Any fantasy author creating magic systems for their world should explore swiftly and deeply of Brandon Sandersons Laws of Magic.
I’m suggesting similar laws when it comes to using religion and religious systems with our characters.
Here’s what I mean.
We treat magic and religion in fantasy in two different ways. We like to be as free of magical law and restraint as Merlin is, or Cinderella’s fairy godmother, or Gandalf. But religions are as clear and mythic and obvious as Aslan parading around.
First advice: do whatever you want with your audience. Or the story you want to tell.
For those who want to dive deeper into their creativity, take this as your gold ticket on the Polar Express.
When it comes to magic, some may like to retain a sense of whimsy and freedom. Sanderson deftly points out that this usually feels very deus ex machina. Meaning the magic does whatever we want it to do for the story – rather than the magic pushing and bending the story to become more interesting and more complex, prodding the characters to grow and mature with their use of it.
I suggest the very same treatment with religion.
The three laws are simple. They affect your characters – but more importantly, they affect you and me too.
- The first law of religion is don’t assume you are sharing the actual true thing with your reader.
- The second law assumes that your character won’t totally understand it, perhaps will only be able to understand it according to who and how they are.
- The third law forces you to stick the landing, and not to add more or new until you’ve explored the impact this has on the character.
- The bonus law, or the Zeroth Law, is: do whatever coolness and epicness demands.
First, we have to take a moment to talk about what religion actually is in fiction, and probably in reality.
The problem with religion in fiction
Summary: We explore the complexity and imperfection of religion and its followers. Humans crave certainty and often create idols in their search for it. However, Christ’s entrance as a Man changed everything and allowed for the possibility of divinization – mind-blowing stuff. Faith cannot be fully understood through words alone. It is lived out through stories and systems. Ultimately, the religion is not obvious and requires exploration, much like the creation of an infinite number of bells to explore the silent standing waves of the heavenly symphonies.
Christian and faith-inspired authors like to think that our faith is simple and obvious, that our liturgy and catechism bring everything together in a simple enough way to enchant children and stun theologians.
But that’s not always true. And even if it might be, that doesn’t ways make for good fiction.
Religion is not a closed system, a walled garden. This is a recent idea in time, and not a very good one. To the ancient and medieval mind, religion is a virtus, a living out in time and community of beliefs – as they are understood at that moment.
Religion is frontier, a living tradition that is constantly exploding old wineskins and needing to be recast, rethought, relived.
Religion is made up of religious believers, who are all imperfect. It is codified by more intelligent and equally imperfect believers. It is held together by networks and hierarchies of more broken and befuddled human beings. And if you have a High Sparrow, or high council, or confederation of fathers, or coven of mothers, they’re all humans too.
Even oracles and prophets have bad days. Just like real life.
What am I driving at? There are innumerable ‘points of failure’ and weakness and chances to get things wrong. How do humans respond to that? In a pretty desperate and uniform way.
We make idols.
We idolize people as truth-makers. We canonize processes or written accounts as irrefutable. We gild and hallow who we are and when we are, and assure everyone that everything that led us to this point was divinely ordained. Or we abandon systems and search entrails and murmurations and weather patterns for the caprice of the hidden gods.
All of this is a ravening for certainty, because our minds crave it, like a fox craves a cave to rest in.
Nothing wrong with that. That’s human nature.
Actually… that’s not true. That’s pre-Christ human nature.
What Christ brought into our physical world was an irruption from within, a blood transfusion that finally ended the first stage of Creation. Now human living can actually begin. We had been partitioned off from Divine Life for a hundred thousand years or longer.
Christ entered into more than a human body. He entered into every single human body, across space and time. He created a new center of gravity in the cosmos. Just as all humans participate in the reality of ‘human,’ now we all participate in the reality of ‘God-Man.’ That’s called theosis, or divinization. And it’s mind blowing stuff.
There is only one true place to find peace, and that is in Christ. Christ in the moment, Christ in your family and friend. Christ in your coffee, and bedroom, and on the highway, and in the book you enjoy. He is the weight we feel in our bodies as Earth grounds us. But we aren’t yet seeing that. Or feeling it. Or living it.
Christ blooms in us as the Holy Spirit wills, blowing where it wants through the walled gardens of the world systems and religions, calling them to share their fruits and resonance, coming together to see how they hunger and hunt for the Lord of the Dance.
Christians are heir to a certain gift, a set of dogmas and catechesis, a series of rituals that brings Christ back into embodiment for the healing of others. But it’s like an essential oil. That is so dense and powerful an idea that it has to be diffused or diluted through a culture. It has to be lived out to be understood. That’s when faith comes out of the cathedrals and must live in the festivals and fiction of a people.
Our faith does not have words for itself outside of its resonance with other stories and systems. It’s like the sound of bell. That sound already exists, but we cannot hear it until we craft a bell of metal and embers and steam and hold it high in the air. Suddenly the unstruck bell starts ringing, humming in tune with a magical music from the dawn of time, from the last apocalypse.
But we can always craft a better bell. Our first bell was largely Greek philosophies. And then we added medieval worldviews. We now are frontiered with new systems rich with their own glory and sin and resonance, and we have much to give and be enriched by. We are in the process of making infinite bells forever to keep exploring all the music possible in the silent standing waves of the heavenly symphonies. The music is silent until we can attune our ears and beings with the tools of time and human living.
So all that being said, religion is not obvious. Not even the word itself.
Christians often model the genius of Lewis with our fiction, especially when we seek to include a Christ-figure and a supreme Aslan-like sacrifice.
Dominic’s First Law of Religion: an author’s use of religion is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the religion.
Summary: Many writers infodump about their fictive religion-making, assuming that their characters understand it all, which can be tedious for readers. The solution is to bring in the smallest part of the religion that matters most to the story or character and have them misunderstand it. Medieval and ancient minds had a worldview of the great chain of being, where everything lived within greater things, and the smallest thing was subject to all the laws imposed by higher things. Modern minds have lost this magic, leading to a thin tale of a God of the dead, not the living. By bringing in the smallest part of religion, writers can avoid info-dumping and deepen their stories.
Here’s how Sanderson’s First Law of Magic goes: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Basically: your religion may be deep and wide and wild. Don’t assume your character understands how it all truly works. Most of us don’t.
Info-dumping is the bane of every author and readers’ existence. We sometimes get creative about it. I enjoy how ‘Game of Thrones’ never really gets into the theology of the five gods, but only references them as they impact a specific moment or character or prayer. Usually, the gods are brought up when they can reinforce the choice a character makes.
Why does a faith-inspired fiction author bring up religion in their story? Usually to be an imaginative reflection or deepening of Christic faith. Perhaps to even foreshadow, or echo, the heroics of their world’s Christ-figure. That’s a pretty common among us. We love Christ, so naturally we want to include him at some point, however dramatically or ethereally.
But that creates a problem. We usually want to ‘show off’ how imaginative we are with our fictive religion-making. So we infodump. And the problem is that its often quite skippable – the same way we skip our own catechism or patristic pronouncements.
So we need to step away from the dogmas and the theologies we’re comfortable with. One of the problems with modern Christianity is that we’ve lost the magic of the ‘great chain of being,’ a worldview that medieval and ancient minds enjoyed.
Theirs was like the Ladder of Jacob, where all things lived within greater things, and those within even higher things. Reality was like a great Russian doll, layers within layers within layers. The smallest thing was subject to a compounding of all the laws imposed by the higher things. The higher things had less laws and more freedom the higher up you went.
As an example for modern minds, I am a human being. But I take my existence and my identity from my body, my family, my state, my world, my planet, my cosmic neighborhood. The problem with half of these is that they partly exist. The idea of a ‘state’ exists because humans say it does. When we stop believe it, it fades away.
It was the other way around for ancient minds. First God exists, then he fractals into creation through the first mode of being, the highest of the hierarchies. They fractal their being into a more expressive hierarchy below them, who do the same thing, fragmenting and prismating the creative light and being of God into more and more division. Each hierarchy of angels is ecstatically and frantically trying to express and explore a new aspect of God. The later medieval minds classed them into 9 choirs, depending on the role they echoed within the Trinity, each other, and us.
Furthest from the simplest, most-free realms, some angels continue to fractal into less and less personality and freedom, stilling themselves into a new kind of simplicity and self-emptying-ness. They became matter, allowing their bodies to be drawn into patterns and fields and physical music. Humans live within this phase of being, surrounded by fairies and elves and demons and angels and powers and energies.
Set aside whether is ‘true’ or not. This is what they saw, what was normal. This is why the gods trample willy-nilly through battlefields in the Illiad, or Arthurian knights turn left into haunted fairyland and Lakebound Ladies. Why mystics alive today continue seeing angels and conversing with them like the saints did.
The modern mind silenced the world of all angels. We lost that as we kept trying to understand how God is supremely distinct from his Creation. We wanted to preserve his dignity and our freedom. Like a teen, we needed to leave home and get away from everything to find out if we’re as free as God says we are.
Today, we grow up with a view like what’s in Darren Arronofky’s NOAH. Of the ‘Emptiness Greater than God,’ God made realms of dead matter, and then carved us out of it. Angels hover around looking down. We must follow his rules to be welcomed into Heaven, otherwise we find ourselves in the fires of the outer darkness. And He became one of us to unlock the Big Doors and turn back our rebellion.
That story makes him a God of the dead. Not of the living.
It’s a very thin tale. And a lot of that is not even true. But it is certainly part of how we see the world. When we turn back in history, or look laterally at other theologies or stories, we see angels and demons converting and falling, needing us and our help to grow. We all play a part together in the vast story of Creation where Christ is making all things new.
So when you introduce religion into your story, don’t bring in the full thing. Bring in the smallest possible part you can, particularly the part that matters most to the story, or the character.
And this leads to the second law: make the character misunderstand it.
Dominic’s Second Law of Religion: what you misunderstand or are able to understand is more valuable to fiction than the truth.
Summary: Sanderson’s Second Law states that limitations are more valuable than powers in storytelling. Characters with limitless power can make for a stale story, but when faced with limitations, they must become more creative to overcome them. When writing about characters’ religious beliefs, it is important to recognize that beliefs are often influenced by culture and ego, and characters may not fully understand their religion. Constraints on a character’s creativity allow for growth, discovery, and change in the story. The point of fiction is to step into someone else’s shoes, see beyond our own limitations, and soften our perspective with the inner practice of mystics to commune with humanity.
Sanderson’s Second Law can be written very simply. It goes like this: Limitations are more valuable than Powers.
This means that having a power to be Superman is not as interesting as what holds him back. Having limitless and infinite godlike power makes for stale storytelling. The story actually begins when kryptonite or super villains appear that actually forces him to make an effort.
The more limitations, or the more laws you can’t get around that stop you from moving, the more creative you have to get to move – because move you must.
Most of us don’t fully understand all our religion and its traditions and mysticism. We are usually part of a well-meaning tribe with an idol. So the first thing to figure out for your characters: what do they believe, and are they even correct?
Remember that we all embody religious ideas according to who and when we are. “How we see is what we see…” So you can be a pagan Christian, or a Viking Christian, or a Middle-Class American Christian, or a Fillipino Christian, or a Retro-European Christian, or Anarchist Christian, etc.
Each of these kinds of Christians prefers their culture over others. This is always the problem – we are usually and always start with our embodied reality, our culture, and read that into our religion.
I actually don’t think it’s possible to do it any differently. It’s like being a telescope. The reality of ‘telescope’ is a plastic dollar-store lens, or a gilded museum piece, or the Hubble marvel. Each sees according to it’s mode of being. Each probably thinks it is the perfect form, because it cannot imagine another mode of being.
It is the mystics who experience direct contact with the reality behind embodiment. As if a telescope were alive and able to magically telescoping itself.
Mystics in every time and place speak this gospel. They call us to try and see beyond the edge of our vision, to see who we are within how and what we are.
So with your characters, don’t assume that they fully ‘get’ the whole meaning of the religion. Plant them within the limits of their personality, or their place, or their ego. Because our own egos will fixate us on certain ideas and truths, always looking for an idol that makes us like ourselves better.
Why is this great for fiction? Because it allows growth. It allows discovery. It allows for reveals and surprises and change.
All these constraints on your character’s creativity means that a point can come in the story where they realize their limit. And suddenly a whole new panoply of choices appear when they realize they were unintentionally wrong. Or, they are faced with the usual moral dilemmas of a seeming ‘ethical’ choice, and the human demands of the moment.
- Maybe they don’t make the perfect choice.
- Maybe they make the choice that seems blindingly wrong at the time, and their guilt or unease propels them to keep running away or excusing themselves or challenge them to make change.
- Maybe they grow later on, and realize that their choice then was actually comically true, and they had been functioning under a poor system and unnecessary pressure.
But that’s the whole point of fiction. To weld someone else’s shoes to our feet, and stand outside ourselves for a half hour. And in so doing, begin to see where are the sunspots in our own vision from our ego, tribe, or moment in time. To soften us with the inner practice of the mystics, and commune with humanity as a reality over its concrete differences.
So what they know will be interpreted or colored by their experiences, or how they live.
Which takes us to the third point:
Dominic’s Third Law of Religion: Explore the edges and impact of what you know before adding anything new or true.
Summary: Sanderson’s third law emphasizes expanding what you already have before adding something new to your story. This means narrowing your focus, exploring every angle, and testing your character’s beliefs. Religion in storytelling should not assume that the reader or character understands everything, and the character must test their beliefs through challenges and clashes with other theologies. The focus should be on the immediate numinous around the character and their local god, rather than assuming an understanding of the entire hierarchy. Keeping the mystery and focus can lead to a fresh perspective on the mystery of Christ.
Sanderson’s third law is: Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Another way to say that is: narrow your focus. Just as you don’t instantly understand calculus when you start high school, your character won’t be ready for the depths of religion after one meeting with a guru.
For Sanderson, this is where he prods you to take seriously what you’ve introduced. Explore it from every possible angle. Like someone discovering a hammer for the first time – without a context. What are all the things you can do with a hammer? How creative can you get? How much fun or danger can you have? What purpose can you build around it, and then suddenly learn what it was truly meant to do?
The first law of religion is don’t assume you are sharing the actual true thing with your reader. And then the second law assumes that your character won’t totally understand it, perhaps will only be able to understand it according to who and how they are.
The third law forces you to stick the landing, and not to add more or new until you’ve explored the impact this has on the character.
Take that belief and test it. Decide how seriously the character ‘believes’ something. Giving lip-service when things are going well is extremely different to standing before a firing squad. Or deciding whether to let something terrible happen to someone else because they’re probably doomed anyway.
Since you’re not automatically giving your characters the true view of the world, it’s necessary then to test those views. To see why they don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t hold up to reality.
And if they do have a true view, make them misunderstand it, or apply it wrong. Allow reality to push back and show them that they are wrong.
Learning a lesson is always painful, because we always fasten our ego and identity with the things we know and love. Which means when that is challenged, our ego must die so that we can resurrect into a new kind of life, a new kind of person. Some people are frankly unable to accept that. They’re stiff, like petrified stumps.
Taking this tack with your character allows you to explore a theology and a world through more than your character’s eyes. It is through your characters living. That’s what belief is. How seriously you love and understand and live an idea.
A character can believe something completely different and alien to you, and be an amazing character for the strength of their convictions. That’s another source of tension within your story.
Allow theologies to clash, like Egyptian gods battling over the pyramids in Disney’s ‘Moon Knight.’ Allow them to question each other, to inform and challenge and grow.
Some people may not like this, but never have your characters be in direct relationship with the One True God.
If you have gods in your world, pantheons and a Great Chain of Being, then imagine storytelling like the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians. The best they could do was devote themselves to their local god, the next tier in the hierarchy. Each person is responsible to that god, they are owned by that god, and that god is the facet of the Unreachable Divinity that humans incarnate.
In narrowing your focus, you pay attention to the immediate numinous around the character. This means their attendant angels, their local god, and the immediate hierarchies around them. Don’t assume that the understanding of how the world works is actually true. Like a ground floor banker not knowing how every tier of management works. Keep the mystery. Keep your focus.
This is how we can turn with fresh eyes at the mystery of Christ, where the supremely ‘distant’ God is suddenly revealed to be the very ground of being, present in every particle and angel of Creation, and pulled into a shard of focus that our human eyes and hearts can see – the human nature of Christ.
Why these laws matter in reality
These laws can help you avoid religious Mary Sue’s, ‘perfect’ characters who ‘get’ their religion and apply it with the simplicity of a saint. Or info-dumping, or just moralizing.
Even in the we don’t trust saint stories told that simply.
Neither will your readers.
I hope that these laws also do something just as important. They can help you craft more compelling stories and characters.
But they can also help you begin to see where you are on your own faith journey, and where you have yet to grow. Because grow we must.
Understanding these laws can help you and me be a better Christian, and walk with greater openness and firmness with ourselves, and with our friends.
PS: The bonus law is the Zeroth Law: After everything that’s been said here… do whatever is cool and will make for a great story.
What do you think?
Wow. This is deep and nuanced. I’m gonna have to think about this more.
Thanks Hannah! Glad you made it through. It’s got a lot going on. Chime in once you’ve digested it and tell me what comes to your mind sometime. :)