although I was criticized for more fully explaining the Vertullian religion and not the Boralian (until later books), I did not have a POV character who practiced Boralian religion on a daily basis in the same way as many Vertullians did. So, the explanations came more from reactions than from internal and external actions as it does later on. This was not an attempt to slight the explanations but, instead, to avoid preachiness and exposition and instead let everything come into full explanation over time through the characters. I think it’s a balance. As writers, we don’t always get it right, but we do the best we can. And having a clear understanding of how you plan to approach religious elements in your fiction is vital.

Readers and Writers: How does faith plan an element in your worldbuilding? Do you avoid real religions or do you employ them, and why? How do you avoid preachiness? We’d love to hear about your struggles and experiences in the comments below.

Copyright © 2012 by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

In Bryan’s second novel, The Returning, new challenges arise as Davi Rhii’s rival, Bordox, and his uncle, Xalivar, seek revenge for his actions in The Worker Prince, putting his life and those of his friends and family in constant danger. Meanwhile, politics as usual has the Borali Alliance split apart over questions of citizenship and freedom for the former slaves. Someone’s even killing them off. Davi’s involvement in the investigation turns his life upside down, including his relationship with his fianc√©e, Tela. The answers are not easy with his whole world at stake.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011  Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. A freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction and also hosts Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

4 comments:

  1. Hi, Bryan. I am going to write religion as an important (and major) part in my next novel, and reading on your advises gave a good perspective in how I should write my religion.

    I have a question, though. My main character is something like a saint. He brings a new religion to take down old religion that has enslaves people. Do you have any advice for writing this character spreading his new religion, specifically how not to sound so preachy.

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  2. Well, I think you have to show the person living their ideals demonstratively, rather than just talking about it. And I think you'd do well to show the POV of people joining the religion and reveal how their thought processes work. If they don't seem manipulated, then readers will feel his religion is less threatening and preachy. But you're taking on a tough subject. I'd have to know more of context to suggest more, I think. Good luck!

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    1. Thanks Bryan! Your answer gave me great idea. I actually have a POV character that is close to the MC, and I could use him to explain the religion to the readers. Still need to give it a try and see how it ends. It is kind of a technical problem, so I probably gonna edit one or two chapters regarding the religion. But your answer really helps! thanks a lot.

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    2. Danny, thanks for your questions! It's great to see a dialogue going on here. Part of what this blog is about is sharing tips with other writers. For my part, I think if we can put ourselves in the reader's shoes and get a sense of how something we write may come across, it's much easier to figure out what's preachy versus what isn't. Bryan's ideas are helpful because if we can see the characters living their lives, it's much more interesting and believable. Don't be afraid to make your MC and other characters flawed. No human being is perfect, so if yours characters are flawed but still striving for big ideals, your readers will want to root for them. And if your bad guys have positive qualities, your readers will feel sad at their failures. So, realistic characters living realistically can really help keep your story from being too preachy.

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