Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Talking Religion & Politics & Writing

By Sean Chercover

If you responded to Marcus’s recent post with a request for “more writing, less politics” – worry not. This may seem like a post about religion and politics, but I assure you, it is not. While cleverly disguised as a post about religion and politics, it is actually a post about building three-dimensional characters. You’ll see...

I feel the urge to toss a little religion in with our political conversation here at The Outfit. So, like the proverbial bull in a china shop...

Check out this survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for their Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. The survey results reveal that the more often (white, Christian) Americans attend church, the more likely they are to support the use of torture by the government.

54% of those who attend church “at least once a week” say that torture can “often” or “sometimes” be justified. Of those who “seldom or never” go to church, only 42% agreed.

Limited in scope, the survey only polled White Evangelical Protestants, Non-Hispanic White Catholics, White Mainline Protestants, and those Unaffiliated With Any Church.

We don’t have enough information to compare with people of other specific faiths or races, but the number for the American population in general is 49%.

And this is fascinating . . . The percentage of each group who say that torture is “often” or “sometimes” justified:

White Evangelical Protestants: 62%
Non-Hispanic White Catholics: 51%
White Mainline Protestants: 46%
Unaffiliated with any church: 40%

I cannot say that I’m surprised, but I am deeply disturbed by this survey.

Speaking of Evangelicals who disturb my head…

I recently came across the now-infamous “gay storm” ad, brought to us by the National Organization for Marriage (And Bigotry). When I first saw it, I thought it was an SNL parody. But no. Just a case of unintentional self-parody:

Is it just me, or do most of the men in that ad seem, uh, kinda gay? Could this be a case of hating the thing you most fear about yourself?

Apparently it isn’t just me, as evidenced by this Colbert Report parody:

I guess it’s obvious that I oppose torture and support gay marriage. And no matter what pretzel-logic I try on, I fail to see how gay marriage threatens my marriage.

More important than my support of gay marriage, however, is my belief that gay people’s relationships are none of my (or the government’s) damn business.

But (and here’s where we come to the writing technique) my opinions and beliefs are not shared by all of the characters I create when I write. In fact, none of the characters I create (including protagonists) share all my opinions. Where would be the fun in that?

So here’s an exercise: Pick a character you are writing and ask yourself… Does s/he believe in God? What kind of God? Which doctrine? And how do these beliefs (or lack thereof) manifest in the words and actions of this character?

I find it a worthwhile exercise. Hope you do too.

(See? It was about writing, after all.)


abbourgoin said...

Fantastic post Sean! It's funny because I was thinking about this very type of character development while writing last night! You opened my eyes to a new angle of thinking on this. Thanks!

I.J.Parker said...

Yes, I relate completely.

For the purpose of my own writing, I have to translate this to another time and culture, but my protagonist is a misfit in his society because he opposes the religious beliefs of the ruling class and because he does not accept superstitions. My assumption is that there have always been non-believers, and that they've made their lives harder by their convictions. It's when their personal convictions come into conflict with their responsibilities to others that things get interesting.

Steerpike said...

Outstanding, Sean.

Here's a question: as writers, do you ever fear that your readers will assume that certain execrable characters in your books are "reflections" of you? I'm thinking about characters who are incredibly racist, or commit sex crimes, etc.

I have always been a little uncomfortable writing such characters because a small voice in my mind says "readers will think that YOU feel that way."

Silly or shared by others?

abbourgoin said...

I think that in fiction, people need to take a step back and realize that it is just that-fiction. As crime fiction writers we all have characters in our heads that are societal deviants but this is all part of the craft. If a reader thinks that these characters are a reflection of the writer, they need only to take a look at who the author really is as a person. From my perspective, everyone in the field is amazingly nice and "Normal" by societal perspective. I think that we are all entitled to our imaginations to create whatever and whomever we feel belongs in a story.

jnantz said...

Wow, Mr. Chercover. Are your shoulders sore? Fingers numb? 'Cause that was a serious reach at the end.

Okay, sorry, I had to. I actually love to give my characters different religious or socio-political ideals. It can make for some great dialogue and conflict, and as long as you don't stereotype, can make for a more well-rounded character. Characters can be more moderate and have less risk of become a cardboard cutout.

Maryann Mercer said...

Since my current protagonists are
1) Bi-sexual and
2) a homeless person
I can honestly say there's a difference between their priorities and mine (although we all tend towards liberality and the 'live and let live' theory.) Still, when I get home from work tonight, I'll do some searching for the details in their make-up. Great post and a good angle way to 'research characters'.

Sean Chercover said...

Thanks guys. Yeah, jnantz, it was quite a reach ... but what the hell - that's why we have arms.

Steerpike - I used to fear it, now I expect it. Can't count how many times I've been taken to task by readers for "my" immorality. Some readers will always see a novel's protag as an extension of the writer. If you want to avoid it (and I'm not sure you should) then give your protag a gleaming white hat - if s/he is the epitome of all things right and proper, then said readers will not ascribe the "immorality" of secondary characters to the writer.

But I don't particularly love reading about such one-note protags, and I sure wouldn't want to write one. Just not my cuppa.

chicago office space said...

Those figures and organized religion scare me. Thanks for posting.

Marcus Sakey said...

Those figures are fascinating. Hard not to get snidely self-righteous about 'em, but I'll try.

Steerpike, in short, yes, I do think about that, and it does happen. But I've gotten past the point where it bugs me. I think you have to.

For one example, in my novel AT THE CITY'S EDGE, which deals with Chicago street gangs, more than one character uses the word "nigger." Some use it casually, some use it hatefully. It's a word I would never personally use, but that doesn't mean it's not out there. Trying to pretend otherwise...well, that seems sort of like what the "Storm is Coming" folks are trying to do.

Hell, in THE DEAD ZONE Stephen King had a character kick a dog to death. Two decades later, he wrote that he still got hatemail about what a horrific act he had perpetrated.

What can you do? If someone can't see the difference between real life and an imaginary character kicking an imaginary dog, well, maybe they're outside the group I need to worry about impressing.

John P said...

That Storm ad was just vile. Bigotry masked as love? Give me a break.

Colbert had it right.

Anonymous said...

Those same church-going folks absolutely loved Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

Tony D'Amato

Meg said...

Just want to say that not ALL Christians are like that, so please, when you see these numbers, don't automatically assume that the Christians you meet fit this category. 48% of us (probably more, since this survey didn't cover everyone) disagree with torture and find it abhorrent and utterly against everything the faith stands for. Many of us care deeply about poverty, are not narrowminded about gay marriage, and see Christianity as a call to social justice.

Not implying anyone here does this, but in the vein of three-dimensional characters (and people) wanted to plug this.

Sean Chercover said...

Certainly, I wouldn't say (or imply) that all Christians support torture. And the stats do not suggest this.

Saying that ALL (insert any demographic here) are (insert anything you like here), is pure bigotry.