Readers have spoken: they want more diversity in fiction. And writers are stepping up, but it can be hard to write about someone who’s different than you. Careful research is the key to avoiding misrepresentation, which causes harm to the very identities being portrayed and creates fallout for well-meaning writers when they’re called out by readers.
For this reason, we’re running a series of posts on avoiding stereotypes in fiction. Written by a diverse cast of talented authors, each post highlights a different people group—the common stereotypes to avoid and how to write those characters realistically. We hope this series arms you with the knowledge and tools to write characters you may have been reluctant to write before—ones that will take your story to the next level.
By: Becca Puglisi
One of the ways human beings are incredibly diverse is in their religious practices. There are over 4,000 organized religions across our planet, and each one has individual sects that espouse slightly (or vastly) different ideas. This makes writing religious characters a bit of a challenge.
Part of the difficulty is that religion means different things to different people. Some have a cursory religious affiliation; they embrace it on specific holy days and adopt some aspects of it, but it may not have much bearing on their day-to-day life. Writing these characters is easier because you can cherry-pick the ways in which their beliefs impact their life, and less consistency is needed.
For others, religion goes deeper, right down to the person’s foundation. It defines them, and as such, will dictate their values, morals, priorities, life choices, how they spend their money and their time—virtually every aspect of their lives. These characters will need significantly more research to identify what they believe and how it will affect their path in the story.
Despite the different religions and vast disparity within these groups, I tend to see the same stereotypes constantly being portrayed. It’s frustrating, because I know from personal experience that most stereotypes are often based in reality; many of us have run into people who fit the cliché. But those stereotypes typically represent a small subset of that people group, and when they become the normal way of portraying those people, we do everyone a disservice.
To that end, I’d like to discuss the tired and over-exposed caricatures I’ve seen so we can avoid them and represent religious folks better. Because of the variety of beliefs and ideals even within the “major” religions, I’ve decided to focus this post on stereotypes that touch on many belief systems (while occasionally referencing Christianity specifically, since that’s the one I’m intimately acquainted with).
The Compensating Zealot
This is the devout character whose religious zeal exists because of a secret they’re trying to hide. Their over-the-top religiosity is used to either distract people from their secret or tip the heavenly scales in their favor. This is a frustrating stereotype because spirituality for many believers is heartfelt, not a smokescreen.
If you’re looking for the genesis behind your character’s devotion, consider one of the many positive reasons people turn to religion. Maybe their beliefs helped them overcome an addiction or survive a difficult stage of life. Possibly, they experienced a miracle and are passionate now about who they’re worshipping. Or perhaps the tenets of their religion encourage them to love and serve others, so they’re doing it—not out of a need to compensate, but because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
The Rabid Proselytizer
This one doesn’t require too much explanation, and if you’ve lived long enough in Western culture, you’ve probably seen it in action. For Christians, it’s the Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone-preaching, bully-you-into-the-arms-of-Jesus evangelist. I’m sure there are varying versions of these characters in other religions whose desire to “save” as many people as possible trumps everything else–including love, respect, and basic courtesy.
This stereotype, like many stereotypes in general, is based in reality. There are people like this. There used to be a lot more. It’s easy to fall back on this cliché because these characters make easy antagonists and scapegoats. But this fringe subset of many religions is just that: the fringe. They’re either the loudest, the most unusual, or the most confrontational, so they get the most attention. But this isn’t the vast majority of religious people.
Research your character’s religion to get a feel for the whole range. Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism…every religion has fundamentalists, progressives, and everything in between, and each subset’s beliefs and practices will differ. As is true for most groups, the people on the fringes don’t typically represent the majority. Carefully research the range of beliefs for your character’s religion, then aim for the middle, and you’re more likely to write the character realistically.
The Culturally Irrelevant Weirdo
Another fringe representation, these are the people who are so entrenched in their religion they have a hard time relating to the rest of the world. They don’t drink, dance, or watch TV. Their clothing looks like it belongs to another century. They might live off the grid, homeschool their kids, and only marry within their religion. They’re so far removed from the real world and the people in it that they have a hard time integrating, and no one takes them seriously.
I don’t know enough about other religions in this regard, so I’ll speak for Christians on this one and say that there is a TON of personal leeway in the Christian life. The Bible doesn’t mention R-rated movies, secular music, slot machines, or martinis, so it’s up to each individual to determine which activities they can partake of while still honoring God. This means that while some Christians won’t participate in some culturally acceptable practices, others will. And even when they do refrain from (or adopt) certain practices, that doesn’t usually make them irrelevant and unrelatable.
The majority of Christians (and other religious people I know) are different in some ways than their non-religious counterparts, but they’re the same in other ways. Drawing them as irrelevant, kooky, or visibly off-kilter just doesn’t reflect most of them in reality.
Get to know people who are part of the religion you’re writing. As you build a relationship with them, ask yourself this question: how are they different? You might find some ways (you believe what?), but chances are, you’ll share a lot of the same interests, character traits, worries and fears, desires, and goals. They believe different things than you and live their lives a little bit differently, but for the most part, they’re people you can talk to, laugh with, and walk through life with. Keep this in mind and fashion your characters after real-life religious people.
An Exception: Some cults and fringe religious movements purposely strive to keep their people insulated and separated from the real world. If you’re writing a character in one of these groups, some of the stereotypes here will be correct.
Lordy, lordy. This one.
Most religions espouse some beliefs that are counter-cultural. In fiction, this translates somehow to a religious character pushing those ideas onto everyone else. The truth is, most religious people have certain dos and don’ts that are part of their life practices that they follow as a way of honoring God and others. It’s personal, so they don’t typically judge people outside of their religion for not adopting those tenets—much like military personnel don’t expect civilians to salute, and someone on a diet doesn’t expect others to eat like they do. It’s simply the way that person is choosing to live their life.
Figure out what your character believes and how it will impact their life, and let them embrace those ideals without expecting everyone else to do the same. They shouldn’t force their choices onto others or try to guilt people into living the way they do. If someone asks why they do or believe certain things, the character should be able to engage in a respectful conversation without judging or minimizing the other person.
The answer to avoiding stereotypes with religious characters is fairly straightforward:
- Talk to real people who share your character’s beliefs. If you don’t know any, put out a call on social media to see if any are willing to talk to you. Find a local place of worship and call them up. Most of them will be happy to answer your questions about their beliefs and clear the air. Then you’ll be armed with facts about your character’s religion rather than just hearsay or what you’ve seen in other fictional accounts.
- Make your religious character well-rounded. Give them a variety of positive attributes and flaws. They’re going to be religious, yes, but they’re going to have other hobbies, talents, and areas of interests that are unrelated. Don’t neglect those other personality aspects, and you’ll save them from slipping into caricatures.
- Know their backstory. Were they always religious? When did it start? What got them into it? Why this religion and not another one? Knowing their history and their reasons in this area will give you a better understanding of who they are at their core. It will also guide you in how big a part of their lives the religion will play.
Other posts in this series:
Discussion is encouraged, but please keep it courteous. Let’s not call out authors for past mistakes, and let’s do keep an open mind. By listening to and respecting each person’s experiences and perspectives, we can better write the stories and characters readers want to see.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.