|This is the new cover art for Infinite Space, Infinite God I.|
Incorporating the spiritual aspects of a character or the religious aspects of a setting or plot can enhance a story. However, done wrong and it can wreck a story. Here are four pitfalls I see:
One, they are superficially portrayed and thus not really believable. Rose Dimond gave a good example of this in our workshop at the 2008 MuseOnline Convention. In a critique group, one person told the story of a woman who was abused. She later became a priestess, and was able to "find peace" after murdering her abuser. The story flopped because, as Rose said, "Revenge is not generally recommended as the pathway to peace by the holy." On the other hand, Tarma, a character by Mercedes Lackey, gives herself to her goddess to become a warrior specifically so she can exact revenge on an entire tribe for the murder of her relatives--and it works. The key lies in developing the religion sufficiently to convince the reader that the way to peace is by smiting one's enemies, permanently.
Two, they are a blatant copy of an existing Earth religion. Jesus with green skin or tentacles is an obvious one. Less obvious would be a “Mother goddess” on a world of insectoids that hatch, alone and independent, from eggs. Why would such creatures, who have no concept of "mother" by nature, develop such a religion? Just like a blind race would never develop the concept of visual color, so this species would not develop a religion around a nurturing motherly figure. They would worship God in some other image that they, by their nature, would understand. A great example of this is "Dyads" by Alan Loewen and Ken Pick. Their foxlike creatures, who mate for life, have their own trinity: husband, wife and eternal dance.
Three, religions are used, sometimes obviously, as a device for getting the author’s point across. Unless you're writing for an audience that wants to be preached to creatively, this device turns readers off. (Incidentally, the same goes for just about any "message" fiction. Concentrate on the story, not the message.)
Four, religion is tossed in for “color” but otherwise never touches the characters or story. It's a rule in writing that if you don't need an object, a setting, a character, don't devote a lot of words to it, him or her. Do you spend a chapter talking about the chemical content of the Calaronderon Nebula if the ship is leaving that parsec, never to think about it again? Likewise, then why go on about the bizarre tree spore worship of the Elderbeera if it never impacts the story?
Certainly, the most obvious way to avoid these pitfalls is to write solid, engaging stories with complex characters for whom faith is part of their experience. Here, then, are some specifics to consider:
Is the faith logical to how your creatures experience the world? Think about their anatomy, their worldview, their philosophy. I know that sounds like you are creating God in your creature's image, but think of it this way: who your creatures are and how they relate to the world will have been influenced by their faith and their relationship to the Creator as they perceive it. God would not give underwater starfish creatures a revelation of a bipedal air-breathing savior who was nailed to a tree--how could they possible identify with that?
Have you given enough information to make us understand if not identify with the alien faith without overwhelming the story? Gone are the days when readers will put up with five pages describing a sunset; so too, readers want the information that relates. If all you need is for your elf to say a prayer for strength in battle, you may not need to get into the pantheon of Elvish gods and goddesses, etc. However, if you are chronicling the life of a monk-turned-king, you need more detail. Further, if you are going to do something outside the reader's experience of faith--like Rose's example last issue of the priestess who "found peace" after brutally murdering her attacker--then you need to provide enough background as far as information and attitude to make the action plausible.
Do you show more than one facet of the faith? Think of religion as a character: like characters, faiths have attitudes, histories, codes of honor and conduct, things it will and will not tolerate. Quirks. Are you showing some of those facets, or have you fallen into the one- or two-dimensional character portrayal?
Is the religion needed for your story? Not all stories need a faith-based aspect or a portrayal of religion. If you have doubts about how the faith aspect is playing out, remove it and see if the story still flows. Where are the holes and why? If you have none, reconsider why you incorporated the religion and what you might do instead. I had one story submitted to ISIG II. It was a good story covering a serious issue, important to the writer and valuable to readers, but the religious aspect was shoehorned in to qualify for the anthology. The impact of the message was actually lost because the faith simply did not fit.
Do the faith and the character fit? Let your character talk to you about the faith--outside of the story. Imagine a typical worship day for them. See what parts fit and what he, she, or it can't act out or believe in and why.
Religion can be a valuable and interesting part of worldbuilding. It can give your story depth or a unique angle. However, it needs to be integral to the story and believable in the universe you create. When you achieve that, you give richness to your tale that readers will enjoy.