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Worldbuilding Part 1: Religion

Worldbuilding is daunting. The word itself is massive, encompasses everything from the characters to how they dress to how they behave. And for new writers - even seasoned writers! - it can seem an insurmountable task to flesh everything out.

Nowhere is this more vital than in Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres. The latter happens to be my favorite.

The question is, when you have such a fresh new world with unlimited possibilities... where do you start?

Because worldbuilding is so huge, I'm going to split my advice - which of course comes with my personal journey, so please remember one size does not fit all - into segments. And today, I'm going to tackle what many may see as the foundation: religion.

Anyone who knows me might be raising an eyebrow. I've been unapologetically atheist for 14 years. Why, then, would I consider this the place to start?

In short, religion shapes a lot of cultures. And it comes in a variety of flavors. Buddhism is different from Judaism which is different from Islamism and so on. We see the influences of these religions from ancient history to how they shape the world now. Basically, religion has been around forever, and it's paramount to decide what your culture believes - and who the outliers are.

I'm going to use a story I'm querying as an example, as it's the largest world I've tackled. It was so enormous, in fact, that my initial scribblings were frantic and changed a lot. Looking back at my notes, it was a right mess.

But please note: these are broad strokes. The smaller details will come likely during revisions. What I suggest considering are more building blocks than etchings in the final artwork.

Bear with me; this is going to be a little more detailed than my usual blog posts, but I'll do my best to be clear and concise.

So how do you build a religion from scratch in a fantasy world?

One of the easiest ways - and the way I chose - is to base it off a pre-existing religion in our world. For this project, I chose Greek mythology, in large part because it's one I'm very familiar with. But I didn't want to assign a deity to every little thing, so I ended up lumping a lot of assignments into single deities rather than give multiples different aspects of similar jobs.

Lazy? I prefer efficient.

Keep in mind, the religion likely isn't going to be something you expand on in every page, so the details you create may not ever make it to paper. It will, however, give you a solid basis and ground you as you write.

In this particular case, I started with a five-pointed star. I knew the country in the first book was matriarchal, so they would focus on goddesses over gods; female over male. (I'm aware how binary this is - it is intentional. Keep in mind that many religions may discriminate, and it's up to you to decide how you want to tackle this. I urge you to remember that this is a fictional world and doesn't have to reflect your core beliefs, especially if you intend the religion to be problematic or highlight flaws the society.)

On this star, I decided it represented a typical human body in some ways. At the head was the Mother goddess. Her right and left points/hands became twins, one female and one male celebrated as female. At her feet were the child goddess and the goddess of the afterlife.

So I had the goddesses, and I assigned their names and what the mortals saw they controlled - for example, the mother goddess represented life and harmony, the right hand was war and cunning, the child was innocence and mischief, etc. I expanded from there, but I had the basics.

Then came the question: what about the other lands surrounding? Do they follow a different religion or the same one?

In my case, I decided all countries in this story followed the same religion but with different interpretations. Country 1 was matriarchal and focused on the goddesses. Country 2 held many similar beliefs (for good reason, though I'm trying to explain without spoiling my story!), but Country 2 also acknowledged more gods than Country 1. Country 2 also has been nursing a thirst for war, and they tend to interpret the stories in a violent manner. Country 3 equally acknowledged gods and goddesses but interpreted their myths and stories in a more peaceful manner, as a way of merging ideas and finding harmony. Countries 4 and 5 were misogynistic and thus relegated the goddesses to little more than props.

You can create these myths and small stories. Some you might explain in text, some are just for you. But one thing to keep in mind is that different people may interpret them differently, even within the same region. Just as you see several subsects of Christianity, so might your characters have different subsects of their religion.

All right, so you have the deity or deities and stories. Things are looking good. The next step: are they real?

Might seem another odd question coming from an atheist, but it bears consideration. Few religions acknowledge others as "the one truth." In this project, I decided the deities were real, in part because there are definitely unexplainable happenings, like the birth of a full-grown man from a volcano and a sect of women whose magic are slivers of what their deities once possessed. This complicated my religion because now I had to tie it into the magic system - but that's a choice you can make for yourself! Your magic can be utterly separate from the religion. A good friend of mine has detailed religion that mirrors a mix of Christianity and Roman mythology, as well as some Pagan nature faith, but in her case it's all tall tales to keep "sinners" in line. The magic in her world is entirely its own thing, and the creatures are simply what they are outside of powerful forces.

Deciding just how impactful this religion is on your world is a game-changer. If it's real, you might want to emphasize it with real-world repercussions; ie how Christians may argue miracles do (and it is a valid argument!).

Now that you have the building blocks, it's time to decide how this affects your characters. What are their practices? Do they differ from other countries, or even other homes in the same region?

In this project, Country 1 has statues of the goddesses they light incense and pray to as they please. So long as respect is given, they are required to do little more. In Country 2 they follow a similar practice, with the caveat of offering live sacrifices to appease the gods. Country 3 has no statues or sacrifices, but they do pray over their meals to give thanks - doubly important as the largest farming country. (See how other little details can affect the religion? Don't forget that as you flesh out other parts of the world, you can come back and alter these details! I especially did it with Country 3 here.)

Country 4 has no statues, no prayers, and honestly barely acknowledge the deities at all - except that when their semi-mortal son visits once per generation, they ensure he has a room of his own. To them, this wards off the wrath of the deities. Country 5 is probably the closest to the deities: their women weave small magics as a result of the gods' ancient gifts, and the men have the power to invoke deific control over these women under very specific circumstances.

In all 5 countries, the deities are very real, but they interact with mortals differently. I made these deities fickle - hence the modeling after Greek mythology as well - and they do play favorites.

That barely covers other smaller practices, like the lighting of candles, temples, proper prayers, repercussions for displeasing the deities. But these are small details that, the more you flesh out the religion from big chunks to small bites, you can fine-tune into something realistic for the world you've created.

And that's it for religion! For anyone struggling, I hope this helps give something of a solid foundation to start.

If there's anything you think I should have covered but missed, if you found this helpful, or if there's another aspect of worldbuilding you'd like to see me detail soon, please leave a comment!

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