This is part five of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.
So, I suppose it’s prudent to make sure one thing is crystal clear before we dive in.
This is a purely academic take on the role of faith and religion in the context of creating fictitious worship practices for the purposes of adding new layers of narrative flavor and variety onto pre-existing world-building methods.
This is, of course, just a fancy way of covering my own ass by explaining to you that, no, this ain’t my personal dissertation on how I feel about real-world religion or faith.
Put the torches away for now.
If you’re on board with this being an explanation of yet another tool for storytelling, dive in.
If religion, why: The Functions of Faith.
Yeah, well I find Hayden Christensen disturbing, so we’re even.
Now, in terms of your world, you should already be repeating the “why” mantra whenever you face another Godlike executive creative decision. Dealing with how or why your world may choose to have faith should be no different. If you’re going to highlight religion, you have to be able to answer “Why should I?”, and more importantly, “How does this serve the overall story?”.
Religion, at it’s most basic, serves three functions: One, it gives an explanation for the origin of the world and life as your denizens understand it, and in turn establishes a Creator or Creators. Two, it codifies what it accepts as morally acceptable behavior, and what can be defined in the same framework as aberrant, unacceptable actions—virtues and sins. Three, it provides a reward and punishment system that reinforces the previous two functions.
And, yes, those functions can be used both as a comfort and a bludgeon. We will get to that.
Knowing all that, how can this serve your world beyond flavor? Because when you tiptoe into this kind of recreational theology, you’re dealing with some pretty fundamental concepts for how sentient things validate themselves. It can not be fairly treated as a background curio. There is always going to be a larger effect beyond just textures to make your world more interesting. You have to look at it as another foundation for how the entire global society ticks. Otherwise, it’s missing the whole point entirely, and is best left on the cutting room floor.
I guess what I’m saying here is that this is a major caveat emptor, and you need to be willing to go all in, or not at all, if you’re thinking about making religion a big enough part of your world to point out to others.
Holidays and festivals: Praise be, Party on.
The word Holiday is pretty cut and dry from an etymology point of view. Holiday = Holy day. Simple. It follows then that your religion(s) will have everything from High Holy Days to seasons to festivals. Or rather, it really should. Party hard, et cetera.
Ask yourself: How wide-spread are these holidays? Are some of them fully embraced even by non-believers, or are they largely insular to the faithful? Remember to take a look at real-world examples and the history behind them to see how they were implemented, changed, and regarded by both believers and infidels alike.
Perhaps some of them are simple curiosities to onlookers. Perhaps some of them have been imposed on the populace with all the weight of political momentum. Or, maybe, they’re distant highlights of a foreign culture that adds another layer of explanation for what that nationality is all about.
In any case, these festivals and holidays can wear many hats in terms of storytelling and defining just how your world works. I say, if you’re already going through the trouble of qualifying the what of what your people believe, then you might as well go all in on the rites both sacrosanct and joyful.
In other words, have fun with it, silly. Be wild and weird and respectful and irreverent in the creation. It’s a celebration, after all.
The finer details of worship: Come Chasuble Correct
Fun fact: I will use any and all excuses to reference Braindead / Dead Alive.
The Devil (ah ha ha ha) is really in the details if you are trying to sell the idea of a religion that your denizens might adhere to. If you’ve already decided that a religion will serve both the world and story that you are smithing, then you really have to become a tenured Professor of Theology on that religion’s gear work.
Break it down in a separate notebook, text file, or document. What’s the standard dress? What are some of the maxims that are well-known to followers and non-believers? Do they have an overriding set of tenets that simplify the rules? Speaking of rules, what’s the name of their core tome? How about their God/Goddess? How about the whole bloody Pantheon? Is there any kind of personification of their Creator to begin with? Is there an entirely separate language used for their worship? (Yay more conlang possibilities!)
Where do they worship? How? Why? How does one become inducted into the faith? What’s the hierarchy of their religion’s authority caste? How does one climb that ladder? What is their take on apostates, infidels, or their policy on conversion? What does their version of the hereafter look like?
Do they value the word over the sword?
For that matter, what do they value most?
The consequences: Faith unto Zealotry
Okay, maybe not that kind of zealot …
This is a rough one to tackle, because frankly it veers directly into “too real” territory vis a vis our own experiences with humanity. But don’t shy away from it. Half the reason for both storytelling and world-building is the chance to explore and codify our real experiences into fictional testing grounds, and exploring the good, bad and ugly from the safety of imagination. Be brave.
That being said, I liken fictional religions to good magic; not because of some commentary on their rationale, but because the best magic systems in speculative fiction all have a form of consequence from using or over-using it. It boils down to this: To attain knowledge, power, or function, something MUST be given, sacrificed, or stolen away from the person seeking it. Over time, those consequences must be dangerous enough to prevent a reasonable individual from going too far, or really going forward at all.
And that tracks with the idea that your world is polytheistic, unless one religion holds sway over the globe. If so, then kudos. Not my cup of tea, but you do you. For everyone else, it opens the door to the why of the non-believers. Why don’t they believe what their neighbors believe? What are the pros and cons from a foreigner’s perspective?
It’s also vital to explore the “going too far” aspect, because it is inevitable. Mind, I said those consequences were bad juju to a reasonable person. So, what happens when devotion outstrips reason, and your faithful go balls to the wall zealot? If the politics of your nation were not built upon the firmament of faith, how would this particular religion change it if they pushed for theocratic rule?
What happens when your brand of zealot encounters your brand of individual with differing viewpoints?
Heavy questions, sure, but like any weighty building material, that heft has purpose. You have to be willing to employ all shades if you’re going to really make the colors of your world pop. Nobody said that making an interesting world would be a purely positive road trip. Tourists need not apply.
Next time, I’ll be taking you on a tour on how I approach that seminal staple of fictional world-building, MAGIC.
Until next time, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)