Creating belief systems and religions in your fiction
Perhaps you need to flesh out an elaborate, convoluted system of religions and philosophies. Perhaps you just need a facade, with a few bits of detail to give it the feel of depth. The kind of belief system you write into your novel–or the presence of one at all–will rely heavily upon the scope of your book and the world it’s set in. So take these questions, prompts, thoughts, etc. and use them as you see fit. You might only want a handful of things, or you might find it beneficial to go through the whole list. It’s all about what you and your story need. 🙂
The First Big Questions
What are the belief bullet-points of your religion? The 5-6 most important things that sum up the belief system as a whole.
Those bullet-points might answer these questions:
- Why do we exist (in this dimension/plane/world/time)?
- How did the world begin, who/what was responsible for its creation?
- What are the primary ethical standards?
- Are there deities? How many?
- What rituals are of great importance or are very common?
- What level of commitment or service is expected of adherents?
Are its basic facts and stories true?
Literally? Symbolic or metaphorically? Partially? Not true at all? How much doubt is there among believers? Skeptics? If its based mostly on unsubstantiated folklore, how has it survived (see next point)?
How long has the religion survived? How adaptable is it to change?
If it has persisted through generations, especially primitive ones, then it will likely appeal to people’s basic needs, while also drawing from some sense of inherent “goodness.”
- Do the fundamentals of the belief system fit into a variety of cultures? As technology changes, as the people expand and grow, what elements of the religion’s core give it the ability to survive?
- Does it reinforce or justify any social system or hierarchy?
- How does it encourage or even dictate health and safety among its adherents? If a great deal of time has passed, how have these guidelines morphed, if at all?
- What kind of promise does it offer to its people to ensure its own survival? Power? Immortality? Knowledge? Enlightenment? Acceptance? Provision of needs? Wealth?
- Are there gods at all? If not, is there some cosmic, ultimately powerful force that has a hand in the universe, events, histories? If not, what is the religion formed around instead?
- How many gods are there? Is there a hierarchy among them, or are they all equal?
- Are they immortal? Do they reincarnate? Hand over the title?
- Are they as important as they think they are?
- Do they live in this realm or elsewhere?
- Have they interacted with people on a personal level? How often?
- What do they do to maintain their authority?
- Are there any rivalries or relationships between the gods? How does this affect their areas of rule or the politics of their followers?
- Are they mystic and distant, or do they have much more relatable, casual personalities?
- Are there cosmic enemies of the deities? Demons? Angels? Spirits? Where do these enemies live and how do they relate to the people of the world?
- How strict are they about the behavior of their followers? If there are multiple gods, do their rules of adherence vary?
- Do the various deities rule over particular groups, activities, elements, or ideas? Why? How is this implemented?
- Try to think of the box a little here. Consider your culture and what kinds of division among the ruling deities would make sense in their setting.
- Do some deities share responsibilities? How does that affect their relationship? The stability of that idea/activity/group/element?
- In what light do the gods view their constituents?
- Do the gods have varying morality, or are they all strictly good and evil?
- Do the deities have free will? What power limits or grants that freedom?
- How are new believers converted?
- Can people from all classes/sects/families be followers? Or is it reserved for specific people?
- How superstitious are the believers?
- When a religion has vast groups of followers, there will inevitably be differences and disagreements among them. What philosophical or practical differences do people tend to have?
- Letter of the law vs. Spirit of the law
- Tradition vs. Adaptation to the times
- Interpretation of stories, metaphors, lessons, poetry
- Reasons behind following, good for me vs. good for the world
- Casual believer vs. Devote believer
- Disagreement of number of deities, importance of minor deities
- Reverence of prophets, priests, apostles, etc.
- What is the cost for followers?
- Sanderson’s Second Law of magic can apply here, too. The costs for following the religion can be far more interesting than the benefits…especially for us readers who aren’t actually living it.
- What benefits, if any, do the adherents receive on a day-to-day basis?
- Is there are level of mortals (or adherents, in general) who, by some act or interaction, have been elevated to a plane above other people? How revered are these select among other believers? Do others believe them at all?
- Do the followers believe in free will of the people? Or do they see their paths as planned, destined, unchangeable things?
- Do the adherents believe bad luck/catastrophies/etc are “bad omens” or even punishment for their actions?
Other Elements to Consider
Prevalent Folklore, Parables, Myths, Stories
There will likely be stories that permeate the culture. They’re told to children to illustrate lessons, used to pass on histories, illustrate complicated ideas…and if these are important to the world or to your characters, elements of them will seep into everyday conversation.
- Write out or outline a handful of stories that are the most important, or at least the most well known, to your religion.
- Consider what characters of these old stories would stick out (especially to children) as the heroes. Their names, if not their legacies, will be easily recognized and possibly referenced in conversation or pop culture.
Organization of Religion
Is there a very organized church? Maintained rituals, buildings, or monuments? Many religions have a “leader” and a hierarchy system beneath, but others are a body of people with no one more important than the other. Still others are quite independent and rely on one’s internal devoutness or thought, utterly regardless of others who practice the religion.
Literature, Art, and Music
How integrated with contemporary art is the core of the belief? Or the stories? Can it be seen on murals or heard in street songs?
On the other side of that coin, is there a canon work of art, literature, poetry, or something else that contains the heart of the belief system? Like the Torah, Bible, Qu’ran, or Book of Mormon? How important is it to the average follower? How is it seen by society in general?
Belief is incredibly powerful
There are countless books about this subject (The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas is my fave, btw), and it will apply to the development of your own religion. Especially if it falls into the partially true or false categories. Religion is resilient and people can have opposition thrown in their face all day long, but at the end of it, something (often) keeps them faithful to their beliefs.
What is that something for your characters or your religion’s followers in general?
A few last questions:
- What is the generally accepted or believed cosmology? Does it count as one of the “big” stories of the religion? Why or why not?
- How is this religion viewed by those on the outside?
- How do adherents view non-believers? Magic/Non-Magic? Other species?
- Do priests/shamans/pastors/whatevers work for the church or organization full time? Do they have other jobs?
- Are priests etc. allowed to have families? How much freedom do they have in general?
- Does the duality of good and evil have a role? If so, is there disagreement among the believers as to what constitutes good and evil?
- Do spirits or ghosts walk the earth, or are they believed to?
Happy brainstormin’, y’all!