Religion. For only being one word, it has an utterly insane amount of implication when you think about it. So then how do you properly use religion in fiction?
It’s not easy. When you think about it, depending on your beliefs, religion can be everything from a factor in your life all the way up to being the sole guiding part of your life. At the same time, religion can range from being a source of good will and charity all the way over to being a destroyer of lives and catalyst for war. It is a part of our lives and, theoretically, a part of our deaths.
So if religion is such a powerful factor in our lives, how can we best use it in fiction? Let’s face it, we writers love to twist and use anything we know (or don’t) in story writing. After all, for the sake of a good story, any topic is fair game*.
The first thing is that you have to identify A) how many religions are in your universe, B) what types of religions you have,and C) what mentality that religion teaches. As you can tell, it isn’t something so simple as “Religion X” that takes on a role in your world. Think about it, if you’re building a world from scratch with a religion playing an integral part to your story, how can you justify skimping on details you’d otherwise afford political groups or classes?
So what do I mean by the three earlier questions about your fictitious religions?
A) “How many religions are there?” Think about our world for a moment. We have a multitude of religions on our planet, each of them with their own distinct ideologies and beliefs. Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Agnostics, Deists, ect. We don’t exactly lack diversity or choice in our world for religions, so why should your fictional world lack that choice?
The only reason not to have that much variety, at least to my mind right here and now, is if you definitively show how your primary religion is right. Even then, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t have more than one. That’s the funny thing about fiction, just because you can prove how one reality-bending idea is real doesn’t mean you can’t make another idea just as real.
B) “What type of religions do you have?” This is where diversity strikes again. Christian and Catholic faith teaches that there is one God who can be merciful or wrathful. Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythology says that there are many gods, each with their own “aspect.” Buddhism, however, does not assert a belief in a creator god. As these examples point out, there’s more to religions than just one God that you accept, so why should your fictional religion be constrained?
C) “What mentality does your religion teach?” This is a big one. Think back to the Middle Ages where religion was an over-ruling part of everyone’s lives. The church had an overwhelming amount of power and control over people’s lives, launching such historical events like the Salem Witch Trials and the Crusades. This created a culture that lived in awe and fear of the ruling religious body. At the same time, there have been other cultures throughout history that have been shaped by their spiritual and religious teachings.
In fiction, what this means is that your faction/country/whatever is shaped by their sources of faith and vice versa. It rarely makes sense to think that a pacifist religion and spirituality would belong to a militaristic state. Just the same, an expressive and welcoming faith doesn’t fit well with an isolationist state. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist, just that it doesn’t make sense to have them dominantly guide a society that contradicts them.
So for all of these constraints, what does having a decently fleshed out religion provide you? First, it gives you a motivation and driving force behind characters in your world. Maybe one character is a very pious man who’s beliefs are based on his faith. Perhaps he might be a rebellious one that wants to lash out against that faith. It builds motivation for their stories and beliefs while also providing a means to shape their very minds.
Second, it can provide an explanation for numerous other fictitious aspects. Magic? It’s a gift of the gods, rather than some anomalous force. Enemies? Demons make an easy foe that very few people would want to associate with, just sayin’. Need a goal? A holy mission given by the gods makes a nice option.
Third, it adds that much more depth and detail to your world. You have landmasses, political parties, and a history that goes back hundreds – if not thousands – of years. Why, then, would you skip on the very thing that such a massive amount of people in our own world believe in?
Maybe yours is a twisted version of an established religion or, perhaps, it’s an entirely different take on belief as we know it. Be that as it may, it provides you and your readers with a sense that there is more depth and detail in the world than initially would be assumed.
Hopefully this will give you writers some food for thought with your upcoming works. At the same time, it’ll hopefully give readers some extra perspective on what can go into making a world from nothing. I, however, am signing off.
(*There are certain circumstances where this point is invalidated. Some topics really do need to be treated with a healthy dose of respect. The bigger a mark on someone’s real life that it leaves, the more respect you need to afford it. Just because you think something would make a great story point for your character or world doesn’t mean that you should just play around with it willy-nilly.)