Monday, July 17, 2017

Worldbuilding: Religions

One of my favorite subjects, besides military history, is theology. I currently have a work-in-progress that takes place in a unique world, and hence I've been engaging in much worldbuilding. Part of this has, of course, involved the religions of this world. 

This led me to ponder a bit on worldbuilding and religion. I decided to write a short post on the subject, to give some advice and suggestions to fellow authors.

Do Research!

Oh no, more work, I can hear some people thinking. Yes, I know it stinks sometimes when you're really eager to get to writing and making the rubber hit the road as far as your storytelling is concern. Nonetheless, if faith or religion is going to have any part in your story, it might be helpful to research the topic a little bit.

I would also highly suggest researching from original sources. I imagine nobody reading this post would learn about Judaism from National Socialist websites - well, treat other faiths with as much respect. Don't research Christianity from New Atheist websites. Don't research Islam from right-wing blogs. If you can find works in English that translate what a certain religion's documents or leaders say or have said, try to rely on that for the most part. If you can find balanced, scholarly works on the subject, and those subjects quote from original sources, by all means rely on that too.

Another good tip: if you have friends or acquaintances that belong to certain faiths, it might help asking them what they suggest. For example, I have a book at home on Shia Islam; I got it because I knew a well-read Shia Muslim, and I actually went and asked him what the best book on the subject of his faith was.

Obviously, everybody's time is limited, and I don't expect anyone reading this blog to go out and get a Theology Doctorate. Nonetheless, just as you would do a little bit of research into other topics related to your work, so too should you consider researching into this topic as well. Who knows - it may not influence your world's religions, but it might also influence other aspects of it.

Be Creative!

A lot of times, I think the default state many will go to is a "copypasta" of Roman Catholicism or Greek mythology. You either have the hierarchical priest church, or you have the plethora of gods for every task or natural occurrence under the sun. Obviously this isn't always a bad thing (I mean let's face it, George R.R. Martin's Faith of the Seven is basically Roman Catholicism revamped, and nobody complains); nonetheless, I think a lot of writers are missing out when they don't attempt to think outside the box.

Contrary to popular belief among many, it's untrue that all religions are basically the same. Some are more philosophical in nature than spiritual (eg., many Eastern "religions"). Some are polytheistic. Some are henotheistic (that is, there are many gods, but only one is worth worshiping). Some are monontheistic. 

Within all these groups, there can be varieties, some major and some minor. For example, Islam is a monotheistic religion, but within Islam you have Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi, etc. Then among the Shia you have Sixers and Twelvers. Within those groups you have even more variety. Keep in mind this doesn't necessarily need to be divisive variety, but individual groups within a larger faith that can be in slight opposition to one another (eg., the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, etc.). Just as it happens in the real world, so too can you can do the same in your world.

Be Detailed!

For a lot of writers, faith and religion seems to take a back seat. This is unfortunate because even tiny details regarding a character's faith can be helpful in influencing their motivations and aspirations. 

One big example of this is eschatology, which is commonly associated with end-times beliefs. The reason for the growth of revival in the 18th and 19th centuries was because many in the early parts of the movement were Postmillennials, who believed there would be a massive revival before the return of Christ. The reason some Founding Fathers opposed war with Britain was because they came from Quaker-based beliefs, which opposed any conflict or violence at all. Within some parts of Islam, there's such a high view of fatalism that something like the car breaking down is shrugged off with "Allah wills it - no need to fix it."

Again, little details like this can help shape your character. Even if it's a subtle nuance, it can still influence and affect your characters.

Be Original!

I can't help but notice, as far as character writing goes, that many times you end up with two cliches, both of them opposite extremes:

The Inquisitor: This is the follower of a religion (whether a cleric or a layman) who thinks everyone who doesn't agree with him is evil and deserves to die. We've probably most seen this character in movies, whether it be the oppressive mother who quotes Bible verses every other second, or the priest who goes insane as zombies attack. Most of the time they just end up being a terrible straw man for organized religion.

The Hippie: This is the guy who may belong to a religion, but hey, who cares about what you believe? Sometimes it can get to the point where the MC could commit ethnic cleansing, and the Hippie would just shrug his shoulders and say, "Who am I to judge?" This person's beliefs amount to a superficial wonder as to why we can't all just get along? Flower power, maaaaaaan!

Believe it or not, it's possible to have a happy middle ground here. You can have a character who holds firmly to his faith, but doesn't want everyone who disagrees with him burned at the stake. You can have a character who seems welcoming and accepting, but is in fact a dangerous cult member, or close-minded in other, more significant ways. Just as it's better to come up with a multilayered, try to come up with a character that's a little more than a caricature of either intolerance or tolerance.

I can give an example from my own work. Edmund, the Magi from Gods on the Mountain, is firmly established in his faith in the Almighty, the monotheistic god for much of Calambria; he believes there is no other correct religion, except the worship of the Almighty. At the same time, when he hangs out with dwarfs who worship the dragons of old, he doesn't contradict everything they say or do, or start foaming at the mouth and ranting against them Westboro Baptist Church-style. I had beta readers tell me that they appreciated that fact about him.

Don't be afraid of truth!

What is the truth in your world? Is there a right religion? Is there a wrong religion? Is one religion based on nonsense, but another is based on fact? I think many times when people are worldbuilding, they don't think about this, or consider it firmly enough. A lot of times there almost seem to be a plethora of pantheons in a world, each one vying for each other. Other times things are just left vague. Vagueness can be okay, but don't be afraid to have a "true" faith that maybe truly does have power over others, or can assist its members better. It can certainly add credibility to someone's quest or motivation.

With the rise of postmodern thought, it's easy to trigger people by saying one thing's right and one thing's wrong. This is the glorious thing about worldbuilding: this is your own world you are creating. You can say there's a right and wrong and not trigger people. (Well, within reason.) If you want to say one religion is right and all the others are wrong, have at it!


  1. Ben dares to talk about religion,
    but he has no problems telling lies about me and my book on the Amazon review page.

  2. "Only the noblest truths have permanent existence."
    --Henry David Thoreau

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