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.