How to write an Eastern Orthodox character

Disclaimer: I am not Eastern Orthodox myself, and the Christian denomination I’ve always been most familiar with is Roman Catholicism. My apologies if I get any details or theological points wrong.

Because I have so many Eastern Orthodox characters, I needed to get familiar with the ins and outs of their religion. This faith is found in places including Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Belarus, Albania, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, and Montenegro.

Since the Christian denomination I’m most familiar with is Roman Catholicism, I used to refer to the Protestant clergy in my books as priests, and talk about Protestants having Mass, First Communion, and Confession. It was pretty embarrassing when I found out those things only exist in Catholicism. When I started writing about the Orthodox, I made similar errors, based on my naïve belief that Orthodox Christianity is a more old-fashioned, ornate form of Catholicism.

Some of the errors I had to correct in earlier drafts, and other things which I learnt along the way, include:

1. The Orthodox don’t have Rosaries. They have prayer ropes. A prayer rope consists of little knots, with a knotted cross at the end. A longer prayer rope may have a tassel below the cross.

2. First Communion is usually simultaneous to baptism and chrismation. There’s no waiting till age eight. Infants can take Communion.

3. One must fast before taking Communion, and Communion is leavened. The blessed but unconsecrated remains of the bread used for Communion is called Antidoron, and offered to non-Orthodox guests after Divine Liturgy.

4. Confession isn’t done as often as in traditional Catholicism, and it generally doesn’t take place inside a Confessional. If it’s in a church, it’s done near the lectern and iconostasis. Afterwards, the penitent’s head is covered with the priest’s stole as the prayer of absolution is recited.

5. Priests can be married and have children.

6. A wedding starts in the vestibule of the church, moves to the narthex, and finally concludes at the altar.

7. The long, holy Sunday service is called Divine Liturgy, not Mass.

8. Some Orthodox churches are newer than others, and others aren’t officially recognised yet. For example, many Ukrainians have traditionally been Orthodox, but they were under the yoke of the Russian Orthodox Church until they got their own church in 1921. Additionally, some churches have several patriarchates and/or religious bodies in places with a significant portion of that respective diaspora. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.

9. After a baptism, guests get witness pins (martyrika), a little ribbon with a pin, meant to be worn as public recognition of having witnessed the special ceremony.

10. Bombonieras, little bags of candy (often including Jordan almonds) tied with ribbon, are also distributed after a baptism.

11. There are strict rules about wedding dates. A wedding may not be conducted on a fast day or during a fast season, which the Orthodox calendar is full of. (It’s my sneaking suspicion that the typical modern parishioner isn’t so strict about keeping all these fasts and avoiding fish, oil, dairy, and/or meat during the fast seasons.) (More details on fasting.)

Marriages are not permitted during Great Lent, Holy Week, August 1-15, August 29 (Beheading of St. John the Baptist), September 14 (Exaltation of the Holy Cross), December 13-25, or the day before and the day of Theophany (January 5 and 6), Pascha, Pentecost, and Christmas (December 24 an25).

One may get permission of the diocesan bishop for a marriage to be performed on one of these days. For example, my characters Fedya and Novomira marry on 20 December because Fedya wants to join the Army as soon as possible and make sure his sweetheart has legal benefits and protections as his wife in case the worst happens.

12. There’s a Purgatory-like concept, but it’s not the same as the Catholic idea of Purgatory.

13. One’s baptismal name may be different from one’s legal name, but it has to be a saint’s name.

14. Not all prayers are the same. For example, the Orthodox don’t use the Apostles’ Creed, and there are slightly different forms of the Our Father and Hail Mary. They have plenty of their own prayers in their own liturgy, though they’re not as well-known as Western Christian prayers.

15. The Sign of the Cross is performed in the opposite direction from that of Roman Catholics. The Orthodox start at the forehead, then touch the collarbone, right shoulder, and left shoulder.

16. Orthodox churches don’t have pews, unless they got the building from a non-Orthodox church. There will be some chairs for the sick, the elderly, and pregnant women, but everyone else will stand, or walk around to venerate ikons and talk to people. That seems more personal than the familiar sitting and standing by rote.

17. Orthodox Easter may be as much as five weeks removed from Western Easter. Learn how to calculate the date of Orthodox Easter.

If it’s not Christian fiction, you don’t need to overwhelm your writing with theological and cultural details, but there should still be religious seasoning. A story can feel bland and unrealistic if we know the characters are active members of a certain religion, yet we never see that part of themselves incorporated.


2 thoughts on “How to write an Eastern Orthodox character

  1. I love the spooky feel you gave to your blog!

    I’ve never written about an Eastern Orthodox character. It looks like it would take a lot of work and research. If I ever need to write about one, though, I know where to turn. 😀


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