When you set a story in a made-up or secondary world, one of the small but significant problems you run into is giving characters a good way to call on their god(s). They could be cursing, invoking a deity as witness, or maybe asking for a god’s help.
This is challenging because in a secondary-world story, the author makes up things like the god(s), the cultural notions of the afterlife, and what kind of supernatural creatures might be around to tempt or help a character. A character can’t say “hell” if the culture doesn’t believe in such a place. He or she can’t think someone “looked like an evil cherub” if the world doesn’t have cherubs.
Gods in a Middle-Grade Book
My first novel, Finders Keepers, is a middle-grade book which compounds the problem. People are naturally sensitive about their child being “taught” religious beliefs other than their own. In some ways, secondary world fantasy eases this problem because the made-up world makes it clearer that this is all pretend. Of course, the furor around witchcraft in Harry Potter shows that even a pretend religion alarms some parents. I know that means they’re unlikely to enjoy a lot fantasy novels, including mine, but obviously, that’s their choice.
The Writer as God of the Book
Assuming a reader is open to a world with different gods, though, how does the writer deal with how to invoke them? When I was drafting Finders Keepers, I was reading Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, a wonderful adult fantasy. One of the characters in that book uses the exclamation “tiny gods.” I found that charming and suggestive of a whole world of beliefs that’s never spelled out.
So I asked myself, what would my characters say about the gods in Finders Keepers? The answer, I thought, depended on what those gods were like. And, not to sound too delusional, it occurred to me that I was the god of this book. I created the world and the characters. I decided what would happen to them. I even made the weather.
What kind of god am I?
And what kind of god am I? I am, I hope, a tricky one. I believe the character who’s walking along thinking today went pretty well should have the fish cart next to her turn over and bury her in mackerel. I think the one who’s waiting to deliver a vital message to the duke should have a spark fly from the fire and set the message ablaze. The banana peels of life should be spread thickly in a character’s path.
Sorry, characters, but good times make bad stories.
So Cade and Roth look with awed disbelief at how the world treats them and breathe, “Tricky gods.”
I take it as a compliment.