Spiritual belief is a curious thing to consider as an author. The fact appears to be that many people have a spiritual belief. Once you start thinking about this you are inevitably drawn into also considering how strongly people seem to hold their beliefs and how ardent some are at showing, and vice versa as well. It is also a fact that there are many people who do not have a particular spiritual belief or even if they do they do not feel it very strongly.
Then of course there are the many different types of belief. I do not know exactly how many religions there are in the world but it seems that even a casual walk around the city centre on any day of the week will reveal a fair number to me in these days of multi-culturism.
Religious and spiritual beliefs exist and they seem to be important to real people so when it comes to creating a character it seems necessary for the writer to consider this aspect of their imaginary person in order to make them more realistic.
There is a suggested rule in writing that you should only write about the things you know. Personally I find this too limiting, I mean, I do not know what it is to be a Saxon warrior stood in a shieldwall about to face some angry Vikings but that did not stop me from writing about it! I would amend this rule to read: ‘only write about the things that interest you’. If someone is interested in something then they tend to know their subject matter, which in turn imbues a degree of authenticity to their writing. I have an interest in history and some people have subsequently commented that my books have an authentic quality about them.
Spiritual beliefs are something a little more different that an easily definable subject like history though. To me religious belief is something far more personal in a very intimate sense. I have my belief, I am a Pantheist. It is a very ancient spiritual belief based upon the principle that everything is one and nothing exists outside of this collective notion. I was raised as an Anglican Christian but my parents were of the persuasion that seems to be so common these days; they only went to church for births, deaths and marriages! Being given to a philosophical frame of mind I nevertheless considered Christianity quite deeply but I could never attain the degree of contentment that I aspired to with it. As a result I just floated along without any conviction until I was introduced to Baruch Spinoza’s book ‘Ethics’ and through that the idea of Pantheism. All of a sudden lots of things started to make sense.
Now it might have seemed reasonable to expect to start writing stories about characters with similar spiritual beliefs but that never actually happened. I think that this might be because I do not feel the need to proselytize. I am of the opinion that if you want to discover something badly enough then you will do so.
My novel ‘The War Wolf’ is set in the 11th century when the Christian church was coming to dominate most of Europe and exerting a very real power over people’s lives. Harold Godwinson himself was also quite a devout Christian according to the historical record that survives, he had the church at Waltham rebuilt in stone for example at his own expense. Obviously I could not ignore these elements of the story without risking losing a certain degree of authenticity, something that I genuinely wanted to avoid. I found the key to writing about a religious belief that I did not share was simply to be objective about it.
Objectivity has a strong place in writing fiction of course, especially in fiction. We cannot all experience everything that we claim our characters have. I think that it would take a lifetime to amass such a body of experience and that in turn would leave precious little time for the actual writing! When Berctauld the Deacon considers his previous life as a warrior after having become a religious man I had to write neither from experience nor interest in the Christian church. Instead I had to use my imagination and take some of my own personal experiences to work with. I can remember what it was like to go to church, the feeling of community shared with the rest of the congregation, and the sense of just going with the flow of the ceremony. I also have the feeling of conviction that comes not from Christianity but another religious belief, which although different in source amounts to very much the same thing. No one has criticised Berctauld negatively so I think that I can claim that I got him more or less right in this respect.
In one respect I can see that I have been spared going too deeply into this subject in that the stories that I have so far written have not had a central character who was strongly motivated by religion. For ‘The Sorrow Song Trilogy’ the emphasis is very much on the military history with religion being one of the threads that make up the background. In ‘Eugenica’, the book I am currently writing, there is barely any mention of religion whatsoever. I did not design my stories in this way, it is just how they developed.
Religion might be taking a more prominent place in my writing in the future, however. If ‘Eugenica’ is successful, which of course I hope it is, then a recent discovery that I made while doing some research on the subject of eugenics has suggested a character who will be very much of religious persuasion. I also have plans to write a science-fiction story that is heavily influenced by Pantheism. Spiritual beliefs can be complex, contradictory, and even inflammatory, which to my mind as a writer suggests that they could be interesting subjects to work with. As with all such subjects, however, balance remain the key, that is, to be interested enough to be able to write convincingly about them but objective enough so as not to end up beating readers over the head about the subject.