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I talked to a critique partner not too long ago about an angel in my book. I said, he was a subversive character, in the way that he wasn't 100 % pure and good, like angels in theory are supposed to be. This angel was a cynical, harsh, capable of evil for the greater good character. He is also narrative-wise one of many antagonist, though in my opinion, he is not a villain.

My critique partner responded with that it was "wrong", in the sense that by subverting the very essence of angelhood, I couldn't call it an angel anymore. But in my idea, subversion is all about keeping the superficial and changing the essence, or keeping the essence and changing the superficial.

Here's what I mean.

My character has wings. He is tall, and strong. He is made by one of the Gods inside the world to protect the mortal plain. Wings, strength, created by good, wielding the blade of righteousness, all that jazz. But his character speaks a whole different tale, him trying to kill a child at one time, to save the world (exactly how and why is irrelevant).

Or then you have the other type. Think "wolf in sheep clothing". I can't really think of a concrete example, but you know what I mean. At surface level, nothing could give of the underlying truth. The essence.

So, is the practice of subverting the very essence of a fictional creation fallacious (for the lack of a better world), in that altering the essence makes it not the fictional creation it portrays? Or does the fact that this creation is religious bring further implications, which is what makes it unacceptable in this case? Is it rather a matter of offense than definition in my case, where it is a religious creation?

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    I'm sure your critique partner wouldn't like the angels in Supernatural either. – celtschk Aug 4 at 5:51
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    Are you familiar with Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials? Your angel doesn't really look that bad. – Alexander Aug 4 at 8:28
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    Everything in the world has become about Good Omens lately, hasn't it? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Aug 4 at 12:35
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    Angels are portrayed differently in different contexts - look at the TV series Lucifer, where Uriel, Amenadiel and even Gods wife are on screen - as very human, very flawed characters. Your critique partner seems not to be familiar with the many different types of portrayals of angels that we have already seen and work great. – Polygnome Aug 4 at 12:36
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    When dealing with religion everything will be unacceptable to at least one potential reader. Whether or not its acceptable is basically what are you comfortable with and what will not drive away too many readers. – DJ Spicy Deluxe Aug 4 at 13:02
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The beauty of fiction is that it can be whatever you want it to be. It's your story, your world, you characters, however you want to write them. You can use as much or as little of the real world as you want. You can move cultures across time, invent impossible technologies and turn entire belief systems inside out.

I don't see anything wrong with subverting your characters "essence" in the way you've described. I still get the idea that he is an angel, just not the type typically thought of in a religious context. This is how YOU define YOUR angel. I don't see a problem with it.

You critique partner may object because of the religious nature of the subject, or he might not be able to see beyond his own definition. Either way, it is always a good idea to have several people take a look at your work. They will all have their own opinions and it will help you sort out where the real problems with the story are and what are only personal objections. Never rely on only one person's opinion.

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    Still, there is a limit of how far you can go without disorienting your readers. If you create a fantasy world where giant lizard-like flying and fire-breathing creatures are called dwarves, and short but stout, bearded underground-dwelling ale-drinking people are called elves, and graceful forest-dwelling archers are called dragons, you will just confuse everyone, and it won't be received well. While you can derive your creatures from popular real-world or fantasy examples, there is a limit of how much difference there can be before it gets too different to warrant using the name. – vsz Aug 4 at 12:24
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    @vsz That's not what the OP was saying, though: "I still get the idea that he is an angel, just not the type typically thought of in a religious context." – Llewellyn Aug 4 at 12:31
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    @Llewellyn : I know. However, the answer was in a style of "your world, you can do pretty much whatever you want", and this is what I wanted to tone down a little. – vsz Aug 4 at 12:44
  • there is a limit of how far you can go without disorienting your reader And that (disorienting readers) would be a bad thing?? I think not. – TaW Aug 4 at 16:30
  • @TaW : how would you, as a reader, like a fantasy book with the (rather extreme) example I mentioned? – vsz Aug 4 at 20:23
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Angels have had a whole bunch of different portrayals in fiction, many of them not entirely pure and good. Often, they tend towards "well-intentioned extremist" or "lawful stupid paladin" types, because it lets them be used as foils for protagonists without being completely evil.

Even if you limit yourself to the Biblical canon, however, there's a reason why angels often introduce themselves by saying "Don't be afraid." The last of the twelve plagues of Egypt, where the firstborn son would die? Done by an angel. During the prophesied Apocalypse, when Jesus opens the final seal, seven angels are given seven trumpets, and they cause massive destruction to the Earth by blowing them.

Even when they're intending to be friendly, though, they're still often scary to look at - the only physical descriptions we get of angels in the Bible are very physically freaky, with lots of eyes, wings, and/or heads. It sort of makes sense when you think about it, though - they're beings of pure spirit, not biological tissue, so petty things like the laws of biology or physics don't apply to them.

Moreover, you have to consider that there's no fundamental difference in nature between angels and demons, in Christian cosmology - they're the same kind of creature, with similar capabilities. For instance, demons often lie, and angels don't, but that's not because angels can't lie, but because they always choose not to, in pursuance towards the will of God. The difference between them is purely political/ethical, in that angels follow God's will and demons rebel against it, to the point where the only real way to tell the difference between an angel and a demon when they show up is to pay attention to what they're saying to you, and comparing it to what the Bible says.

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    The Bayonetta franchise is a good example. It depicts angels exactly as you describe them. They are often only remotely human and when they lose their shining armors and garments they look very similar to demons and they are just as evil. – Takiro Aug 5 at 10:24
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Not only is it acceptable, I’d say it’s encouraged. Original ideas and interesting stories often come from “what if” tweaks.

There are several successful examples of angels that do not conform to the “goody two-shoes” or “humanoid with wings” molds:

The one thing you need to keep in mind is that by calling it by a word that already exists (“angel” and not something made up like “rekcz”) you’re anchoring the reader’s expectations, so there should be something they can recognise or you can justify. In your case, you have plenty.

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    I think that Satan's status as an angel following his rebellion is debatable, even if the difference between angels and demons is more along the lines of political factions rather than differences in species. – nick012000 Aug 4 at 14:08
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    @nick012000 I was referring to their status before the exile. Either way, a fallen angel is still an angel, and the distinction is irrelevant for this particular question. – user137369 Aug 4 at 15:43
  • spoiler Angel Islington from Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere" – Gnudiff Aug 5 at 21:33
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Deviating from reality or conventional understanding can make a story more interesting ... or it can make it confusing. Or even offensive.

A lot depends on what the purpose is for your deviations. If any.

If you wrote a story in which you portrayed the Red Cross as a major corporation that sells cars, with no explanation, readers would just be confused. It might take them a while to figure out that in your story the Red Cross is not a humanitarian organization but a car maker. What would be the point? If you need a corporation that sells cars in your story, normally it would make a lot more sense to use a made up name that sounds like a car company or refer to a real car company.

If in your story the Red Cross is a front organization for an international criminal conspiracy, used to gain access to many countries under the guise of providing humanitarian aid, that might make an interesting twist for a thriller. You might also be getting a libel suit from the real Red Cross.

Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religions generally see angels as messengers of God to do good. Portraying angels as evil or morally ambiguous characters may annoy, maybe even offend. They might see if as an attack on their religion. Speaking as a Christian, I've come across lots of stories that present the teachings of my religion as proven false or present some religious or supernatural events that conflict with Christianity. And I think it's tricky. If it comes across as simply a fantasy, not attacking my faith but just building a fictional world with a fictional supernatural, I can enjoy it as a story. In that case I see it as little different from reading a story with faster than light travel or anti-gravity machines. Impossible in light of current science, but it's not attacking anyone, it's just a fictional device to make a fun story. But if I perceive it as attacking my religion, than I just find the story tedious. I'm not about to organize a mob to attack the writer's home, drag him into the street and beat him to death or anything like that. But I'm also not going to spend my time reading a story that's just a gratuitous attack on my faith. And if I know in advance what the story is like, I'm not going to pay to buy a book or attend a movie that deliberately attacks and insults me.

(This is not the same, by the way, as a serious criticism. I've read books by atheists attacking Christianity so that I can hear both sides of the debate and see if maybe someone changes my mind.)

So I think it comes down to how it's presented. If it comes across as, this is an alternate world fantasy where angels are different from how they are in the real world, that's one thing. If it comes across as an attack on Judeo-Christian beliefs about angels, that's quite another. If your intent is to attack Christianity and this is a story designed to appeal to atheists, then that's something else again.

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Writers do this often, so clearly it can be done. And fiction is neither non-fiction, with its implicit commitment to accuracy and facts, nor a religious document, intended to shape people's beliefs, nor yet a course in moral improvement and uplift. Therefore, the blanket judgment that this is "wrong" seems questionable. With that said, I can see several productive ways of taking your critique partner's comment:

  • While you may not personally be religious, there are plenty of readers --your critique partner may be one --who believe in the literal, non-fictional existence of divine, intrinsically good angels. Recognize that your book is not going to be a good match for that audience.

  • Given that the original conception of angel is so distant from your depiction, your critique partner may be calling into question whether it makes sense, is illuminating, or is even interesting to call this being an "angel." You can write a book where you call a horse a "fish" (or call a dragon a "hobbit," for a more mythological example) but there doesn't seem to be much reason to do so. In this case, you have something that strongly resembles an angel, but arguably only at a superficial level.

  • Finally, the "fallen angel" conceptualization is seemingly a more common --some might say overplayed --depiction in modern popular culture than the original one. Perhaps your critique partner is just tired of this modern pop-culture trope.

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I'd point out to your partner that their conception of "angelhood" is contrary to the Bible itself, at least in that they aren't merely Pure Glowing Goody Two-Shoes.

2 Samuel 25: 15-17:

So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men.

And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand. And the angel of the Lord was by the threshingplace of Araunah the Jebusite.

And David spake unto the Lord when he saw the angel that smote the people, and said, Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father's house.

2 Kings 19: 35

And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.

The "destroyer" that killed the firstborn of Egypt is generally assumed to also have been an angel of death.

Mass murder, the slaughter of helpless children, and biological warfare are generally not something we'd think a purely "good" being would carry out, but there you are.

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