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I'm having trouble portraying religious, devout characters as protagonists or viewpoint characters. When I try, I get the sense that the reader - not sharing the characters' beliefs - will have trouble accepting the characters' non-rational beliefs and obligations. More crucially, even if he accepts that, "yes, OK, the character believes in this stuff," I think a reader would have trouble ascribing importance to those beliefs in the way that the character himself would.

To put this as bluntly as possible, I want to write about characters who are firmly committed to obeying a set of rules. They don't need to like all the rules. They don't have to find reasons the rules are worthwhile. They certainly don't need or attempt to convince the readers of anything - and probably share their opinion that some of the rules are pointless, or even horrible. But they follow the rules, or try to; they see the rules as being axiomatically important; upholding the rules is a value in and of itself - not just a value among many, but one of the very highest.

I find that this type of character naturally clashes with the reader's expectations of what a character should be doing. And while there are plenty of fictional characters who act in ways most readers would find unwise or outright abhorrent, a good author usually manages to get across the viewpoint, personality, and motivation that explain why the character acts this way - essentially, what is important enough to him to elicit so radical and unusual a reaction.

I haven't seen this done with religiously observant characters. And I don't know how to do it without sounding as though I'm preaching.

Some examples I'd have difficulty with:

  • A person who gives up on the chance for a romantic relationship with somebody whose religion is different than his own.
  • An Orthodox Jew who can't join his friends for meals because their food isn't kosher.
  • A fantasy story focusing on a religious ceremony which is purely ceremonial, and yet is also truly, genuinely important to the character.

I feel as if in all these cases, the reader's own values and beliefs will keep him from feeling invested in the things which are important to the character. (I may be wrong on this! But that's my instinctive response.) If the readers come out feeling the protagonist should get over his beliefs, and focus on "the important things," then I haven't immersed them in the character and what's important to him.

Contrast with viewers wanting to see Rachel and Ross together even if they don't particularly like Rachel and/or Ross, or accepting Dexter's need to murder despite the fact that it's an irrational, arbitrary urge. Usually, when something is important to a character, we can get readers to accept that. We may criticize the character for his priorities and choices, but we'll still care about what's important to him. For some reason, I feel that this doesn't work with a religious character - that the (arguably) arbitrary and immutable nature of his beliefs makes them difficult to accept as significant or worth attention.

How, then, can I portray such a character sympathetically? Examples and examinations of such portrayals are very welcome.

HEAVILY EDITED 7/3/11 for improved focus.

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If your reader is having trouble ascribing importance to a belief, he or she has not fully comprehended that he or she has her own belief system of a sort. –  justkt Mar 7 '11 at 19:32
    
@justkt: Oh, I agree entirely. But I don't think opening my story by quoting you would get the point across effectively enough :) –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 19:37
    
@Standback - you are also presuming a readership that is so unacquainted with devout religious practitioners as to not understand them. This is true of some parts of the world but not others, and probably only in very tiny pockets entirely true. –  justkt Mar 7 '11 at 19:39
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@Standback: what I'm hearing from you is that you are not invested in your character's belief. You want to smack your own character upside the head and say "Get ON with it already! Your religion is arbitrary and not what's important!" If you as the writer can't get into your own character's head and understand hir motives, you will never convince your readers. It sounds like what interests you is a character who follows rules but is hirself not invested in them, and is then tempted to break the rules s/he doesn't really even understand why s/he follows to begin with. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 7 '11 at 20:00
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Consider the possibility that your real problem is the missing development of the character. An atheist becoming religious is interesting. A fanatic becoming an agnostic is interesting. But a believer staying a believer is dull. There is only suspense, if he becomes a disbeliever in the middle and changing back to a believer again (and you show why). –  John Smithers Mar 8 '11 at 9:07
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9 Answers 9

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While you might personally have issues with the three items you listed, calling religious belief arguably arbitrary and irrational and letting that viewpoint seep into your writing is going to make your task very difficult. You yourself need to learn to sympathize with a religious viewpoint first. You don't need to accept it, but you need to believe that someone can be fully using their mental, emotional, physical, and other capacities and still believe in God/gods/reincarnation/the spirit world/what have you. If you can't get yourself past this issue, you should reconsider the character.

I'll walk through the three situations that you listed as difficult and describe how I write the character:

A person who gives up on the chance for a romantic relationship with somebody whose religion is different than his own.

First of all, don't make this an easy, obvious choice. You could write this character many ways. Take a conservative Christian character, perhaps, who winds up in a romantic relationship with a committed agnostic who, while not opposed to her beliefs, is confident that he will never share them. The Christian might remember days in her self-assured youth where she could never imagine herself dating (or, to be very conservative, courting) anyone but someone who shared her views on God and Christ. Then she might remember being totally bowled over by the experience of this guy - all the amazing things about him. Make the decision agony. At the same time, you have to make God and her belief in him compelling. Show what she loves about her faith - the fact, perhaps, that she can rest in God working all circumstances for good in her life and his unconditional acceptance of her. If you were to write such a conservative Christian character, you would need to find out what Christians love about their God, or at least their church. You can certainly put in pressure from a legalistic family or church, but while that's realistic it's far less likely to be sympathetic than a young woman who cannot imagine going against what she believes God has told her.

An Orthodox Jew who can't join his friends for meals because their food isn't kosher.

Think about the character Danny in The Chosen. We readers initially see Danny through the unsympathetic viewpoint of Reuven. However as Reuven gets to know Danny, he finds out things that make this character sympathetic - the coldness of Danny's father, the voracious mind Danny has, etc. Reuven even comes to respect Danny's cold, extremely conservative father Reb because of the congregants great love for Reb and the sense that Danny's cold father really loves his son. Chaim Potok, the author, does an excellent job of bringing us inside motivations and showing the cost of following one's beliefs.

So in the case of an Orthodox Jew keeping kosher, make kosher matter. Associate it with good memories of family, tradition, and G-d (to use the Jewish form of respect). Also explain the friendship and make it matter, perhaps more to the Orthodox Jew than to his friends who won't eat kosher for a night to allow him to join in. You can even make this character noble, someone who is true to his values and deserves respect. Make him upright in all areas of his life.

A fantasy story focusing on a religious ceremony which is purely ceremonial, and yet is also truly, genuinely important to the character.

I'm not sure what a purely ceremonial ceremony is as opposed to a regular religious ceremony. Still, let's take an example of Passover. Passover represents G-d's rescue of the children of Israel from Egypt long, long ago. Dig into what it means to the Jewish people and you should be able to make it matter to your readers, as long as you can see why it would matter to a character. Or what about the example of Christian baptism of an adult convert to the faith? Dunking in water or being sprinkled by it doesn't really seem like much on the surface. You have to understand what's behind baptism - the symbolism of dying to self and doing wrong and coming up into new life in Christ where one strives to serve God because he is great and worthy of honor and do right to other people because it's what we ought to do. Baptism represents a very serious milepost in the life of Christians and understanding it will help you significantly.

TL;DR - first you have to be sympathetic with the characters and see both the value of their faith to them and the ways that it motivates them in the world, then you can write them in a sympathetic way.

Example books to read:

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You've got a lot of very nice points here - and a reading list! Joy! Regarding your opening, I should clarify: I'm Jewish Orthodox myself, and I have great respect for religious beliefs across the spectrum. I didn't mean to denigrate believers; quite the opposite, I'd like to see them better represented - but I presented the worst-case approach I think a lot of readers will instinctively hold. That's the approach I feel is causing my problem - not my own view. –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 19:46
    
@Standback, thanks for clarifying. The question as I read it tripped something that made me wonder with talk of irrational, etc. –  justkt Mar 7 '11 at 19:48
    
I actually took great care to call religion non-rational, rather than irrational - I think that's a fair description. (But, yeah, might be too close for comfort on a casual scan.) As for arbitrary... that I stand by. I just don't see that as entirely a negative point. :) –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 19:49
    
@Standback - as someone who has studied theology extensively, I have trouble seeing it as non-rational, I guess. And as far as arbitrary - I could concede the point. But that's not the issue at hand, of course! –  justkt Mar 7 '11 at 19:50
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@Standback - in light of our discussion, if I were to revise my first paragraph it would be to tell you to write your characters boldly assuming your readers can understand and sympathize with them. I think that will most help convey the passion you know their beliefs can create. Be bold! –  justkt Mar 7 '11 at 19:56
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My opinion is that if you want to express the view point of a "eccentric" character, and not just present it, the only way to achieve it is to think in a "subjective" way. It's hard to express a subjective element in a objective light IMO, so just ignore your feelings and find that sweet spot between truth and lies that makes it stick but not stink. Then when writing, pretend that's absolute truth. You don't have to show miracles in a story to somehow make some imaginary gods semi-believable in a work of fiction. If you can't, then I'd have to guess the beliefs of your character are too shallow, or your setting and background for your character needs more work.

The cases I faced were not (directly) religious characters, so take it with a grain of salt, but it may still work for you. My advice though is that when in doubt on how to write, the solution is usually: write until you get it right. You can only theorycraft these things so much… and even then it's only useful if you can make the theory work.

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I'll admit outright that it's late and so I won't read all of the rigorous Q&A presented here. However, I would like to present you with a few examples, off the top of my head, that may be of use to you in your quest:

  1. First thing that pops to mind is "The Slave". I'll assume you've read it, since if you hadn't it is an inconceivable wrong you must right at once. The main character faces the exact same dilemmas you are talking about, and the book is beautifully written and extremely moving (sobs sobs) - even a sarcastic feminist heretic such as I couldn't force her own set of beliefs on the character, and wouldn't expect him to act any other way, tragic as it was.

  2. Mad Men is a good example of characters having different sets of beliefs and ideas about life than our own, and still being totally believable in their actions - even if those are sometimes quite terrible by our standards.

  3. Also, URGH! I've looked for half an hour for another very specific story and I'm trying to remember it's name, or the author, or where I came across it. But it was also by one of those Jewish-Polish authors, so it's a good thing to brush up on some of those. These dilemmas are their bread and butter.

  4. Something I'll bet you hadn't come across. The anime series Kino's Journey. A very good series, really. Kino travels between fictional cities, and each city has a strange culture or tradition of it's own. Explaining will ruin it. Go find a DVD somewhere.

  5. Murakami has plenty of characters that are terribly obsessed with cleanliness, order and cooking, to the point of those becoming rituals. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, maybe. (I must reluctantly admit I hadn't finished that book. boo-hoo on me).

  6. Look at "In the Penal Colony". Though that might be taking it a notch too far.

As a rule, though, a character undergoing a process is more interesting than a character staying in the same spot. Someone who decides not to have a complicated romantic relationship isn't as interesting as someone who has it and regrets it. But I guess if it's not really the main or only focus in the story, it won't be a problem. The ceremony example is actually quite interesting, btw. I'd read that story.

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Try an experiment: take one aspect of that person's faith and go into ridiculous emotional detail. Maybe have flashbacks. Maybe take everything slowly. Obsess over that aspect until it is itself a reflection of the character. It's possible that once you've established that one small facet, everything else can be seen through that perspective even if you don't go into too much detail, and the reader will have more respect for the character.

Although probably a bit more juvenile than you're aiming for (and in sequential art form as opposed to written text), your description immediately brings to mind for me "Hereville" by Barry Deutsch (can be read here: http://www.hereville.com/webcomic/ ). At one point there's an interlude where everything stops for Shabbat, including the plot itself. It' rather well-done.

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Interesting predicament, I agree with the answer above that you might face difficulties in realising a justifiably, strict religious character if you don't identify with the religion yourself at all. It will no doubt affect your writing if you yourself find the beliefs the character holds with such esteem as "arbitrary and immutable".

Understanding what, in the world around us, drives people to hope/believe that there is something more than this is key. Immerse the reader with the optimism and promise of divinity and describe any deviation from this in the harshest light possible, but make the internal conflict clear as to not completely alienate the reader. Initially most non-religious readers will find your character hard to identify with but bring his humanity and flaws into contact with his pursuit of divinity; most readers will then, hopefully, begin to understand and identify with what motivates your characters choices.

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For an excellent example of a sympathetic and devout character, I'd recommend The Book Of The Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

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I'll look it up. Anything particular about the book you can point to? Any thoughts on how he makes it work well? –  Standback Mar 8 '11 at 9:17
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Good question. I would also tie the religious / spiritual side in with the social aspect, creating a wider "common ground" for people to relate to who do not necessarily relate to the belief system. As a matter of fact, "going against ones' religious beliefs" is generally not very far from "going against the social system one was raised in", and stressing the social aspects may make it easier for a wider range of readers to deal with. Of course people from the same background will relate to the character that much more (Orthodox Jews as per your example). It's probably unavoidable. But if you do a good job of portraying the protagonist's wants, conflicts and emotions - and if you are careful to ensure that the character is not defined ONLY by his / her religious beliefs, but by a wide range of traits which will create understanding and empathy - there should be no problem in getting the message across loud and clear.

Would love to read some of your stuff, incidentally.

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sigh I'd love to write some of it. –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 19:35
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I don't know what specific issues you ran into; nevertheless, general advice I can give you is: imagine you're writing a person with foreign customs.

You have to state the beliefs (implicitly or explicitly, but they have to be noticeable), and possibly their reason or origin.

  • Portraying the characters as feeling uncomfortable around situations that run against their beliefs helps stating them.
  • Having someone get curious as to the character's behavior will give it a chance to state their reasons, and their attitude while talking or rejecting the activities that go against whatever they believe in will give them depth.

A quick example:

Nelaf was led to the tent used as dining room. So far her travel was faring well, even though it was too early to say so. She was glad she'd been taken in by this fine caravan.

She felt an odd smell, too much like charred flesh. Her stomach revolted as she tried to detect the source. Whoever had sustained such a harsh burn had to receive healing urgently.

"Wait!", her escort called, but the urge to stop the suffering was to great. She ran into the kitchen, following the smell, and what she saw made her burst to tears: rows upon rows of animals were being roasted.

"How could you?", she screamed. She was surrounded by monsters. Who could kill a brother and eat it? Nature provided food... why would anyone commit such cruelty? It was inhuman.

The wanton massacre committed by these men made them unholy: who could kill their mother and live with it? The laughter and talk from the dining hall only made everything worse. She had to get away from these people.

It is very hasty, but the basic theme is there: you can portray it as heavily as needed. And work on it, because it might sound exaggerated until you polish it.

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Thanks for the response! Note that I don't have any trouble explaining what the beliefs are. And in the example, you've kind of taken the easy way out - assuming that the character provides her own justification for the religious edicts, identifying with them completely (in this case, to the point of physical repulsion) and able to eloquently rationalize them. I don't find this solution satisfying - nor very realistic. Not because it's exaggerated; because the character is so firmly identified with the edicts that they're no longer restrictions - just formalizations of her own beliefs. –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 19:22
    
I've heavily edited the original question; hopefully I've made clear the focus I'm interested in. –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 19:23
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Show, don't tell.

If the religion is that important to the character, then it will be apparent in almost every aspect of the person's life.

Physically:

  • Clothing: men and women (and don't forget the Mormon "garment")
  • Hat/turban/skullcap/scarf/veil
  • Hair: length (that is, when is it allowed to be cut), style, hidden under a wig, hidden under veil
  • Face: for men, beards/no beards; for women: how much can be shown

Food taboos:

  • Various animals are or are not allowed
  • Mixing meat and dairy (I know one Jewish woman who couldn't be bothered to figure out meat vs. dairy so she always ate vegetarian for lunch at work)

Behavior:

  • Resting on the sabbath (Orthodox Jews can take this to staggering lengths. "Not operating machinery" can be parsed to "turning a doorknob is okay, turning a deadbolt is not.")
  • Attending services
  • Some people attend services daily, not just weekly
  • Crossing oneself when passing a church
  • Tithing
  • How does the person swear?
  • How does the person speak? (I've known fundamentalists who, without exaggeration, manage to work the name of Jesus into every third sentence.)

House décor:

  • Pictures of saints/popes/Jesus/Mary etc. on the walls
  • Crucifix/Mezzuzah/Buddha

...You get the idea. Once you've established that this is A Religious Person, and if you write about the varying rituals from a kind perspective rather than a mocking one, your reader will grasp the importance of the religion to the character, and will understand why s/he does whatever it is you're trying to do.

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Thanks :) I have less trouble portraying the rituals and customs - a lot of the beauty of this is that they are everywhere, and can give the character a very unique flavor. What I have difficulty with is getting a reader invested in the character's belief - and frankly, I'm unconvinced that detail and ubiquitousness is enough to get a reader invested. I think my original question was poorly focused, and I've edited it to make clearer (I hope) what I'm looking for. –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 19:34
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@Standback: Honestly, I'm not sure why you're having an issue with this. You are describing really good drama. Here's a character who has this inherent conflict, and has to choose between what s/he thinks is not merely Right but Divinely Right, and what s/he wants in hir heart. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 7 '11 at 19:57
    
Well... I guess I find Divinely Right inherently nondramatic. Or perhaps: unconvincingly, excessively melodramatic. Um... possibly both? I fully confess I might be way off on this whole thing. –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 20:03
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Yeah, I think this is really a case of YMMV, because I would think the struggle to choose betwen Divinely Right and Mr./Ms. Right is about as dramatic as it comes. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 7 '11 at 22:21
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