Oh My God! The Writing of Belief Systems in Fictional Novels

god and writing kim alexander

How does a belief system and God factor in when writing fictional novels and deciding what your characters believe in or if they believe in a higher power at all? The Sand Prince Author Kim Alexander digs deep and shares how she handles the topic of faith and religion as the writer.

So you’re blazing away at your manuscript when suddenly–A shot rang out! But it was a shot from a magic wand, or a demon’s hand, or a unicorn’s horn because you’re writing a fantasy novel, and it was probably more of a radiant blast of light, or concentrated beam of fire or something. Anyway.

A shot rang out! Oh my God!

Ah, there’s your problem. What does your character yell, mutter, or gasp if your world doesn’t recognize God as specifically the God of ‘Oh my God’?

We’ve talked about tinkering with time, and books within books, and celebrating holidays that only exist on the page. But it’s pretty clear that if you’re cooking up a world from scratch, there’s going to be a belief system. That certainly true for a large community, and probably true if it’s just one dude on an asteroid. He’s going to talk to someone, isn’t he? At the very least, your characters need something to call out during sex! So before the shot ever rings out, you’ll need to step up, play god, and write the bible yourself.

Now, you probably don’t need to write the whole thing down to the ‘begats’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ (unless you want to) but you should have an idea of what your culture considers sacred. Doesn’t have to be theistic. Maybe the answer is ‘nothing.’ (They probably have really good parties.) Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s knowledge. Maybe it’s a pantheon of snake-headed cat people, carrying a series of ever smaller cat-headed snake people on their shoulders. (I’m gonna use that one in my next book, probably.) But trying to write an imagined world without references to a higher power is not only daunting, it can be a missed opportunity.

Look at the legends of the Greek gods. For some reason, those in particular were taught to every American student without fail, at least during the ’70s and ’80s. They aren’t necessarily better than Native American legends, or Norse, or British, but those were the ones we got. (The sanitized, non-rapey versions, anyway.) Did they make sense? No sir they did not. Women turned themselves into trees to escape unwanted advances (I WISH) and children popped full grown out of their father’s foreheads. Now, apply that to the novel you’re working on. Create a folk mythology. Come up with a creation myth. The culture in your book only wears red on alternate Thursdays and venerates fountain pens. Why? Do your thing and tell a story.

the heron princeHere’s one from my book, The Heron Prince (Amazon Digital, 2016). A demon of the kingdom of Eriis is explaining to a human from Mistra why someone who is considered physically unattractive is so looked down upon.

“…I don’t understand why someone so good should have had such a painful life. I don’t know why everyone called him ugly. He’s beautiful.” Again, Maaya was glad the woman couldn’t see her wipe away tears.

Jaa cocked her head.  “Do you know the story of Aa? It is a story as old as Eriis itself, perhaps older…

At the beginning of us, when there was only fire, Aa came to be aware of itself. And like all alone things, Aa longed to gaze upon another’s face. So Aa lit a new flame as beautiful as its own. And this face, once made, was perfect, the perfect mirror, and it was called Iaa. Even so, Aa was quick to passion and just as quick to boredom, so it created another, hot new flame, called Oaa. And these two flames together were the first demons and the first Eriisai. But they shrank from the blazing heat of Aa; they turned away and looked to gaze only at each other. And from their flame, we are all descended. Now Aa, in a rage, decided to create the perfect opposite of itself, one so ugly it would never seek its own visage and never turn away. And so Aa created Tr, and that was the first human. But even Tr grew exhausted under Aa’s constant gaze, and Tr escaped Eriis and made a whole world as ugly as itself.”

“Tr. Mistra,” said Maaya. “That’s um…okay.”

“So you see, all of us on Eriis consider ourselves three steps from divinity. From perfection. And anything which strays from that will not be celebrated.”

Maaya looked down at Rhuun. “He strays pretty far from that.”

So my demon characters get to justify their snobbish behavior and possessiveness as scripture, and we learn something about why my ugly prince has had such a tough go of it. (And why the demons think all humans are butt-ugly.)

Because my demons are magic users, it was important that they know the source of their power. When they thank their god, it’s for something concrete, not for making the extra point. (Although that’s good, too.) Since their magic comes as naturally as breathing, they tend to be pretty cavalier about it, kind of like we expect the lights to come on when we flip the switch. And also like us, they think their power is derived from the landscape itself. (Like we think electricity hangs out in the walls of our houses. Science!)

It’s also important to remember, as I’ve said before, that not everything winds up on the page. You don’t need to include all your ‘shalt nots’, or really any of them–unless a character breaks a rule. Then you get to pelt them with rocks! Or snakes! Oh my God!

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