Creating Culture Through Religion
Written by Hufsa Tahir
Sunday, 16 September 2012 07:18
A sharp writer looks to the world around him for inspiration. Religion has existed for millions of years and is packed with unused stories and characters. Bring these to light to flesh out your alternate worlds.
Alternate worlds play a major role in fantasy writing. From high to urban fantasy, almost every novel has a separate world for the protagonist to fall into. It might be the past, a parallel present, or the extreme future. Whatever it is, the author must work to create a believable picture of a solid society existing and operating in this world. Said society must be layered enough to pull the reader into it, make them feel like they could imagine themselves navigating their paths through this fantastical realm and, above all, ensure it leaves no gaping plot holes.
Constructing a new world (called World Building in the writing community) involves considering several important aspects to a sentient society. Whether this new world is populated by hobbits, the fae or demons, it will have most if not all of the following:
- A dominating religion
- A population with views on racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, marriage, and sex.
- A class system
- Firm ideas about gender roles and societal norms
- Either conservative or liberal behaviour – or even both
- Practices for child-rearing
- Some kind of leadership: Monarchy/democracy/tyranny/other
- Little, no, or immense significance given to fashion
- Music, sports, and other entertainment
- Ideas about the importance of food (what is/is not considered taboo as a food source, or as a primarily ceremonial or medicinal source, even though edible)
- Technological advancement or decay (or none at all)
Forming a crucial pillar for the foundation of a new world is religion. Let’s clarify here that religion does not mean inserting a Jesus figure or a Heaven and Hell into your story. Religion goes far beyond that:
It helps you build a history:
Religion covers both modern worship and the belief systems of people throughout history – that’s a lot of inspiration! Take the Egyptians for example.
Ancient Egypt worshiped both their Gods and some of the Greek ones (Hellenistic era). Similarly, myths from that period involved the mixing of both Egyptians and Greeks (e.g. the daughters of Danaus). This creates an interesting combination of backgrounds and a possible premise for a plot to spring from.
If you prefer more modern-day deities, there are the tales in the Bible, Torah, and Q’uran, to name a few. The adventures of religious figures can be incorporated into your own world’s history. Maybe your world sprang into being because of some cataclysmic event in a religious book. What about a post-Judgement-Day world?
You don’t have to start thinking from scratch! Use religious history to prop your world on a pre-established foundation. Use it to explain where the inhabitants of your alternate world came from (as seen in the popular The Mortal Instruments series) and why they are the way they are. Borrow heavily from myth and rumor in religion’s vast store of ideas. Take note of the relationships between major players in your chosen religion’s history. Do not hesitate to warp events to suit your needs. You are not offending anyone by adjusting history around. This is your fictional world.
It creates society
Religion, whether prevalent or not, can seep into every crevice of a population – even into food.
Do the inhabitants of your new world eat meat? Do they forbid killing animals at all because of a religious obligation? Are certain animals considered too sacred to be fed upon? Religion has governed food in our world for centuries (Muslims and Jews pay particular attention to this). It dictates what is edible, when it should be eaten (e.g. food for a religious ceremony) and if one is allowed to eat at all (e.g. priests during fasts).
Besides food, religion also governs societal norms and mannerisms. A highly religious society may be very conservative, while a society who has forgotten its gods may prefer an open, liberal lifestyle. Not only do these views affect how characters are treated in this new world, but also lay out expected gender roles as well. Is your character a dissident extrovert in a society focused on silencing free thought of women?
Marriage and sex also bear the effects of an overly religious society versus a lax one. Establishing the regulation and importance of these two in your world opens up more opportunities–so if you were looking for a complex love triangle, religion would prove helpful.
Think about other aspects of life religion controls. Wars are fought in its name, alliances are forged beneath it. And here we get to the final point.
It will give you plot!
Stuck on how exactly to use your unfinished world in an epic story? Peruse the many possibilities hiding under the guise of heroes and villains in religion. There is always a good side and a bad side (devils and demons versus angels and gods). A religious leader can become overzealous; on a mission to perform what he or she believes is the word of your chosen deity, they end up doing more harm than good. Utilizing demons and animal goddesses and Djinn and other mythical faces adds complexity to the social structure of your world. Christianity, for example, mentions the hierarchy of Archangels.
Just be careful to use these fantastical beings in moderation. Too many races in one world will confuse the reader.
There is no law stating you can’t mix up religions. It is one of the best things about fantasy writing – pick and choose whatever inspires you. Meld Greek Gods with modern beliefs of one God for an instantly terse population if you like. And of course, Atheism is as much a religion as any other! Just be careful never to portray any particular religion as “bad” or “untrue”.
Religion forms the basis of a new world, breathing life into the skeleton of a plot. Use its rich history and cast of colourful characters to enrich your own creation. Good writers know how to borrow just enough to keep it interesting. With creative revamping, even the most employed religions can inspire you and set that alternate world off to a great start.
Last Updated on Sunday, 16 September 2012 07:25