Writing about Sex, Religion and Politics

When I was a teenager, someone gave me the advice that I should never talk in public about sex, religion, or politics. I remember thinking, “But, why? They’re the most interesting things to talk about!”

Now that I’m older, I realise that I answered my own question. The reason we’re generally advised not to talk about these things (especially with strangers) is exactly because they’re interesting. They’re the topics that we all think about, care about, and have passionate and steadfast opinions on. They’re the things that start arguments, feuds, and wars.

And they’re exactly the things that, as fiction writers, we should be making sure we include in our books.

Possibly everyone else already knows this. Possibly I’m so late to this particular party that everyone else has already packed up and gone home, and there’s just a few scattered Solo cups left scattered around the furniture. Nevertheless.

Sex

Sex is one of the most fundamental of human needs. From the time puberty hits, we think about it on a regular (if not daily or even hourly) basis. I’m not suggesting we all need to embrace our inner E.L. James, rather that we need to remember that sex, and the search for it, is a driving force on human behaviour.

There’s a lot more to sex than the physical act, of course. There’s love, romance, intimacy, vulnerability, heartbreak, attraction, affection, unrequited feelings, and all the trials and tribulations that come with a relationship as it grows or falters. Regardless of what genre you’re writing, these are things to consider. In real life, we’re all influenced by these things every day — and our characters need to be influenced by them just as strongly.

Even my five year-old son wants to know the name of the girl he’s going to marry!

Religion

Religion is not just about a Church or a God, religion is about a system of beliefs. Your religion defines you in ways you don’t even realise. Your moral code is probably borrowed from your religion. Your values and priorities and prejudices are influenced by your religion. Your entire world-view is affected by your religion. So it’s important our character also have religion.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, or Protestant, or some other flavour of Christian. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or Muslim or Heathen or Buddhist or Pagan or Jedi. Whatever your religion, it colours your viewpoint and affects your life.

And to the first person to say, “I don’t have a religion, I’m an Atheist”, I have this to say: Your Atheism colours your viewpoint and affects your life.

Your characters should be affected by their religious beliefs. You never have to actually state what they are, or what religion they follow, or if they follow any kind of religion at all. But I can almost guarantee that if you don’t consciously consider your character’s religious beliefs, they will automatically take action based on your own religion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.

So while you may not specifically be writing about religion, the very fact you’re writing about people means that religion will feature — if only as background noise.

(As a note: religion may change significantly over time, but setting your novel in the far, far future doesn’t mean there is no religion. People want something to believe in. People need something to believe in. Perhaps in your world that isn’t a God or Gods. Perhaps it’s science or a system of government or a TV show. But it will be something. Better that you decide what that something is.)

Politics

Politics: Who gets what, when and how.

If you want to have an uncomfortable evening, try starting up a conversation about politics with someone who disagrees with your point of view. Or, for even more awkward moments, try sitting at a table where two people argue back and forth about the relative merits of political parties, policies, or procedures. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there and done that, and I’d prefer to avoid it in the future.

We all get passionate about some aspect of politics. For some of us, we’re passionate about who should be leading the country. For others, we’re passionate about how the government should be spending our tax money. For still others, our passions go into overdrive when we hear about school curriculum changes or healthcare reform. There’s something that hits you right in the passion-bone.

But in this context, I’m not just talking about the politics of governing a country. I’m talking about who gets what, when and how. Who gets to learn magic? When is a 3rd tier Septacorn permitted to try for a promotion to 2nd tier? How do you get an invitation to the coolest party ever so you can hit on the girl of your dreams?

Politics don’t just exist in the capital. There’s office politics, social politics, schoolyard politics, and in the case of spec fiction, often supernatural politics to consider.

Unless your character is in charge of the world, s/he will inevitably run up against politics. Someone else controls who gets what, when and how. That’s either going to help or hinder your character. Either way, it will play a part in their thoughts, feelings, passions, and story.

 

“Don’t talk about sex, religion or politics.”

It may be good advice for social settings, but it’s terrible advice for a writer.

Talk about it. Talk about it a lot.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Writing about Sex, Religion and Politics

  1. Don’t talk about the housing bubble! 🙂

  2. Now I want to write a book where television is the religion. Actually I would like you to write it because you write outstanding sci-fi.

  3. Very true. I try to write about all three. My detective character is an atheist, and it definitely does color her view of things (and she’s bringing up her daughter to be an atheist, too).

    Sex is why I could never write YA. My last story was very YA-ish (a teenage girl runs away from home, falls in with bad companions, learns about the world, learns about herself, and does someting extraordinary), but there was too much sex for it to be YA. Plus smoking. Plus gay characters. Oh, well.

    And, yes, sex is not just the physical act, but it’s good to have some of the physical act in our stories, too. 🙂

    • I wasn’t thinking of Jan Sleet when I mentioned atheists, but her beliefs definitely impact on her world-view. She’s a great example of a character with really strong beliefs that define her.

      And as a note, I’ve read 20 odd YA books this year so far, and there has been more sex, drugs, and swearing in those than in the last 20 non-YA books I’ve read! Sometimes it makes me feel ridiculously old and crotchetty.

  4. Dan

    True on all points. I read a book last year about an 18-year-old boy/man living in a close-quarters coed environment, and not even once did he seem to be thinking about sex. I just wanted to grab the author and ask, “Dude, don’t you remember being 18?”

    My first published novel was pretty much all about religion and politics, and indeed, it was in the far future. Religion isn’t going away, nor is people’s passion about it. As one character asks, “Oh yeah? And how long did they hate the Jews?”

    I don’t really have anything to add other than that you were spot-on with this post.

    • I have to admit, Dan, you kind of inspired this post. I was reading your article on Religion in Science Fiction recently, and I got to thinking about how important it is for us to really consider religion in the context of the worlds we create. And that, in turn, led me to think about all three of these “taboo” subjects. So thankyou. 🙂

      And seriously — what 18 year old (of either gender) living in those conditions isn’t going to think about sex?? See, that’s where the character authenticity goes out the window.

  5. I find it’s harder to work with brands and then talk about corporate greed. I’m so torn.

  6. Holy crap, Jo!! You can back after hiatus on top of your game!! Fantastic post. That’s the only comment I can make. You rule the world. I would like you to email me tips every day and maybe I can write a book. 😉

  7. Yeah, can’t disagree with anything said here. Nope.

    It helps, I guess, that I have shades of all three in my current WIP (far more of the last two than the first).

  8. Oh- I will need to remember this when I get serious about penning something….great advice, Jo!

  9. Great advice! I talk about all of these things on the regular anyway – I guess that makes me a bad dinner party guest;)

  10. Excellent points, all! 🙂 Personally, I can’t read books where there is no sex – and when I say sex, I mean, as you do, the drive and influence on human behavior. Assigned gender roles and presumptions. I have met a very – VERY few – people who seem to be totally neuter, not interested in a romantic or sexual relationship. Everybody else, it’s pretty much in play, always, even if it doesn’t go beyond “checking someone out.” To pretend otherwise… characters don’t ring true to me.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. As writers, I believe it’s our responsibility to use our writing to tell the truth about human nature — even (and, perhaps, especially) when that truth is uncomfortable or awkward.

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