World-building: Tips on fictional religions.

My sister once told me about how a friend of hers created a religion for his fantasy world. Fun times! What are the details of this made-up religion?

Apparently, it was exactly like Christianity, except the God figure was female and the order was accepting of homosexuals.

Seems he considered doing anything beyond that to be “too hard.”

But religion is a fundamental thing in our world, whether you follow a faith or not. It’s a showcase of how some human morals cross universally, and how some greatly differ. It leads to inner conflicts and bloody wars and rituals mundane and bizarre.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in making a religion. But where do you start? Here are some tips:

1)      Research

Research is always the first step in any creation process. Whether you’re creating a church to worship a singular god, or orders for an entire pantheon, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. Research real-world religions, both current and long past. The pantheons of Ancient Egypt and Greece are always good places to start, as they are steeped in rituals. Modern pantheons can be seen in Voodoo or Hinduism. Catholicism is good for standard-Western religions. But no matter what kind of religion you’re trying to create, knowing how the real world handles the specifics is key.

2)      Know your world

You can’t write a religion for a world that you haven’t spent time fleshing out. What would the people in your world worship? A city-state that relies heavily on fishing and sea-faring probably worships some sort of ocean god. A tribe living in the shadow of an active volcano likely worships the fire god they believe dwells there. Hunters in a harsh, icy wasteland probably worship a guiding spirit that leads them to prey and shelters them on the journey home. Does your world have different gods for different aspects of life? Are all these gods worshipped collectively, or do different places worship different gods? Determine what kind of gods would be appropriate for your setting and the people living in it.

3)      Know your fractions

Let’s say you’ve got several gods, each with their own order of worshippers. Do certain orders hate each other? Are they always fighting to get more supporters amidst the common folk? Do they try to sabotage each other? Or, conversely, does each order recognize the necessity of the others, allowing them all to exist in relative peace? What about within each order? Are there extremists? What are they like? How do regular worshippers view them?

4)      How is worship done?

Are your gods “Go to temple/church/random holy place and pray” types of gods, or are they “Give me the blood of virgins” types of gods? Somewhere in between maybe? Consider what kind of rituals you want to implement into a religion and ask “Why do the worshippers do this? Why does the god in question want it done this way?” Know that giving offerings is standard practice for a lot of gods, but what is offered varies depending on the god.

Rituals may also be more ceremonial. Death Gods will likely have people prepping bodies for burial, and the ceremonies surrounding that can be very elaborate. Marriage ceremonies might be dictated by a god. Ceremonies involving fertility gods may ask worshippers to drink weird combinations of herbs.

As a writer, you need to determine these things and ask the all-important “Why?”

5)      Holidays

Religion is one of many reasons we have holidays. There’s be no Christmas or Easter without the belief in Jesus. Halloween traces its roots back to pagan traditions to ward off the dead. So, your religion should have holidays too. Those holidays and how they are celebrated follow a similar creation process of rituals. You need to ask why people celebrate a certain day, and what they do to celebrate it. However, holidays are usually more about fun then duty. Chances are there’s a lot of eating and boozing, but endeavour to create something unique for your world.

6)      If the antagonist of your story is a religious order/individual, either try to make the religion as unlike any actual religions are possible, or classify the antagonist as an extremist and show the kinder side of the religion.

This isn’t so much a tip on creating your own religion, but more to avoid looking bigoted. Don’t, for example, create a well-known evil cult-like religion based heavily on Islam. If you’re not religious, don’t create an order of self-righteous douches that look similar to Christians. Inversely, don’t play the Religious Warrior of Light & Justice vs the Evil Heretics Who Don’t Believe as a card against atheists. It’s fine to have religious groups in your world that hate each other, and it’s fine to allude to real-life conflicts if you’re trying to make a point. It’s also fine to demonstrate the differences between extremism and regular adherence to a religion.

The key is remembering that it’s usually the people that corrupt a scripture, not the other way around.

7)      Barring special circumstances, these are all just world-building details

The worst thing a writer can do in regards to writing religion is be preachy. While your made-up religion might be very interesting, information should only come when needed. Exposition can be given if a character is participating in a ritual, or interacting with a member of the order, or is a member of the order. It’s your job, as a writer, to determine how these details enrich the narrative, without bogging it down.

And these are my writing tips for this week. I hope you found them helpful.

Categories: musings, On Writing | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “World-building: Tips on fictional religions.

  1. Great advice!

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