Religion and belief systems can be huge motivators in character design, so writing about them can help your characters seem more three-dimensional. It adds a new element to the driving why behind narrative progression and it’s also the perfect opportunity for worldbuilding (especially in fantasy). In this post I’ll be discussing how to create and incorporate religious and belief elements into a fantasy narrative, but the same principles can be used when borrowing from real-life religions and belief systems for other genres. Let’s get started!
The Basics of a Belief System
Belief systems generally have structure of some kind, including core beliefs and benefits to practitioners. There can also be detriments to non-observers, which adds the motivation of conversion or even dynamics that establish belonging vs. a cast of “other.” In order to gain a following, a belief system must benefit members in some way, even if it’s simplistic. Here are two examples of belief systems with different benefits to followers:
- Belief System A ties in with social hierarchy, therefore, practitioners are more likely to “climb the ladder” and gain better social standing. Benefits could include easier access to resources, leadership roles, or pride/esteem among other members of the social group. Anyone who does not participate stagnates in their social position with no opportunity for advancement. In Belief System A, the main motivator is advancement and pursuing an easier life. By engaging with this belief system, practitioners have more opportunities to grow and benefit the community in turn.
- Belief System B permeates the social sphere, so practitioners foster connection and a sense of belonging by participating. Benefits include acceptance, connection, and harmony in the social group. Anyone who does not participate is shunned and marked as untrustworthy, which causes loneliness, shame, and a barring from community rituals. In Belief System B, the main motivator is acceptance and safety in belonging. By engaging with this belief system, practitioners receive positive affirmations of their identity as part of the whole social group.
These two examples would impact character design in different ways, and give members of these different social groups different motivations. There’s also the question of how widespread the belief system is within the social group or society as a whole. In our reality, there are multiple religions and belief systems that all coexist among members of the same human race, which raises even more questions about overlap and/or conflict between factions. In your worldbuilding, consider the size of the social spheres you’ll be working with and whether there would be branches of belief within the overarching belief system(s).
The Basics of Religion
Religion, especially organized religion, is inherently based on a belief system. There is also typically a hierarchy of some kind, whether it’s a deity (or deities), a faith leader, or both. Religion adds a formal structure to belief systems, making them concrete with clearly defined edges, which gives practitioners roles and guidance for their participation. Let’s revisit the two examples from earlier, and translate those belief systems into potential religious structure:
- Belief System A, motivated by advancement and betterment of the community, could have a “top of the ladder” position that serves as a faith leader. This person or group would have the widest access to resources, live the easiest lives, and be the role model(s) for other practitioners to aspire to. This gives motivation a distinct goal, “I want to be like them,” and can add elements of idolization, reverence, or envy.
- Belief System B, motivated by community and belonging, could have a center to the social sphere that is the ultimate decision-maker. They are the epitome of harmony, and so would carry the responsibility of maintaining balance within the community. This person could be benevolent, encouraging connection, or they could be vindictive, using their social status to push out competitors by way of the social trust inherent to their position. “I trust them, they know what is best for me.” This gives motivation to be on this person/group’s good side, to secure the position of belonging and to avoid the negative feelings of shame and being branded as “other” among the community.
The possibilities are endless, but the only way to make all the moving pieces work together is to bring everything back to the driving why behind the structure. What perpetuates this system? What encourages believers to stay? Ask yourself these questions and you’ll find ways to use religion and belief to impact your narrative and the characters who are moving through it. What is it like to belong to these groups? What is it like to be an outsider? How far will your characters go to change their circumstance?
Some Things To Consider
Now that we have the basics of what belief and religion are, I’m going to include a list of things that can be incorporated into these systems. It’s an incomplete list, because the possibilities are truly endless and tailored to your narrative and worldbuilding, but these are a few of the elements that come to my mind when I consider the dynamics of belief and religion.
- Conceptualizing death: What happens after death? How can we accept death as a natural part of life? Do our actions in life determine our afterlife?
- Determining ethics: What defines good vs. evil? Is there a concept of evil at all? What governs conduct in the community?
- Prayer/confession: Is there an outlet for practitioners to gain peace through rituals? Is there a way to absolve themselves of perceived sins/wrongdoing? How can followers who are led astray be redeemed and return to the fold, if at all?
- Pressures: What tension do these beliefs add to the society? Is there a pressure to conform? Is there a pressure to succeed? What are the consequences of failing/abandoning these pressures?
- Rituals: Is there a ritualistic element to the systems? How is it learned/taught? Does it evolve over time or is it static?
- Sacred vs sacrilegious: What is considered the ideal vs. what is considered off-limits or taboo with regard to the systems? Are there separate societal rules that apply to either of these concepts? What happens when they’re adhered to? What happens when they’re violated?
- Meaning/purpose: Does this system provide meaning to it’s practitioners? Is there an overarching life purpose that it provides? Why might characters gravitate towards or away from a provided path?
Belief systems and religion are a valuable tool when worldbuilding. Whether you’re including them or purposefully excluding them, they open up questions about how individual characters interact with others and how they fit in the grand scheme of their social sphere. Even if religion or belief aren’t central to your plot, worldbuilding for them (or for a lack of them) can help you determine more complex character motivations that can drive the narrative organically. Everyone wants something, so defining the reasons behind those desires/needs will make your characters more believable.
What do you think? Have you ever tried to create a religion or belief system from scratch? How would you answer these questions? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!
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