Welcome to the second annual Worldbuilding Week at QSF. We’ll talk about all aspects of building a world for your story, including languages; alien/magical races; history and timelines; culture and politics; sex, marriage and reproduction; tools and techniques; and religion. It should be a lot of fun.
For our final day, we’re talking about religion, and Jenna Hale will be our moderator.
How many religions exist in the history of the world? Likely you’ll think of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–the Abrahamic trio–or Buddhism and Hinduism. You might be familiar with Shinto, the varying flavors of paganism and Wicca, or the old Greek, Norse, and Celtic pantheons. According to best estimates, there are somewhere over 4,200 religions in the world. As a writer, you might be interested in adding one more. So, where do you start?
Step One: The Gods, or Lack Thereof
Is the religion monotheistic or polytheistic? (Meaning, is there one god or many?) If polytheistic, how many gods are there? Who’s in charge? What are they gods of? If you look at the classic polytheistic religions, there is usually one god in charge of the others. Think Zeus or Odin. When the gods are divided, they are usually divided by what they are the god of: elements, phenomenon, nature, etc. They can be a family (go through the full Celtic pantheon sometime… all of it) or a bureaucracy or just a bunch of powerful beings fighting for control. Sometimes they’re considered good. Sometimes they’re considered evil. Sometimes they’re neither–they just are and it’s up to mortals to suss out such meaningless things as morality. (It’s in their names after all, mortals.)
Wikipedia is a great site for reading up on some of the gods that are out there, like Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love, fertility, war, and sex. Or Ganesha, the Hindu god of new beginnings, the remover of obstacles, the patron of the arts and sciences, and the deva (deity) of intellect and wisdom. Or Grandmother Spider, who is the world creator of Southwestern Native American religions.
Gods don’t have to be human. Gods don’t have to be animate. In the Shinto religion, natural phenomenon (growth, fertility), natural elements (wind, thunder), and even natural objects (rocks, trees, rivers) are considered kami, or divine spirits.
Step Two: God(s), Meet People
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course it does, but that raises an interesting question. If a god has no followers, does he/she/it really exist? Belief is what creates a religion and the people who believe are an important part in the story of any religion. Given the thousands of religions out there, what makes a person practice a specific one? (Or not practice any at all, sometimes.)
In most cases, that answer is hope. Hope for a better life or at least better circumstances, as if performing certain actions in a certain order will bring a god’s favor. Hope for salvation after death, assuming life after death is a thing. (Is there an afterlife? Is there reincarnation? Or is there just one shot on Earth and that’s it?) Hope for power. Hope for control. Hope for a meaning to our existence on this spinning rock (or whatever type of world you’re building).
Or, maybe the god(s) are right there, walking among their believers. Encouraging them, not from afar, but from their sides, helping along those they deem worthy. Or hindering those they find unworthy. Or just being unhelpful and causing chaos. (I’m looking at you, Coyote.)
Step Three: People Do Things
So what do the followers do? How do they dress? What rites and rituals must they perform? Are there prohibitions–no alcohol, no sex, no mixing meat and cheese? There are usually leaders of religions–the Pope, for example–and people who study the tenants of the religion–priests. Sometimes there’s a book where everything is written down. Sometimes knowledge is passed through stories. Sometimes it’s written on stone tablets. Sometimes there’s nothing written at all, just blind faith. There are holidays, where you honor the gods by doing specific things, and temples or groves or other locations where worship is practiced. There are things that are considered good luck (like ringing a bell) or bad luck (like stepping on a crack).
Step Four: Religion Meet Religion
Remember how I mentioned that there were over 4,200 religions in the world? Not all of them get along, and when that happens, people tend to die. See, for example, the Crusades. Even within one religion, the gods don’t always get along. Hera would often get mad at her husband Zeus for cheating on her and punish the often unwitting mortals that Zeus meddled with. Loki is often at odds with the other Norse gods, leading to him being bound and tortured with venom until he escapes and starts Ragnarok–the end of the world. Humans are great at using any minor difference as an excuse to hate others.
Step Five: Take a Step Back
It’s really easy to fall into the worldbuilding trap of creating an immense background, full of fleshed out gods and their devotees, to get every detail down to the morning prayers written out. Please don’t do that. (Unless you’re bored or find it really fun and can spare the time.) Time spent plotting those details is time spent not writing your story. (Unless your story is all those notes, ala David Eddings’ Rivan Codex.) Think of your worldbuilding as an iceberg. There’s a whole wealth of knowledge that you may know about the setting you’re creating, but the readers are only going to see the very tip of that.
You don’t have to flesh out of all the details of your religion. Stick with what’s important to the story. Is it important that followers of your religion say hello twice to trick evil fox spirits? Only if one of the characters forgets to do so and meets up with one of those tricky fox spirits.
I hope I’ve given y’all a few things to think about when working on worldbuilding religions. Have any of you built your own? Share your favorite details from religions you’ve created or read about in the comments.
Here’s the schedule for the week – each day will have a moderator to help keep moving things along and to supply their own tips and point of view.
Tues 7/26: Languages, Moderator: Loren Rhoads
Wed 7/27: Alien/Magical Races, Moderator: J. Scott Coatsworth
Thurs 7/28: Culture/Politics, Moderator: Lloyd Meeker
Fri 7/29: Sex, Marriage, Reproduction, Moderator: Roger Lovelace
Sat 7/30: Tools and Techniques, Moderator, Moderator: A. Catherine Noon
Sun 7/31: Religion, Moderator: Jenna Hale
It’s a freeform discussion – pop in and ask your questions or share your wisdom – or both!