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 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 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: 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.