Come as close to blocked on rants lately as I ever have. I don’t know why. Perhaps this one will be able to get me back into the swing of things.
Though a lot of the examples I’m using here are religious, I don’t mean to imply that the only characters who can suffer a crisis of faith are priests. (I hope not, since almost all of those are done badly). An aristocrat can start doubting a belief that’s sustained him his whole life. A philosopher can find out her system doesn’t work as well as she thinks it does. A teacher or healer or mage could easily discover that one of her fundamental conceptions about the world is wrong. So this advice applies to that: starting them, tracing them, resolving them, and, above all, doing so believably.
1) Give the crisis an origin that makes sense for both the belief system and the believer.
We’ll take a priestly example first. Let’s say that he starts doubting whether his god exists. That seems a pretty deep rift between the priest and his original beliefs, certain to prompt a character change.
Except that, well, although the author tells me he doubts his god’s existence and is suffering from it, he never refers to it except in isolated moments. The priest is far too busy saving the world, giving advice to the protagonist, ministering to the dead—and wouldn’t that actually be a perfect place to bring up his doubt in his god’s existence, when he wonders if he’s sending them on to that god, or to a different one, or to oblivion?—marrying the protagonist and his love interest when they get together, and perhaps getting drunk and being comic relief. Every now and then there’s a scene tossed in there to remind the reader that, “Oh, yeah, this priest is Having a Crisis,” but that sense of urgency is never sustained. Certainly, it doesn’t seem to make sense for the priest as a person, who doesn’t question his other beliefs, who’s self-confident about the duties of his office, who doesn’t go on a spiritual journey but adopts another person’s quest. It’s an attempt to characterize that falls absolutely and utterly flat.
Mostly, I think, fantasy authors just don’t care that much about their highly religious characters. The religion tends to be a plot device. Most characters act from distinctly secular motives. There’s a great deal more exposure of charlatans than quiet scenes of awe with a truly devout priest or priestess. So, naturally, when a crisis of religious faith shows up, it gets treated in this same half-assed manner. Or it might possibly get deep treatment in a few scenes, but then the priest goes back to acting exactly like Priest Stereotype #2 (#1 is the evil high priest who wears too much jewelry and does dark sacrifices) -that is, like someone who would not bother to have a crisis of faith because it doesn’t fit with who he is.
Pay some attention to this, please. Combine a character who would have a crisis and a belief system for him to have a crisis about; don’t just toss one in there and think it’ll work.
2) Know your character’s level of self-awareness.
Fantasy protagonists are some of the most introspective people on the faces of their many green earths. To a certain extent, they have to be. If you’re introducing a reader to a new world, it helps to have someone who will reflect and wonder on the most common things, or notice when something is out of place, or actually try to work out riddles and clues instead of just charging ahead.
However, someone can be observant about the world around her without having the least idea of what her own soul looks like. Is that person your character? Then her crisis of faith is going to be a wee bit different from that of the philosopher who’s examined her own behavior by the lights of her Unified Grand System of Everything and found a puzzling error.
One character might know the instant she starts down a dangerous path, and go through the crisis step by unwilling step, constantly forced—by her own brain, not anyone else—to acknowledge the cracks and flaws in her former beliefs. Another might start acting differently even as she uneasily lives with her own mental hypocrisy, and it’s other people noting and calling her on it that breaks her down. Then there’s someone who knows that things are illogical but goes on believing them anyway because she doesn’t think her deepest faith needs logic, until the point at which she realizes that the bottommost cards have just been taken away and the whole house is going to fall.
Not all of these people are equally good candidates for bombshell epiphanies. Yes, sometimes one will work, particularly with that last character type. Other times, a character is self-aware enough to examine herself rigorously all the way through, and you need smaller steps. One size epiphany does not fit all, no matter how eager you are to get to the moment when the character realizes she was wrong/someone else was right/she wants to be a domestic, helpless woman/she’s screwed.
Know how your characters know themselves, and this is a fairly easy trap to escape. But what about the process of change? How does that work?
3) Choose steps that also fit the crisis.
A couple considerations that you’ll probably need to fix:
The depth of the crisis.
(which will also affect the length of time it lasts). I’ve never found it believable when an author tells me that someone is doubting something she’s been willing to fight and kill for—say, being the Dark Lord’s lieutenant—and makes up her mind to go to the heroes in a few days after her first doubt. A rift that strikes deep to the core of who someone is needs time to grow, widen, and probably even make itself known. On the other hand, you could have a fun time with a traitor who acts impulsively, then wavers on her choice because she’s no longer really sure who she is or what she believes.
The strength and presence of fellow believers.
A priest in a monastery who could go to his superiors and ask for guidance is in a far different situation than a missionary thousands of miles from home who starts doubting and has no companions to reassure him. Someone surrounded by people trying to convert her by force, on the other hand, might stick the more firmly to her original or her new beliefs because she has a sense of pride in being distinct and different. And an obnoxious example of one particular faith in a small group might be enough to tip a wavering doubter over the edge.
The consequences of the changes.
Will changing her mind make this character part of a group with fewer advantages, or cost her something else that she really wants? Perhaps she has a rich uncle who’s only consented to leave his property to someone who believes the same things he does. (Signs That I Have Been Reading Too Much George Eliot™). Then, even if she does alter her beliefs, she might not announce the alteration. I know this is anathema to a lot of fantasy authors, to not have the character trumpet her true mind to the heavens, but then, I wish more fantasy authors thought about the actual consequences of a decision like this. If you want to portray it as profound, it ought to have profound effects, at least in the character’s soul.
How much of this is really under the character’s control.
Does she have time to make up her mind, the kind of introspective personality that can sense every minute change, and people who are willing to wait patiently and love her no matter what she chooses? She’s freer, I think, than someone who has a few weeks or months, is made nervous and unhappy by the very thought of becoming a different person, and has just been backed against the wall by someone else. This is another set of consequences to take into consideration and give free reign to. Someone who regrets a “right” decision is not stupid or contemptible when he made it so hastily he’s really not sure it’s right.
Once you know several things like this, then you can start sensing the kinds of steps that your character will need to take along his or her road. The shape of the crises will force the shape of its solution.
4) Doubt != evil.
This is not a conscious thought of most authors, or why would they want to write a crisis of faith? But doubt does = uncomfortable to write. I think this is the number one reason that crises of faith become unconvincing: they get wrapped up too quickly, because authors hate spending one more moment in the character’s sea of uncertainty than they need to. And, unfortunately, the portrayal of doubt often leads in the direction of it seeming as if the doubting character must make up her mind, as though the uncertainty itself makes her less worthy of trust, faith, or the reader’s good opinion.
So people who are making life-changing choices jump from one extreme to the other, because fanaticism is somehow more acceptable than reservations. Characters’ beliefs shift as the plot demands, rather than because it seems they’ve actually gotten there on their own. The representative of the “right” side manages to convert someone else after ten minutes of conversation, because, after all, the right side is self-evidently right, and who could really doubt it? (The author does not, here, think about what it says that apparently a good portion of her world does believe the self-evidently “wrong” thing, but can be led sheep-like to the “truth” by anyone from the “right” side who comes along. Not very smart, are they?)
Treat the middle of the crisis, the actual progress of it, as of importance along with the beginning and end, please. I know that the moment when the character starts questioning and the moment when she ceases to question probably provide better dramatic potential, but without that journey, they’re just bookends. What they bracket is the actual meat of her decision, the “how” of her change. And just because she’s uncertain doesn’t make her an evil or untrustworthy character who absolutely must be planted in firm belief as soon as possible.
5) Setbacks are less problem than potential.
A crisis is hardly all smooth transition. In fact, if it’s not a series of jarring shocks, then I would be tempted to call it an adjustment rather than a crisis. And that means that the character can certainly yearn for the old belief, and want to go back, and perhaps deliberately tailor her actions or words or thoughts so that she’s reaching back.
In other words: Your character doesn’t have to make her small changes permanent immediately.
Yes, this is frustrating, to see the protagonist stumble and fall, especially if she seemed to be striding along towards a new form of happiness. But it’s good to get practice at characterizing people with “minor” feelings like frustration, irritation, and hesitation as well as in intense moments of sorrow, triumph, or love. I’ve read stories (usually accompanied by purple prose about “glittering tears” and “joyous laughter”, and where “said” does not exist because the author uses “interesting” words like “shrieked” and “exclaimed” and “exhorted” instead) where the characters simply bounded from emotional high to emotional low and back. I wondered when the hell they got any rest.
And in the middle of a crisis of faith, it’s not going to be all high or low. There are smooth trails as well as mountains and valleys. And those are the places where the character can have regrets, doubts about the doubts, half-hearted gestures, and other things that make them ordinary as well as extraordinary.
6) Have other concerns than speed at the resolution of the crisis.
Once again, speed tends to make crises of faith unconvincing. Why does the character, after 300 pages of well-crafted doubt, see a small child mouthing the words of a prayer and suddenly decide that she’s religious? (I distrust all resolutions to crises that involve children on general principles. Too many authors use them as symbols and plot devices). Why does the character who’s decided that he needs to hear a specific apology from another person to believe in their love accept some equivocal half-assed gesture in its place? The author might not want her characters to go into battle or marriage uncertain, but it’s cheating to sacrifice all your character development to the page count. Go back and trim the middle and beginning if you absolutely must. Or cut some of the description of the battle or the coronation. Quite often, a scene or sequence that demands the sacrifice of well-built characters is not worth the paper it’s written on.
Stop going so fast. Come up with a moment of resolution that suits the character’s depth of doubt, the person they are, the kind of crisis they’re facing, and all the other considerations that you applied so well to the catalyst and the middle. Why would you give this up now, just because you want the crisis to be over? You started it in the first place. Give it its full sprawl.
Or, of course, you could let it go. End the story with another small step towards certainty/reconciliation/final peace, but don’t let the character get there yet. So long as you’ve given a clear indication of where the person’s heading, I think it’s a better choice than shoving your story’s people into some contrived still life.
I acknowledge that this is fully born of my own prejudices, since lately I’ve been writing and reading exclusively long stories. But I have read some shorter novels that impressed me with characters having crises of faith, so it’s not that length is intrinsic to having a compelling one. So often, I think the problem is the author hurrying it up.