Thursday, July 6, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #7: Sub-Genre

When placing religion into a fantasy story, sub-genre matters. Different sub-genres expect different levels of depth. A sub-genre valuing action and adventure will interact with religion differently than a literary fantasy, an epic fantasy, or an urban fantasy.

Generally, most speculative fiction genres include characters who have particular beliefs. These beliefs may or may not be religious, but if the belief is held dear, enough, then they behave like religion. These beliefs acts rules for a character. 

In most sub-genres, religion exists at a very literal level, behaving very simplistically. (That isn't a bad thing.) The rules of the religion can be summarized easily enough for the reader to understand, the gods are straightforward, and you can easily predict what sort of situations would give that character pause. Get enough characters with enough beliefs together and you will get conflict. When a conflict comes to a head, a story or story arc will explore aspects of those clashing religious beliefs, and the nature of that clash will contribute directly to the conclusion of the conflict. That literalness can later be read metaphorically, giving the story an added dimension.

In the sword and sorcery genre, religious beliefs often devolve into whose side you are one. The gods may be good and evil, lawful and chaotic, or mechanical and natural. The exact nature doesn't matter. As long as the reader knows who is on what team, and which team that they're rooting for, they'll will be happy. Often, a priest is just a different magic guy, focused more on summoning and otherworldly things. In sword and sorcery, the literal clash of blades and magic stands in for the clash of religions. When the forces of good overcome the forces of evil, good literally wins the day.

Because epic fantasies are larger than other genres, there's more time in the story to engage in religious conflicts, exploration, and explanation. Because there's so much more attention paid to world building, religion has many more opportunities to show up in the world. Religion isn't just beliefs, it's buildings, festivals, locations, and groups. Religion almost always shows up in politics, as a reason for action and as factions vying for power.

Literary fantasy takes religion to its most complex places. Because literary fantasy pays so much more attention to a character's inner journey, the meanings and symbols used in that story become extraordinarily important. Similes and metaphors matter. Therefore, anything that conveys these symbols and meanings becomes a critical tool to the story. Religion is one such powerful tool. In this context, religion becomes the key to understanding every level of the story, because the story makes the most sense when read against these religious meanings.

In contrast, science-fantasy makes no assumptions that gods are real. However, that doesn't mean that religion or religious-like beliefs are not parts of the sub-genre. Quite the opposite, most human and alien cultures seem to have beliefs that serve in the place of religion. These ethics shape both good and evil into what they are. Heroes rise over their embracing of friendship, law, freedom, or the Force. Villains rise from greed, revenge, desire, and selfishness. These characters are no more capable of walking away from their ideals than a primitive is able to shake his fear of magic.

In horror, religion is usually subverted. What should be comforting becomes disturbing, what is powerful is shown as ineffective, and what is truth is shown as a lie. The trappings of religion strangle the characters far more than it helps them.

Yet, this isn't the last word. Stories have a way of defying their genre, and writers have a way of delivering surprises. Nuance can fill swords and sorcery just as well as literary fantasy, and religion can fail in epic just as much as in horror. In the end, you as a writer need to decide what's best for your story in your sub-genre.

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