I read a few science fiction and fantasy writer’s blogs. As I mentioned a few days ago, most of them suck.
Jennifer put out a call on her blog for guest posts, and I thought a swap made sense. Her submission is actually more interesting and more appropriate than I would have guessed: it touches on a lot of points that I consider quite important, and usually religion and moral codes are pretty far from the minds of most speculative fiction authors outside of those are the far right end of the spectrum. Now, I don’t find crypto-fundamentalist reactionaries any more beyond the pale than I find vegan lesbian separatists, but it’s nice to also hear about ethics and mores once in a while from a perspective that lies within the bell curve.
Religion and ethics are part of the human condition, and they belong in speculative fiction. Fiction needs realistic characters and real people use a lot more tools than Boolean algebra and Bayesian statistics to make sense of the human condition.
Without further ado, over to Jennifer:
I write books about religion. And you know what? You do too. It’s not a very fashionable topic, and chances are you went, “What the heck? No I don’t,” as soon as you read those words, but I’m sorry to break it to you. No matter what genre you choose, you must write characters that each have a code, an ethos, a set of rules that cause her to hope for this and despise that, walk this way and abhor anyone who doesn’t follow. In other words? Yep. A religion.
This is especially true in fantasy and other speculative fiction, where good and evil are the deep, foundational bones of any good saga. You can’t have a plot without a conflict, and you can’t have a conflict without people picking sides. There are the good guys and the bad guys, the good guys who make stupid choices and end up on the wrong side of morality, and the bad guys who occasionally dip their toes into the pool of good intentions.
You probably don’t call it a religion. Or maybe you do, and you condemn your characters for rigidly believing in a god they’ve never seen, and an outdated set of morals that compel them into doing things that no rational atheist would ever consider. An overtly religious character is often marked out as evil and greedy, or mocked, or sacrificed, or questioned by your more modern thinkers who introduce him to an Enlightenment-era logic that opens up his mind to a whole new world.
And that’s an extraordinarily anachronistic thing to do. Because besides the fact that every character has his or her own personal religion bound up in the choices she makes and the motivations of some force larger than herself, the idea of anyone being a true atheist in any sort of medieval-inspired, pre-modern society is simply bad history.
There have always been gods, and lots of them. Big ones, and little ones, and the ones that faded from consciousness as civilizations ebb and wane. There are gods of the hearth, gods of wheat and barley, gods of love and wisdom and cruelty, wine and storms and seas and the fish that escape the nets. There are the gods you bribe and the ones you hope will turn a blind eye to your little sins. Gods that seem human, and gods that seem anything but. Gods of blood and war, of the madness of battle, and the sweet joy of joining the departed in the glorious halls of the afterlife.
They are the gods of ordinary things, and up until about four hundred years ago, they ruled every breath you took and every dream you could muster.
Why does it matter? Why have your hero pour a few drops of his mead onto the hearthstone before taking his first sip? Because in his reality, not making that little sacrifice would mean bad luck while he stayed in that house. And a smidge of bad luck from a little petty god could be the difference between surviving his next fight and his sword sticking in the scabbard.
We call it superstition, but to the pre-modern mind, it was just how it was. Mischief was caused by bored sprites. That bowl of milk on your doorstop would prevent the faeries from killing off your cattle, and a painfully cramped muscle was the work of elfshot. They had no other way of organizing the world around them, and that is a fundamental difference between the way we think and the way our ancestors lived. That’s what marks out an authentic universe from a modern meditation on what it would be like if we all rode dragons to work.
You can call it silly magical thinking if you want. Of course some of it is: science has indeed proven that charlie horses are not caused by elves. But if you want to write a fantasy that is more of a reality, consider those ordinary gods. Consider those codes of honor and ethics guided by the unseen world of the divine, which controlled so many of those marvelous, unfathomable things that we now attribute to chemistry, evolution, and astronomy. Those codes controlled your place in the world, and your heavenly reward was based on your adherence to your place in society, to its rituals and reasons, and was judged by all those gods.
Religions are about more than fancy robes, rituals, books, and incense. They’re about making sense of life, and about finding a niche to slip into, turning the world a comforting black and white – or at least explaining away the gray. And there was so much gray in the world before science, where death was swift and unpredictable, and the rain clouds controlled your fate. Next time you sit down to write, try to shift your thinking and draw out those patches of mystery. Turn to the little gods, and let them speak. I promise you, it’ll change the way you think about creating a fantasy world, and might even explain a few things about your own.