Ordinarily I spend my "Rejected Writer" posts fretting about my writing habits and fears of failure, but since I just put my book out on Amazon, I figure it's about time that I let go of that and just focus on some other aspects of storytelling for a little while. So today I'm going to bitch a little bit about movie skeptics (again) and talk about how this can inform a writer's work. Specifically: mine.
First, a brief digression on the movie that made me think about this: The Awakening, from 2011.
This is a ghost story thriller about a brilliant researcher / skeptic who debunks hoaxes in post-WWI Great Britain and the shocking confrontation she has with a real ghost in a creepy boarding school. It's okay, I guess. Until the last thirty minutes or so when the movie decided to wipe its ass with its own screenplay.
Anyway. Since it's a movie about a skeptic who confronts a supernatural force, naturally the movie makes some insulting assumptions about skepticism. The protagonist became an atheist not because of critical thinking, but because of a personal tragedy. She treats belief with sneering contempt and condescension rather than respectful dissent. When things inevitably do go crazy, it turns out all she really wanted all along was a warm hug rather than truth and honesty. And so on.
I could keep complaining about that kind of stuff, but that's not my point today. Rather this gives me an opportunity to turn that kind of cranky focus on myself.
Y'see, last year I wrote "Copay," formerly "The People That Live," a novel about a woman who goes through a series of soul-crushing tragedies and in the process questions her faith. I don't want to get too involve in the premise of the book, but it involves a literal discussion of the human soul and naturally invites questions about religion, morality, faith, and science.
I had a shocking realization as I was watching the movie: For as much as I might complain about The Awakening's reliance on stereotypes, I sure used a lot of them in the first draft of "Copay." My story has a character who experiences hardship, questions God's existence, and then eventually makes her peace and chooses to embrace her religious network through a series of odd coincidence.
For an atheist, I wrote an awfully damn warm and fuzzy ending to that arc. I swear it was an accident.
I plan on making some major revisions when I take my next pass at the novel, but it raises an interesting point. It seems like our default setting as story-tellers and story-listeners is that disbelief is a broken state. The natural progression of a character arc should be that something is acquired and it seems our gut reaction is that skepticism is a net loss. After all, that's one less thing the character has in their life - the wisdom and value gained by letting go of a belief doesn't seem to be worth not having that belief.
It's strange that I went there as my first move when writing the story. It's not even that good of an ending. Actually, the last few paragraphs are needlessly ambiguous and kind of irritate the hell out of me. It's like the characters basically just shrug and say, "Oh, well! Y'all don't need facts to live a life."
The bigger problem is that the discussion of faith and skepticism is reduced to the simple question, "Why does bad stuff happen?" The protagonist's faith is disrupted by tragedy and her transformation is directly linked with Bad Things Happening to Good People. In movies, this is basically short-hand for, "The director just didn't give a strong enough crap to come up with a more clever plot catalyst." In real life, bad stuff happening is not enough by itself to really address the loss of faith.
Faith is always presented like a bunch of grapes. Small tragedies come along to pluck them away one at a time until a character has nothing left. Then a wise old black man comes by with a fresh bunch and shoves it in their hand so they can smile again.
In real life, faith is more like a huge winter coat filled with clumps of lead. When it's cold out, you hold it so close that it feels like you can't live without it. When it's warm, you might take it off and enjoy the breeze, or you might hold it even tighter and sweat it out. But no matter what the weather is and no matter how much you like your jacket, it doesn't change the fact that it's full of a bunch of stupid lumps of lead. Meanwhile, science is a perfectly good jacket with some nifty pockets and layers and a detachable hood.
Which is a convoluted way of saying that people's faith isn't stolen or lost - it's surrendered once we realize we don't actually need it.
This is really the kind of transformation that I should have in the story. There's certainly an important discussion about faith that needs to happen between my characters, but it's ridiculous that I've addressed it with such a broad shrug.
At least it's just a first draft.