Last Friday’s Free Write Friday prompt from Kellie Elmore was the below photo:
What struck me about the photo was not so much the twister itself or the girl in the foreground, but the way people’s lives can often feel like they’re caught in a storm. And, how lonely that girl’s silhouette is. From nowhere – truly, nowhere, as I am, at the moment, working on three very different stories with nothing to do with the prompt – a scene popped into my head, bright as a bolt of lightning: a young man and young woman hiding together, to be together. It was very conversational but still mostly descriptive of their clandestine affair, which is why I chose not to submit it to the prompt.
The odd part about this story snippet was not the flash of inspiring imagery, or the way these characters felt like familiar ones to me, or even the main conflict fashioned by my brain for why the two of them should meet in secret. Rather, it was the smaller conflict of their histories. Specifically, how religion related to their interaction.
If you think violence or sex are hot-button issues, they’re nothing compared to religion. I don’t even feel very comfortable talking about it, here, because… I don’t know. Because I’m scared, I guess.
Not many readers take issue with crime or violence in stories. It’s part of real life, after all. Sex is a slightly touchier subject, probably because it’s associated with prurience or deviance (which is not always the case, but I think I’ve belabored that point already). Faith, though, is unique to each individual person. Nonetheless, it often feels like we’re treated only to religious extremes, in fiction: fanatics like Margaret White (the mom in Stephen King’s Carrie) or the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Given such examples, it’s hardly a wonder that religion often does not play a role in many stories, at least, not a prominent one.
So, why did I take a religious angle for that scene? Mostly, it came from the dialogue. Evidence of their faith sprang, fully formed, from these characters’ mouths. They didn’t preach to me or to each other. They simply were who they were: a mid-western society girl and her working-class, ex-Army boyfriend. Not even their different racial backgrounds featured so prominently in their characterizations as their religious upbringing.
It was weird. Because my own faith is very personal, and I’d never inject those feelings into a story. Not consciously, any way. Sure, religion has had its part. I’ve examined Shinto, but only for the burial rituals and a wedding ceremony; two of my earlier protagonists were Catholic versus Protestant just for a few low-level jabs; I’ve looked at Anglicanism in a broader sense from a social perspective, mostly to counterbalance the dourness of one of my scientific empiricists. But having characters mouth off to each other about church and faith? That was new.I liked those characters, though. I think I could do something more with them. Even if that something more is just a story where I’m not so afraid of letting my characters speak freely about what’s important to them.
Have you ever had your characters take you by surprise, about their personal agendas or perspectives?