In honor of Christmas, here’s a reposting of my article on writing about Angels.
Some things are intrinsically hard to write about. Angels may be one of those things. I have almost never seen them done well in fiction. I have, however, read really stirring accounts of people who believe that they have seen real angels. While I have no way to judge the veracity of their stories, I can feel the power of the narrative. It come with a sense of awe and wonder.
Somehow, that sense almost never appears in depictions of angels in fantasy and science fiction. Depictions of angels in genre literature and media is almost universally negative. They are the real bad guys, while demons are misunderstood, emo, moody hunks. Or they are weak. Angels are rigid. Angels are hand-wringers. Angels are boring.
Only the ones who fall in love…emphasis there on the word fall…are even the slightest bit interesting. When they fall, then they get to be the cute scruffy hunks.
Not sure this one falls in love, but…scruffy hunk!
A perfect example of the way angels are often handled is Neil Gaiman’s Angel Islington from Neverwhere. I love Neverwhere, but Islington is just a villain, and not even a particularly inspiring one. Still, Islington does stand out in my mind as the archetypical example of that kind of wimpy evil angel that seems so popular now. One sees these angels in books and TV shows. They are also popular in a certain kind of movie.
Well…a number of reasons.
First of all, it is hard to have a powerful force of good and still have a story. Because the logical question then becomes: well, if they are good, and then are powerful…why haven’t they solved all the problems?
Problem is that the author has to answer that question in a way that makes sense in his story world. Not that easy to do.
A popular answer is: the prime directive. “We angels cannot interfere in the squabbles of men because…we are too benevolent. You must use your free will.” Angels do not interfere for the same reason that parents don’t interfere when their older son is beating their younger son at Monopoly and the younger one is in tears. The adult might comfort the child, but he does not win the game for him. That would not be fair.
In real life, this may make sense, but it is hard to make it satisfying in a story. In real life, letting go of the grip of the world around us and turning to God may be a goal…but in a story, we, the writers, need to do the opposite. To suck people into our imaginary world, to get them to suspend their disbelief. It is difficult to keep the reader in a story where we are telling the reader that the happenings are not important enough for the real good guys to bother with.
A word about real life. I have often wondered how traditional Christians can buy the ‘we don’t interfere like a parent’ theory…when losing the game means going to Hell. I think they must use a different explanation. I do understand how it would work in according to my church—where Hell is a state of mind you can escape from if you turn to God—or in the world of Near Death Experiences, which also seems to include a Hell one can be prayed out of.
But if Hell is real and permanent? Well, I might not stop my older son from winning the game…but I’d sure stop him from hurting or killing his brother!
But back to the world of fiction.
There are other ways to solve the dilemma. When it was my turn, I turned to some ideas from my church and from C. S. Lewis and decided that Heaven and heavenly things were more substantial than earthly things, not less so. So, when the angel comes into the world, it begins to warp around her and seem flimsy. She can only stay a little while…like a child’s contraption that an adult would break if he climbed into it. So, the parent can only come help for a moment, when the child is really stuck. Otherwise, they have to figure it out on their own. This gave them a slightly stronger reason for not hanging around.
Are angels ever done right? Yes, occasionally, they are. When the spirit of a true testimonial of God’s messengers in our life is brought to the story. Christmas stories often capture this mood.
One of my favorite angels was Rafe Kovick’s Christmas appearance on the soap opera Port Charles. Back in December of some year about a decade ago, I was working out at the gym in front of a large bank of TVs and I started watching this soap opera…only time I have ever watched one. It had on it this character who looked like a scruffy bad boy, only—he was an angel. And instead of all the terrible things that usually happen on soaps, this one month, in honor of Christmas, the angel would come by and something unexpectedly good would happen.
(He was really there to hunt a vampire, but he could pause to perform a few other miracles as well.)
It was just delightful to watch. Every day, something else uplifting occurred. I loved it.
As soon as Christmas was over. The angel fell in love, fell, and became uninteresting. But he was so cool when he was an angel!
I have a lot of angels in the Rachel Griffin series. Some are good angels. Some are very good. Some are only so-so. One idea I borrowed from the friend who originated the idea is that very few angels understand how humans think. (Think of how adults often don’t seem to understand children. Now imagine you’d never been a child, never did anything wrong. How easy would it be to understand them?) Therefore, even when they try to help, sometimes they just make things worse.
So, you can see why their Father might have set rules for how they are to interact with men.
Also, another popular idea that I also take advantage of is: when angels act, demons are allowed to act, too. So angels don’t want to interfere unless they have to, because they give their enemies license to do something.
This particular option appeals to me, because I see things that remind me of this in real life all the time. Think of how a good idea tends to get distorted when it becomes popular. That’s a bit like an angel (message from God) being warped by demonic interests.
Stories that follow this format could be quite interesting. Sadly, there are not a lot of them.
So…what is your favorite handling of angels in literature or media?