Friday, February 6, 2015

Five kinds of atheistic characters I won't read about

1. Atheist is morally bankrupt

Sometimes the authors aren’t even trying to make a sheep-vs-goats statement here. They just think it would be dramatic to write:

“He arrived at the harbor late, but his cargo of uncut heroin and underaged prostitutes was nowhere in sight. Had something happened? Vladimir Khorupt was an atheist, but he found himself praying.”

I’ve never seen it the other way around, though : “Because she was an atheist and didn’t believe in an afterlife, Jacey Summers did her best to help people in this one.” So if the book isn’t intended to make any kind of moral judgment, either play fair or leave off the mentions of religion/lack thereof.

2. Atheist is bitter or miserable

There’s a Graham Masterton book I put down because one of the characters, Dean, is an unpleasant misanthrope described as an atheist. The others call him Mean Dean, just to drive home what a nasty piece of work he is.

IMO, if such a character went down on his knees and embraced Islam this minute, he’d still be as pleasant as fingernails on a chalkboard. Except then he’d also think women should cover up. It has nothing to do with whether or not he’s religious, in other words. Unbelievers can enjoy life too.

3. Atheist became that way after a tragedy

The stereotype of an atheist is someone who believed in God until he lost a loved one. At this point he fell to his knees, screamed “NOOOOO!” at the uncaring sky, and became Darth Vader.

How popular is this stereotype? Well, after my mother died, an (extremely religious) friend of hers called up to ask me to go to church with her. No thank you, I said, because I’m an atheist. Shocked, she told me I shouldn’t allow my mother’s death to harden my heart. That was 2004, and I’d deconverted in 1999.

It was hardly a dramatic event, either, because I just read a lot before it happened. No screaming involved, at the sky or at anything else.

4. Atheist is the subject of a punish-the-protagonist story

I genuinely hate these, and although I might try the occasional inspirational novel, I stay away from any that might have this plot. Unfortunately it can crop up stealthily elsewhere.

In Dean Koontz’s short story “Twilight of the Dawn”, an early hint of the author’s detour into conservative preaching, the main character is so hardcore he tells his son there’s no Santa Claus. For this, he must be made to pay, so both his wife and son die, with the son praying for him until the end. And the main character keeps suffering until he repents of his evil ways and decides there’s a loving God after all.

I might not mind a well-written conversion story where the atheist researches a religion he’s curious about, and we see why this religion works for him and is a rewarding addition to his life. But I’m not interested in conversion-through-misery, which rings about as true as deconversion-through-tragedy.

5. Atheist is superior to everyone else

This is the rarest of the subspecies, but I thought Darwin Minor, the hero of Dan Simmons’ Darwin's Blade, fitted it. As well as having a physics degree and a background as a sniper in Vietnam, he’s a brilliant chess player and an incredibly well-read investigator, so he can outfight, outshoot and outthink anyone. It’s like the Terminator and Sheldon Cooper had a baby together.

I don’t find this kind of character offensive, unless the story turns into a tract, but at the same time I’d much prefer even-handed treatment. In real life, religious beliefs are no guarantee of morality any more than atheism is an sign of genius. If these are used in fiction as shortcuts, there are much better ways to show personality.

And if these are ways readers can predict what will happen to the characters, all I can say is, I’m avoiding those stories.


Unknown said...

You should read The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson! One of the main characters is a princess scholar who's an atheist. She's really cool and well thought out.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks for the rec! I'll keep an eye out the next time I'm in the library.