World Building Religion
by Melinda Moore
Over a decade ago I played in a Dungeons and Dragons game run by my husband using a pantheon that he had created. Most of the players understood and embraced the variations from real world religions, but one player could never quite get it. He played a cleric of a goddess who raised education above all else, but every time the player filled us in on what the character was doing during his down time, the character would be polishing candlesticks or reciting something similar to hail marys--- something from the real world Catholic church. It never occurred to him maybe his goddess would want him copying texts or tutoring orphans. He could not or would not buy in to this different religion created for the game.
When writing, reader's buy in is essential. How do you get them to accept a different religion for the time it takes to read your story? Start with the idea that gods are people too. They need to have their own motivations and histories. The Greek and Nordic gods are wonderful examples. They have alliances, enemies, petty brawling and humans caught in the middle. In the fantasy world I'm currently writing I have my gods united in the same end goal, but they all have different ways of getting there. One reveres education, one reveres sorcery, and one reveres strife.
Which brings me to my next point: the people should reflect the desires of the gods. The people in the country of the goddess who upholds education are governed by women, teaching is a prestigious occupation and science is far more important than magic. Their next door neighbor worships the god who holds magic above all else. They mostly are governed by men, but a woman sorceress isn't that unusual. But on the other side is chaos because their god holds up strife as the essential ingredient to the progression of the soul.
The trickle down from gods to people ends in the details. What are the religious leaders called? What do the structures look like where they worship? Do the gods intervene regularly? For my world, I've tried to find neutral words that people can still connect to. I use “mystic” for the religious leaders though for a long time I was using “sage.” I think both those words have real world religious neutrality but still imply spirituality. The structures for the goddess look a lot like Greek temples because the ancient Greeks had a love for knowledge and I'm hoping that will subconsciously work its way to the reader. It's been much harder figuring out the structures for the god of strife. For now I've settled on the very back of the cavern the people dwell in as opposed to making a special structure out in the open. The darkness seems to fit better.
But what about stories set in an alternate universe of our own? I think in that case continuity and balance are essential. I know everybody loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that world seems really off balance to me. The demons and vampires had structure and hierarchy, whereas “The Powers that Be” for the good just seemed to cross their fingers and close their eyes and hope that Buffy and Angel would save the day again. It never rang true to me that Buffy would never seek out any of the real world religions available to her. A better example for writers to follow is Xena. While it's ridiculous to think about the amount of miles Xena and Gabrielle walked in the short amount of time they had, at least they made the effort to seek out help from gods outside of Greece. They covered India, Israel and China and a bit of Amazon religions thrown in for good measure.
Outside of good/evil balance, when writing stories about religions in our own world where the gods make material gestures seen or felt by the human characters, realistic reactions are important. In my novella “A Sunset Finish” being published by JupiterGardens Press, my protagonist perceives the Tao or the Watercourse way inside herself while her love interest has lived all his life seeing the Sunset People--- guides to the afterlife for his pueblo. The protagonist always feels like she's drowning in the Tao and is constantly on the verge of suicide, making a rocky journey with her love interest who's been taught by the Sunset People the sanctity of life. The push and pull of their religious experiences provides part of the tension of the story. I think one of the reasons it got accepted for publication is the believable reactions to each other and the religious experiences.
So don't shy away from religion when world building. Embrace it. For three hundred pages make your reader a believer in Xanton God of Treasure of Kyra Goddess of Light. Just remember: Gods are people too.
Thanks to J.W. Alden for allowing me to guest blog here while he's away at Odyssey. If you enjoyed my post please visit enchantedspark.com. I talk about what inspires stories and host a monthly writing contest for a $30 prize.