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Writing Characters Of Faith In A Story

Nowadays if you have a character in a story that’s supposed to be a person of faith, even a priest– especially a priest– it seems as if the result is always some guy constantly quoting scripture as if he swallowed a Bible. This has the character falling into a couple of standardized pigeonholes.

The first pigeonhole comes from the fact that Hollywood seems embarrassed by faith and Christianity. For this one, the scripture-quoter must inevitably be some kind of nut-job; the killer murdering all the “sinners”, the bad guy behind everything, pedophile, the bad neighbor that’s been reporting on everyone like they’re murderers, that sort of thing. In fact, the more Bible verses he quotes per hour, the more likely he is to be the story’s bad guy.

The next kind gives us the crazy whack-job that constantly gets in the way of the heroes and doing stupid things to move the horrible plot along. He’s always quoting versus out of context, is probably a bigot, asks the hero to repent right when he’s in the middle of chasing down the real bad guy, and so on. If it’s not a priest doing the Bible-thumping, and not the bad guy, then this category is where that character ends up.

Finally we have the priest; Hollywood’s rendition of one that involves a line of scripture uttered in response to every question asked, because that’s what priests are supposed to do, right? Unless they’re Mexican priests in some two-bit cardboard town, in which case they die early– usually because they’re supposed to be too stupid to realize that a cross and faith will not stop a .45 to the chest. A subtype of this category is the over-the-top man of faith that you see in a movie that’s basically a religious sales pitch, because even well-meaning Christians trying to write a message-film still can’t craft a good story.

So then, how do you write a character that’s a person of faith? A priest? Arch-Bishop? Well, first skip the over-the-top stuff; it comes out either very uncomfortable or completely nuts. I went to a Catholic elementary school and none of the priests were constantly spitting out lines of scripture at us morning noon and night. In fact, skip it altogether. Rather, say it more conversationally. For instance, instead of a line like, “In verse XXX Christ preaches that killing is bad,” make it more, “You aren’t a killer, Bob; do this and you will forever lose yourself.” Not every preacher does the fire and brimstone thing.

Actions speak louder than words. A man of faith will act like one a lot more than he’ll speak like one. He may speak softly, not lie (though he doesn’t have to volunteer the truth either if it’ll get someone into deeper trouble), and exude an inner strength and courage that affects his actions. A priest will help people without needing to keep scripture quoting every second. In fact, the best ones will actout their faith and only talk about it if asked. You want to get a message out that people will actually listen to? That’s the best way. Plus there’s that whole thing of scripture being taken out of context for all the wrong reasons, which is why it feels a bit off-putting at times.

I have a character in my Cyberdawn series: Arch Bishop Joseph O’Malley. He is a man of the cloth and of faith, but never once does he quote any scripture. And yet, he speaks of faith, just without naming names. He shows when he has faith in the way he does things and in his courage, but he is still smart enough to know that a cross is not going to stop a .45. In the context of the story, though, his power of faith is enough to stop a demon cat cold when he holds up a cross (the focus of his faith) or inscribes a rune on the church wall. I still don’t have him dripping religious quotes out of his mouth, though, just simple lines like, “Faith will win us this battle; remember that.”

Also, priests don’t have to constantly address everyone as “my son”; first names will do and in a kindly manner.

There’s an old writing axiom: Show, don’t Tell. Just remember to apply this axiom to your characters of faith and you should do okay.

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