Wright’s Writing Corner: On Angels



                                                                       Rafe the Scruffy Angel of Joy


Some time ago, I promised to begin a series of articles about writing about the Great Ideas. The first Great Idea listed by Mortimer Adler happens to be Angels. So, today, I thought I would write about 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.

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?

Interesting question.

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 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 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.

And that is what makes the “real” stories about angels so wonderful…that sense of unexpected joy, of something good appearing where there seemed to be only sorrow, of eucatastrophe…something, surprisingly and unexpectedly good.

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!

So…what is your favorite handling of angels in literature or media?