Today, I’d like to take a step away from characters (for a little while) and focus on setting again. As you might have noticed, I enjoy world building (I had a series of posts on that in April and May). Back when I talked about world building, I spoke rather broadly yet talked very little about what to world build.
After all, worlds are huge, and each story has different needs. My current project (titled Agram Awakens) needed a lot of development in magic, history, races, and government. Your project might need excessive attention geography and currencies. Only you know. Thus, I avoided telling you what and instead suggested how.
That all changes today. Today, I want to suggest what. In particular, I want to suggest what you do about religion.
|For some reason I can't remember, this picture says FIVE reasons... it's lying. There's only four.|
I realize religion can be a rather touchy subject. But when it comes to Worldbuilding, it’s really not touchy at all. We can all collectively admit (regardless of our personal views) that people believe a lot of different things. Different from what you believe, different from what others believe. No world has only one religion (unless it’s a form of utopia [link]). Nor does a world have no religion. Both preposterous notions.
Yet, have you ever read a novel where this seems to be the case? I, for one, notice a lot of YA (especially Contemporary Fiction) avoids religions altogether. Be it Dystopian (like Hunger Games) or Fantasy (Beyond the Summerland), it has either ONE religion EVERYONE follows, or no religion at all.
Go find an atlas. The kind that lists the countries and their demographics in the back/front. Turn to that list of demographics and find the sections for each country on religion.
No country is fully shaded one color? (Unfortunately, these maps tend to not have a color for atheism… silly biased little maps.) And how many colors are there?
Even grouping half a dozen religions into one color, (they tend to do this with Chinese religions and tribal religions) there are still eight-ten colors on these maps.
This discounts hundreds of tribal sects and religious minorities; it ignores schisms in a religious group and bunches two dozen denominations of the Christian church into “Protestants”.
There are far more religions in the world than one would think.
But what about fictional worlds?
I’ve read very few speculative fiction novels in which the world has even a quarter of the religions our world has. Isn’t it our goal as writers and authors to mirror the real world in our stories? How come religion is shoved to the far corner of the mirror, the corner that is fogged up all the time and scratched in a few places?
I’m not against worlds with no religion, nor worlds with only one. I am against worlds that have these things for no real reason.
I think I’ve made my point, now. But here are my four reasons your world needs several religions:
1. It mirrors the real world. I’ve already stated this, but it’s worth saying again. Our world has dozens of religions. Why doesn’t yours? It is far more realistic to have four or five religions than one or zero.
2. A sense of realism. When your world has religious buildings scattered through its cities, something feels more real about it than other worlds. How many cities have you been in that have no religious buildings? No mosque, no church, no temple? Even rural towns in Kansas have little, one-room churches. Often times, the religious building is the center of the city, like the Temple was in ancient Jerusalem.
3. They provide conflict. You have a character who believes in this god. And another character who believes in this god. Conflict. Although you shouldn’t have religions just to provide conflict, they often provide it simply by existing. This sect has codes of honor which decree all foreigners to the religion must not read its holy text. And your hero, being the fool he is, reads their holy texts.
What happens now? Does the sect try to kill him? Convert him?
In addition, look back at history. Look at now, for that matter. How many wars are fought in the name of religion? Even if the real reason behind the war is greed or power or land, religion becomes the scapegoat, the excuse. That can be used in fictional worlds, too.
4. They round out characters. Oh look, I’m tying it back to characters. Characters need to be real, right? Well, a character who believes in a god for a particular reason sounds far more interesting than a character who believes in a god because the author hasn’t thought up another religion yet.
Now, you don’t need to go overboard when you’re creating religions. If your story won’t cover them, don’t create them. If four does your novel fine, then have four. If religion won’t come up at all, then maybe none works for you. Even one will work, if there’s a very good reason why. Myself, I’ve got a story where religion is barely mentioned, a story with three or four, and my current project has nineteen. That’s a little overboard, probably. But if your world needs nineteen like mine does, go for it.
And do it well (in fact… I’ll be posting a few tips on Sunday for creating a well-thought out religion).
Make the religion worth your characters’ time. Because if it’s not worth their time believing in… it’s not worth having at all.
What do you think? Do you incorporate religion in your stories? If so, how? Leave a comment and share, I’d love to discuss!