On January 30, 2022, Ruby wrote, Does anyone have any advice about writing religions?
Evelyn asked, Making up a new one or writing an existing one into your story?
And Ruby answered, I’d like to write a new one.
A discussion followed.
Evelyn: I’d suggest keeping it simple, or only mentioning the parts that relate to your story and you can hint at anything else. For instance, if you have a girl who lives by an angry river, and if you have a river god in your story, the river god will probably be part of your story, because people will try and appease the river god so the river won’t flood. There are probably plenty of other river gods, but they won’t enter into the story. I’ve never actually put a religion into one of my stories, because it’s a really touchy topic sometimes, but I’ve played around with it sometimes, and the simplest ones are usually the best ones for me.
Christie V Powell: I found this article that brings up some good things to consider: https://themudworldblog.com/writing-fantasy-religions
Gail’s Ever does a great job at handling religion, in my opinion. I love that the story brought up questions and didn’t always answer them. Questioning became a central part of the main character, not treated like a bad thing.
So far, most of my fantasy religions have been just a little bit in the background to add some worldbuilding flavor. The Sprites’ worship of Earth is the most developed: they have a creation story that Earth is a goddess, daughter of Sun and Moon, and they worship all three but mostly Earth. They believe that Sun created plants, Moon animals, and Earth people (or just other Sprites, which brings conflict). I’ve kind of been hesitant because religion is a big part of my life, and because it can be such a divisive topic.
Another author to come to mind is Brandon Sanderson. He is very religious (my religion, actually), and he does a really good job at creating new ones for his books, while being respectful to real-life people.
NerdyNiña: I’ve been working on the same thing. The challenge for me is making a religion that reflects my beliefs, showing the heart of what I believe but with different traditions. You might want to learn about various religions from many cultures and combine elements you like.
Christie V Powell’s link is comprehensive and suggests lots of story ideas—well worth a visit, I think. As we go through it, we can think about which aspects will be important to the story and characters we have in mind. Or we can use the link to generate a story and characters from scratch. Whichever way we go, though, if we include every element that’s covered, we are likely to overburden our tale.
Having said that, however, here’s a link to the religions in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series: https://discworld.fandom.com/wiki/Religions_of_the_Discworld. Pratchett is lighthearted and endlessly inventive. He uses footnotes a lot, and doesn’t mind if he (temporarily) submerges his plot in the intricacies of whatever he’s having fun with. You can play around with his approach.
When I put religion in a book, it is there to serve my plot because I’m, fundamentally, a plot-driven writer (who, as I’ve said here a jillion times, finds plotting super hard).
Thanks, Christie V Powell, for the shoutout to Ever!
I agree with everyone that inventing a religion can be tricky. In Ever, I invented two religions, one a pantheon vaguely resembling the Greek gods. These gods are powerful but not all powerful. They visit humans and can be seen, heard, and even touched if the human dares. They have personalities and whims and don’t always help humankind. This one offended no one. The other imagines a monotheistic religion with an omnipotent, omniscient, invisible god. I never saw a review by a reader that expressed out-and-out anger over what I’d done, but there were hints of discomfort.
I didn’t see any other way to tell the story I wanted to tell, so I took a chance. You can too, but just know the risk you run. Ever does question absolute faith when it bumps up against a terrible choice.
The safer course is to invent a religion that doesn’t resemble any that have millions of followers today.
What are the components of a religion that we can fool around with? A deity or deities, beliefs, worshipers, religious leaders, a holy book, places of worship, rituals, etc. What can we do with these? We can spend a pleasant day making lists. First on our list might be that the deity has the mentality of a hive of bees. And we list five more. A core belief could be that the natural state of the universe is unbroken green; then we list five more. And so on.
When we have a bunch of lists each with, say, six possibilities, we cast our eyes down the list to see what plot and character ideas come to us. For example, the hive mentality deity could suggest conformist worshipers who are stung by actual bees when they fall out of line, and we might think of a well-meaning worshiper who can’t be like everyone else no matter how hard she tries. Our list may suggest other ideas that will go with this one.
We can also lean on mythology or ancient history or even other writers’ ideas (so long as we change them enough to make them our own). Let’s take one of Pratchett’s ideas: the Listening Monks, who believe that nothing made by the creator they believe in can be destroyed. And let’s imagine that on the way to creating humans, this creator made mistakes which even It couldn’t destroy. Some mistakes are evil and destructive, some just weird, and some beneficial but not consistent with Its ideas about how future history should play out. Since It couldn’t destroy any of Its own creations, It imprisoned them on a huge rock in an enormous ocean. Where can we go from here? The monks (or one particular monk) may think that the imprisonment is one of the mistakes the creator made and may feel that their sacred duty is to free them. The imprisoned things and creatures may have a project to free themselves. Or something else.
We can decide ahead of time the tone of our story. Dark? Funny? Suspenseful but happy in the end? Or we can let our possibilities lead us to a decision.
We have to let our minds fly for this and not limit ourselves by criticizing our ideas. I suggest ignoring plot and character possibilities until we’re done making our lists.
Of course, the religion may not be central to our story. Then we can just fold it into our setting. Our MC doesn’t go to the temple as often as her mom would like. When she does go, she tunes out the priest’s warnings, but the seats that bounce in time with the rockin’ chorus are pretty cool.
We can have fun with the religious elements. The prayers can be limericks. The robes can be lined with velvet or with burrs depending on how the worshiper behaved in the past week. And so on.
Here are three prompts:
- Write the story of the rebel in the hive-mentality religion.
- A scribe intentionally revised a sentence in the bible of your imaginary religion and duplicated the change in every copy he made thereafter. Tell the story of what happens.
- The imprisoned creatures have concentrated for centuries on growing wings. They’ve finally succeeded. Write what happens.
Have fun and save what you write!