Since my World Building post was so well received I wanted to return to the subject with a bit more detail. Specifically I wanted to delve into one of the most critical aspects of fantasy or speculative worlds- religions.
This can be a delicate subject, religion and faith, but it is something defines a good portion of men and women around the globe. It informs decisions of cultures, affects politics, economies and even directs the outcomes of war. The complexity of faith is one that could spend a dozen posts on and just scratch the surface. So I wanted to get into the idea of religion by asking the question that was asked of me by a professor- what does ‘religion’ mean to you?
What does Religion mean to you– This is an important question because you would be surprised at the variety and scope of answers one produces with that question. There is no right or wrong answer, but it serves as your personal baseline as to your creative vision for your fictional faith. This will give you an idea for building blocks- are you a rules and ritual person, or a spiritual fulfillment person of faith or perhaps you’re simply excited by the imagery of religion. Once you have defined what religion means to you, then its time to start working on the religion of your fictional world. There are many ways of going about this, but I would suggest starting by reading about religions from across the millennia.
Research– Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole with this one. You can easily get caught in a the research trap when it comes to religions as they history and variety is literally as old as man. However, that being said, I would suggest picking periods of history- Bronze and Iron ages- to identify the faiths and religions practiced during those times. Choose religions that served as inspiration or building blocks to later, larger or well known faiths. Again, think and look asymmetrically at the subject of religion and you’d be surprised what you’d find. To do online research I would recommend Patheos religion library, a reliable site encouraged by my religion professor. Important, as you read about religions and take notes, keep in mind how you answered what you religion means to you.
Fictional Syncretism– One of the creative tools a writer can apply to constructing a new faith for a universe is by applying syncrestism to some faiths you’ve found in your research. The best explination of syncretism is the cooping or borrowing elements of older faiths by a new faith that is either moving into or converting a population. Try looking at an old, mist shrouded faith, and looking at it with new eyes. If an old faith considers fire the element of a creator, perhaps your fictional creator employs it in a different way. Perhaps your deities use it only on one day, therefore it becomes the symbol of a festival, month or day. Some of the best examples of syncretism in our world come from the Christian conversion of Scandinavian pagans (Thor’s Day =Thursday, etc.)
Avoid Egyptian and Greco-Roman Gods– I cannot stress this enough. For me nothing is the kiss of death when reading a blurb about a new novel or short story and it is yet another retread of Egyptian gods or ancient Greece deities. It happens all too often and taints otherwise original stories and universes when a thinly veiled Ra or Zeus wanders into a oily back alley.
Express the idea of Religion in the voice of a character– You’ve undoubtedly created a pantheon, a creator goddess, her sons or daughters, their kin, creatures and beasts. Once its all sorted out, build a temple to that deity- whether its an open field or stone ediface- and have a character spend one afternoon inside it. Express the journey of fact, the act itself, in a peaceful setting. Perhaps create a regular man or woman, have them experience the sights, sounds and smells of the religious movement. Sit and think how your own religious experience affected you and rewrite that thought through the eyes of the fictional devotee. Express the act of devotion and the very important interaction the character has with the mystery of their deity.
All of these ideas, I hope, will aid fellow writers in creating inventive, exciting and engaging religions in the world of speculative fiction.
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