I promise this isn’t a preachy post, but a post about creating a religion for characters to follow.
First, I’m not an expert, but I’ve studied multiple faiths in order to determine structure, beliefs, and how the religions have evolved over their lifetimes. I suggest anyone wanting to create a religious belief system for fiction do the same.
A writer has three options, and I can’t tell you which one to use. This is a personal decision for the writer to make and integrate into their story.
Religious Options in Fiction
- Use an already established* religion system already in place.
- Base a religious system off one already in place.
- Create a new religion.
The depth of your religion will depend on the story. Will religion factor into your characters or plot? For many writers the answer is yes. But how much or little enters your story will vary. However, you’ll most likely find yourself creating more than you’ll actually need, and this is a good thing, especially if you’re writing a series based in the world.
The Key Factors of Religion.
Trust me; use a binder with tabbed sections.
These are only the basics. You can feel free to step outside of the box, but remember to support every aspect. Your religion is a world inside of your world, and it cannot have any plot holes.
Alternatively you can use a religion from history or build upon it. There is no right or wrong answer, but below will highlight starting from scratch. I personally build on other religions as they work in my stories, but I have works in progress where I’ve created new religions.
- Concept—What does this religion demand? What does it represent? Think of it as a mission statement for your religion, but create two if the religion is an antagonist. One to represent the original goal and another to represent what it truly is.
- Deity/Deities—Choosing names, profiles, and the amount of gods. Think of each as a character in your story. Give them backgrounds, traits, personalities, etc.
- Prayer—Create prayers or describe how followers will pray. Will they have a relationship with God? Will they perform rituals? Sacrifice?
- Artifact/Book**/Prophecy/Symbols— Think of the bible, artifacts with ancient writing, symbols and elements your deity/deities will represent.
- Rules—laws based on morality of your people, laws for the church itself, like priests can’t marry. The sky is the limit, but don’t forget about punishments.
- Place of worship—home based, temple, church, etc.
- Hierarchy of religious leaders—Give titles and order.
This really needed its own section. Remember I said religion is a world within a world? Well it is. If you’re starting from scratch you will want to document your world through its history. The bible and the Koran are excellent examples.
This holy book can be for you, or you can use it in your world. It can be a page long or it can be thousands. There is no right or wrong here when it comes to length. However, you want to document the birth of your religion and any important events (think holy days).
Weaving Religion into Plot
If religion becomes a motivator or an antagonist, it will play a central role in your plot. If your MC belongs to a religious order, it will take focus in building your character, but it’s easy to dump your religion on the reader. Don’t. Don’t dump it into a prologue either. Please… with sugar and a cherry on top.
So how do we give the information?
- Let each element unfold as the reader requires it. Remember, I did say we’ll always build more than we share. This is why.
- Use outlines and use them as extras on your website or as extras. Here’s an example of my creatures from Midgard. This one briefly talks about beings and the levels of hell, heaven, and purgatory in Beyond the Brothel Walls.
Building on *Existing Religion
Do not build on another writer’s world unless you’re writing fanfic. This doesn’t mean you can’t create a similar concept, but be aware there is a fine line between copying and creating.
Religions you can build a world on
- Christianity—All denominations.
- and so many more. Here’s an interesting list, but it’s still incomplete.
I left a few off my list because they’re wrongly defined as religion. These include Native American spiritualism, spiritualism in general, and Buddhism. They’re ways of life, not a system of religious beliefs, and you can practice both with another religion. For example, you can practice Buddhism and Wicca.
Although often labeled as a religion, if you study Buddha’s teachings, even he said it was not a religion. He was also against the statues and claimed he was not to be revered as a God.