Blog Archives

Faith and Fiction: Where Does Religion Fit?

The great characters from the Ramayana...a thousand years in the future!

Christian Fiction is the only type of religious fiction that has its own distinct section in any given bookstore.  However, it is not the only religious fiction on the market.  I have read quite a bit of fiction from a few different religious perspectives, and most of them have similar difficulties; similar questions that any author has to answer.  The first, and probably most important, of these questions is, ‘How much theology do I sacrifice for the sake of story?’

This question has many answers, for instance Frank E. Perreti has a disclaimer in the front of at least some of his novels (I haven’t read all of his work) that the theology of the story represented within is distinctly altered from orthodox Christianity.  On the other hand the Shakti line of Virgin Comics (featuring the comics Devi, Sadhu, and Ramayana 3392 A.D.) focuses on retelling the Hindu myths in a modern context and, as far as I have been able to tell, stays true to Hindu belief.  So, when we ask this question each author must decide for themselves how much theology can be sacrificed, or ignored, for the sake of the story.

That being said, there are a few caveats that must be addressed.  First if you, as the author, do not have a clear understanding of the theology of your religion then you cannot effectively decide what can be sacrificed for the sake of your story and what cannot.  As I write this I am watching the end of the 5th season of Supernatural, and it strikes me that this is an excellent example of what I am talking about.  In the 4th and 5th seasons the writers of Supernatural venture into the murky world of Christian mythology.  However, it is obvious to anyone viewing that these writers have no clear concept of what orthodox Christians believe.  Because of this all angels become brothers, with God as their father; God becomes an absentee father; and Death becomes older and more powerful than God (who will eventually die).  The writers, I have no idea what their religious affiliation might be, have decided to sacrifice some of the central tenants of Christian Orthodoxy in order to tell their story.  So, you get to decide how closely your work will follow your religious orthodoxy, but first you need to understand your religious orthodoxy.

Sam and Lucifer face off...that's right folks...Lucifer has a potbelly.

The second caveat is this, if you are going to decide how much theology can be sacrificed for the sake of your story…you must have a story worth telling.  This is not to say that all religious fiction is bad, far from it, but if you don’t have a story worth telling then there is no point in sacrificing any orthodoxy in order to tell your story.  So, how can you tell whether or not you have a story worth telling?  The simple answer is, ask.  Find people that are honest, critical, and willing to hurt you (not eager by the way) and ask them if you’re story is worth telling.  If it is they’ll tell you that it is.  If it’s not, well, they’ll tell you that too, and then you can go back and rework your story until it is worth telling.

The last thing I’m going to say about this issue is that you should first ask yourself how much theology you CAN sacrifice for your story, and then ask yourself how much theology you MUST sacrifice for your story.  For instance, a Christian may very well be willing to sacrifice a strict, orthodox view of the short day creation for the sake of his story…however he may not be willing to sacrifice the doctrine of the divinity of Christ for his story.  A Buddhist might be willing to sacrifice the specifics of Moksha for his story, but not be willing to sacrifice the central tenants of Brahman and Atman.  Whatever the case may be, first you must decide how much of your theology you are willing to sacrifice.  Then you can decide how much of a sacrifice the story requires.  If the story requires a greater sacrifice than you are willing to make then you need a new story.  However, if you decide how much theology you must sacrifice, before deciding how much you can sacrifice then you are likely to wind up with a story that makes you, and others, uncomfortable.

I think this picture is pretty self-explanatory.

The second question we have to ask is this, ‘How much faith can I put into my story without making it trite and ridiculous?’ The answer to this question is difficult at best.  Anyone who reads religious fiction, whether it be Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or Islamic, has read something that is just ridiculously over the top.  How do we avoid turning our deeply held religious beliefs into pandering fictional dogma that makes people roll their eyes?…at best.

The first step is to tell the truth.  We all believe, probably strongly, that whatever we believe is the truth.  However, there is no religion in the world that is filled with perfect people, and there is no religion in the world that is filled with perfectly wicked people.  No matter what they believe (or whether or not those beliefs are true) people are still people, with all the hopes, dreams, desires, strengths, and flaws that make up any person.  If you are a Christian writer and every Christian in your story is a kind, caring, wonderful person who just loves everyone and only wants the best…then something is wrong.  In the same vein if you are an atheist writer and every Christian in your story is a rabid jerk who uses God as an excuse to commit horrible crimes…then something is wrong.  Both of these people exist in any given religion, but neither makes up the entirety of any religion.  As a Christian I have met fellow Christians that I love and respect.  I have also met fellow Christians that I can’t stand.  On top of this I have met Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Muslims that I love and respect.  I’ve also met Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Muslims that I can’t stand.  Be honest with your characters and show people for what they are, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The second step is to make sure that you are representing what your religion actually believes.  Unlike my fellow writers on this board, I am not a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia.  One of the primary reasons is this; in Lewis’s series good people get saved and bad people get killed.  While you do see a few people who make mistakes and are redeemed, one of the overriding messages in the series is that God doesn’t want bad people.  When I look at the great heroes of Christianity: Moses (Coward, Murderer), David (Violent man of blood, Murderer, Adulterer), Samson (Had too many problems to list), Jephthah (Brigand, Killer, Blackmailer), Paul (Murderer, Persecuted the Church), etc; none of them fit well into The Chronicles of Narnia…or at least not as the heroes.  If you are writing religious fiction make sure that you are representing what your religion actually believes.  For instance I recently read a manuscript by a Christian author in which the main character was unbelievably virtuous.  When I pointed this out to the author he responded that, ‘I wanted to show that she’s the kind of person that would be chosen by God.’  However, when we read the Christian scriptures we see that God chooses the weak, the foolish, and the flawed.  In the Christian scriptures God chooses these people to work through so that there may be no doubt that it is him working through them.  The author’s choice to represent an excessively virtuous person a ‘the kind of person that would be chosen by God’ does not fit within the great themes of Christianity…that’s a problem.

The third step is, perhaps, the hardest for many religious people (I know it often is for me).  Stop trying to defend your religion and start showing it.  Let’s face it, whether you believe in Yahweh, Allah, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahman, Buddha, Amaterasu, or the Giant Spaghetti Monster, they can take care of themselves.  Either 1) They do exist and are powerful, cosmic beings, and don’t need you to babysit them; or 2) They don’t exist and you probably shouldn’t be placing trust in them anyway.  We are all convinced that our beliefs are true, and we all feel a need to prove that they are true.  However, if God exists he doesn’t need us to defend him.  Stop trying to protect whatever god you believe in (or don’t, as the case may be) and start showing your beliefs.  This is what I love about the Buddhist and Hindu fiction that I’ve read.  The writers don’t try to defend what they believe, they don’t argue about whether or not it is true, they just assume it is.  Especially as writers of fiction, everyday we ask people to accept things that we know aren’t true for the sake of the story.  I mean, my Avnul stories have people that live a thousand years and lizards that talk.  Brian’s Meg stories are about a teenage girl that jumps between universes to face down giant cyborg tyrants.  If we can ask people to accept things that we, ourselves, don’t believe for the sake of the story…why do we feel like we have to prove something we do believe?  Let your beliefs be a part of the story instead of trying to make them a part of the story.  Trust me, if you really believe something it’ll find a way in.

Advertisements

Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part VII: What’s the Difference?

That's gotta be annoying!

All bad guys aren’t the same, though they do all have certain similarities.  When we’re talking about the demons, monsters, and ghosts that populate our fantasy worlds one of the things we have to ask is ‘what’s the difference?’

If you remember way back in the first post I did in the series I discussed some of the ancient mythology surrounding various views of the demonic.  Many of these creatures could be viewed as demons or monsters interchangeably.  For instance the Indian Raksha, or Rakshasa, could be considered a monster, a demon, or (at times) a benevolent spirit.  The evil Raksha, Ravana, who stars as the villain of the Ramayana, began his life as a devout sage.  In fact, according to the mythology, the great power which makes him such a devastating opponent is a blessing from the gods for the services he has rendered to them.  He is described, in various places, as a devout follower of Shiva and a disciple of Brahma.  However, by the time we see Ravana in the Ramayana he has been corrupted by his own power, injustices done to him and his kin, and his greedy desires.

Even though in mythology there is a great deal of confusion between the three categories, in much modern fantasy there is a distinct difference between demons, monsters, and ghosts.  Usually these differences can be classified in three ways:

Whaaaaaaaag!

Origins:  These three types of creatures normally have very different origins.  Demons are usually either fallen or evil gods and their servants (Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, Demon Wars, Exalted), creatures from another plane of existence (Forgotten Realms, Malazan Book of the Fallen, Another Fine Myth), or the fallen servants of God or the gods (Demon: The Fallen, Marvel Comics, Mercy Thompson Series).  Although both Glen Cook and Steven Erikson mix gods, demons, and extremely powerful human sorcerers into the same bag to some degree.

Monsters, on the other hand, are normally homegrown, self-perpetuating species that could have any number of origins.  Some are natural (Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Mercy Thompson Series), while others are created (The Lord of the Rings, Anne Rice’s Vampires, Frankenstein, Mistborn Trilogy), and others are cursed (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, many Werewolf stories).

Ghosts generally have one of three origins.  Either they are the souls of the unquiet dead (Supernatural, Hamlet, The Haunting of Hill House), they are magically created animate beings that mimic those who were once living (Avnul, Supernatural: Hell House), or they are the lower soul of man (or Hun) that escapes when a man dies and his higher soul (or Po) escapes to the afterlife (Exalted, Legend of the Five Rings).  These differences in origin can be used to identify various aspects of your wicked creatures, or you can combine them  (such as the suspected Demon Ghost that appears in the Dresden Files).

Burn, baby, burn!

Power: Demons, monsters, and ghosts all have widely varying levels of power.  However, they have a lowering order of magnitude (demons, then monsters, then ghosts).  For instance, in fiction, demons usually wield great (sometimes god-like) power and are often immortal (Demon Wars series, Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, Malazan Book of the Fallen), though they are at times limited or almost human (Another Fine Myth, Malazan Book of the Fallen).

Monsters, on the other hand, normally have a level of power that is comparatively close to human (Forgotten Realms, Mercy Thompson Series, Mistborn Trilogy, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit).  Some monsters, such as dragons, may be much more powerful than humans but are still bound by mortality (The Spear Wielder Trilogy, The Hobbit, Elven Bane and Elven Blood).

Ghosts are generally powerless outside of specific circumstances (which may be defined by location, time, or the actions of their victims among other things), but within those circumstances have substantial power (Poltergeist, Supernatural, The Haunting of Hill House,  A Haunting in Connecticut).  Ghosts usually live within a set of specific rules that define their capabilities, and their ‘lifespan’ (or when and how they can move on or be destroyed).

Intentions:  The intentions of a creature are another useful means by which it can be identified.  Demons often have nefarious intentions to subvert or destroy large portions, or the entirety, of mankind (The Black Company, Demon Wars, Mythborn Trilogy).  Monsters are usually much less grand in their intentions.  The intentions of monsters vary from near human (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Spear Wielder Trilogy) to mindless and instinctual (Mythborn Trilogy, Forgotten Realms).  Many monsters will form very human-like societies and compete with the local human population (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance).  Ghosts, however, are usually motivated by an instinctual drive left over from their previous life and have little, if any, intelligent control over their actions (Legend of the Five Rings, Supernatural, Darkness Falls, The Grudge).

Yup, he doesn't look friendly.

These three categories can commonly be used, both in your reading and in your writing, to identify different types of creatures.  Now, obviously, within these categories there is a lot of room for movement and originality, and some writers get away with combining categories if they can do it in a believable way.  You could, for example, have an expansive underworld (Exalted) in which ghosts live very much like humans and are plagued by the ghosts of monstrous creatures.  Alternatively you could have a world in which some monstrous or demonic race is dominant, but haunted by the ghosts of the humans they slaughtered to gain control of their world.  There are a great many possibilities for originality both within, and between, these different types and styles of creatures.  Use them well.

*****************************************

Among The Neshelim: My first novel, Among the Neshelim, is now available from Smashwords here, and Amazon here. Print copies are not yet available, but will be soon.

Among the Neshelim

by

Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?

Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part I: Unleash the Beast

  • Demons are often used in fantasy writing, sometimes well and sometimes poorly.
  • Examining actual, historical, beliefs about demons in the mythology of various religions can be very helpful in deciding how to use them in our stories.
  • In historical belief systems demons are always connected with religion.
  • In historical belief systems demons vary greatly in power, cunning, ability, and appearance.
  • In historical belief systems demons almost always live on earth rather than on their own planes of existence.
  • In historical belief systems demons do not age but in some they can be killed.
  • Be careful of a few, basic, pitfalls in writing demons such as making them too static or dumb, or making them too powerful for your heroes to realistically overcome.

Sure, it's just a wall...that wants to eat you!

Let me first say that I’m not done with my series Social Commentary In Fiction, just taking a break.  I’ll probably be interspersing that series with this one just to keep myself interested.  Those who have been reading for a while will remember my series on Villains.  Being that I love the bad guys this time I’d like to take a look at the variety of supernatural wickedness that you might put into your fantasy and the way in which you use them.  I’d like to start off by talking about demons, which I see used often in fantasy, and often used poorly.  Many times demons are portrayed as little more than the thugs or spree killers* of the magical world, lots of power but very little brain.  It seems to me that, if a creature is thousands of years old and incredibly powerful it’s not likely to be a thug…thugs tend to have short lifespans.  So what are demons and how can/should they be used in your fiction.

When looking at beliefs about demons in the real world a few things may be noted, first of all demons are religious in nature.  In every instance demons are intimately related with gods, sometimes they are the servants of a god or the gods (e.g. Shintoism, Taoism, and Buddhism all recognize ‘demons’, an english translation of a wide variety of words, as spirits which serve the gods in some fashion or even as minor gods themselves.  In these cultures demons may be wicked, beneficent, or ambivalent depending on their current task, associations, and needs).  Other times they are gods themselves (e.g. Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and various Mesopotamian religions recognize ‘demons’ as evil, wicked, or chaotic gods who are opposed by the benevolent gods.  Oftentimes these beings are not necessarily evil in a moral sense but representative of the natural and chaotic world as opposed to the order imposed by human civilization.  So those supernatural entities who support civilization become gods while those supernatural entities who oppose civilization become demons).  Those who are familiar with western religion, which includes most American and British fantasy authors, recognize demons as the morally evil opponents of God or the gods (e.g. The Christian idea of Lucifer and his demons, which is where the word ‘demon’ gets its wicked connotations**, the frost giants of Norse mythology or the titans and children of Echidna in Greek mythology, though these last are arguable).

I told you he looks weird.

Secondly demons in the real world vary greatly in power, ability, cunning, and appearance, among other things.  Taking all of these views of demons together they can range from nearly powerless (grass or dust spirits from eastern religions) to equal in every way to the chief god of their pantheon (Tiamat from Mesopotamia, Angra Mainyu from Zoroastrianism).  They range from devestatingly beautiful (Lucifer) to quite ugly (Oni, originally, were described at 10-12 foot tall red-skinned giants with either one or two horns and grotesque faces) to gelatinous (While Tiamat is often called a dragon when the actual descriptions of her are read she sounds more like an amorphous mass of…well…gelatin which shapes itself at will) to odd (in the Ramayana the Raksha*** which the hero, Rama, must slay is described as being ten feet tall with ten heads, and ten arms, though sometimes he is portrayed in pictures and statuary as having as many twenty and as few as two).  Some are considered to be wise beyond human understanding (Lucifer is a good example of this, as is Angra Mainyu) others are quite single minded (Oni were pretty much content to raid villages in Japan and eat the farmers) while others are…well, drunk is one word that comes to mind (like the Norse gods their enemies, the frost giants, spent most of their time inebriated…actually, given how much time both sides spend drinking, it’s kind of a wonder any warring actually gets done).

Thirdly demons almost always live on earth, the only exceptions I know of are the Norse frost giants (who live in Jotunheimr, one of the nine worlds) and the celtic fae (who often do reside in the world but are sometimes considered to have their own world of Faerie, which is sometimes considered to be literally under the earth and sometimes considered to be elsewhere).  However in Christian, Mesopotamian, Oriental, Greek, Egyptian, Native American, etc. mythology the wide variety of demons to be found all live on the earth, under the earth, or in the sky.  They may often go back and forth between being ethereal and physical and sometimes make small pocket worlds for homes which exist within the physical world (for instance in Japanese mythology some spirits live in grass and river filled plains that exist at the bottom of wells or burrows under trees).  Often these creatures are considered to make their own ‘worlds’ either in the sky (see the early Shinto mythology****) or under the earth.

From fire I am born with REALLY spikey shoulders!!!!

Fourth and last demons do not age but in some religions they can be killed.  For instance in many animistic or polytheistic religions both demons and gods may die by violence or poison.  In Shintoism, Hinduism, ancient Egyptian religion, and Norse mythology there are examples of both gods and demons being killed (though their existance normally continues in the underworld until they are resurrected).

Now let us compare these real world beliefs to some common rules for demons in fantasy.

First of all in many fantasy stories and games demons come from a separate plane of existance.  Thus they may not be killed in the material world but, assuming one can reach their home plane and battle them there, they may be killed on their own plane of existance*****.  Demons must be summoned into the world by a human, they may not enter it on their own.  Demons are always wicked, cruel, and malicious, they love destruction more than anything else.  The last common use is one which I deeply dislike, demons have no ability (or possibly willingness) to change, adapt, or make long term plans.

Now there are rare exceptions to each of these and, with the exception of the last, I think these common stereotypes can be useful for a story, mostly because readers are already so familiar with them.  The last assumption is, however, one that I see often and have never been able to comprehend.  If a being is thousands, much less millions, of years old it is unrealistic to think that it cannot change, adapt, or make long term plans.

Many fantasy authors uses the very Christian idea of demons as the enemies of all that is good, as powerful forces which influence humanity.  However the cunning, intelligence, and adaptability of demons in the Christian comprehension is rarely evident.  Moreover these beings of great power are inevitably overcome by mortals, which also makes little sense.  In real world stories where demons and mortals battle either 1) the mortals have the help/blood and power of the gods in overcoming these demons****** or 2) the demons, while powerful, are on the same essential level as the mortals they battle.

This is a demon from the Dungeons and Dragons Role Playing Game...look at the tiny wings.

So, how should demons be used in our writing.  Well, for one I would say that demons should be used sparingly.  They should be used in a manner which is warrented by the story.  If the demon/demons in your story are going to be overcome by humans then do not make them world altering powers.  Look again at the Ramayana, Ravan was a world altering power who was only defeated by the combined efforts of both gods and men.  In Christian belief Satan and his demons are not defeated by humans, they are defeated by God.  In Norse stories the frost giants are not the enemies of men, they are the enemies of the gods.  I could go on but I think you get the picture, if your demons are immortal entities of world altering power then they need immortal entities of world altering power to oppose them.

On the other hand if your demons are going to be opposed by humans then give them realistic weaknesses.  Look at Japanese and Chinese mythology for some ideas, give your demons physical bodies that can be killed, give them homes in the real world that might be invaded, families or kingdoms that might be threatened.  You could give them a moral understanding to which the hero might appeal.  Demons in Japanese and Chinese mythology, while very different from humans, are at the same time remarkably similar in many ways.

********************************************************************************

* A spree killer is a type of serial killer.  The spree killer is a serial killer who kills large numbers in sprees, sometimes over several days and sometimes at one time.  Spree killers normally have a large number of victims but a very short span of activity as they are quickly caught.

**The word demon comes from the greek daemon or daimon which refers to a spiritual entity, not necessarily good or evil, just spiritual.  The word was used by Christians to refer to those spiritual entities which were the enemies of Yaweh, thus ‘demon’ became synonymous with wickedness.

***A Raksha, also seen as Rakshasa and as Raksa, is a type of Hindu demon which stands somewhere between the gods and men in power.  In some myths Raksha are relatively weak and similar to humans only with the ability to change their shape.  In other myths Raksha are immortal and all but invicible, as is the case in the Ramayana.  The hero, Rama, is the reincarnation of Vishnu (a Hindu god) who then receives help from both human heroes and other gods in order to defeat Ravan, a Raksha of incredible power.

**** My favorite myth is the story of how Susano-o is banished from the sky to the earth for driving Amaterasu, the sun, to hide in a cave the full story can be found in the Kojiki here (Susano-o is translated as His Impetuous Male Augustness, start at section XV).

*****This was popularized by the Dungeons and Dragons line of fantasy role-playing games.  This series separates demons and devils giving each their own plane of existance.  Demons represent the evil forces of Chaos and are drawn from older mythology ranging from Norse, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Egyptian mythology to a few creatures inspired by Chinese and Japanese Mythology.  Devils on the other hand represent the evil forces of law and order and are predominently inspired by Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  In D&D these demons and devils may be summoned into the ‘Prime Material’ or real world where they cannot be killed, only dispersed.  If a hero is to permanently kill one of these creatures the hero must travel to the creatures home plane and battle it there.

******See the Ramayana here or the story of how Susano-o defeats the demon Orochi, here for examples of this.  I love that Susano-o turns the chieften’s daughter, his reward, into a bead for his necklace.

******************************************************

Among The Neshelim: My first novel, Among the Neshelim, is now available from Smashwords here, and Amazon here. Print copies are not yet available, but will be soon.

Among the Neshelim

by

Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?