Some great advice from this week’s guest author, Melissa McPhail

Every author should understand world-building. Whether engaged in the writing of genre or literary fiction, an author crafts a unique world with each novel. Even when set in the present day, the novel’s events layer a new dimension upon our visible reality. It’s the dimension of those characters, of that story, but it should feel as real to the reader as his own tangible environment.

One overlooked element in world-building is religion. Often when religion isn’t factoring into the plot of the story, the author may fail to mention it. Yet when we take a look at how religion influences our daily lives—even when we ourselves may practice no particular faith—it’s clear that religion of some nature is part and parcel to nearly every culture that inhabits this earth.

Religion influences our daily interactions with others (moral codes, traditions) and for many, it determines at least in part the way they spend their mornings, nights or weekends. It even influences the words we swear (or curse) by.

Religious symbols and icons are prevalent in society, from cathedrals to dollar bills to the skylines of Earth’s most ancient cities. Sadly, in today’s culture, the subject of religion provides unending fodder for politicians, litigators, pundits and malcontents; yet these detractions aside, the belief in something greater than ourselves continues to offer spiritual succor for a majority of the world’s population.

Whether you as the author practice any faith, it’s impossible to escape the cultural foundations the world’s religions—from the pagan to the divine—have established through the centuries. Why would life be any different for other cultures, other worlds, other lands? Or for your magical vampire hunter detective?

Don’t overlook this valuable tool for making the world of your novel more real to the reader. The inclusion of some religious mention—whether mystical, magical or mythological—can bring greater depth to any story and create instant bonds of reality between the reader and your characters.

With that said, happy writing!

Thanks Melissa! Hey folks – the Rafflecopter giveaway is still going on! Enter it here:a Rafflecopter giveaway

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10 thoughts on “One Often Overlooked Element of World-Building

    1. That is an interesting focus. The power of belief is well worth exploring and yet, something I haven’t seen a lot of in fiction. Some books will touch on it, but it isn’t often central to the plot, nor is religion’s effect on characters explored in depth.

      1. I wonder if it isn’t because beyond the mechanics of church-going and getting uptight about sexual morality, religion and its role in day-to-day moral decisions don’t really impinge upon most people. They don’t analyse why Jesus preached poverty but our society glorifies and encourages the amassing of vast wealth. Thou shalt not kill—except for prisoners on death row, doctors who perform pregnancy terminations, and generally people Christians don’t like. To set up a fantasy religion woud require some kind of moral analysis, and that isn’t a specially popular thing to do. David Gemmell has a strong religious current in his stuff, and frankly that’s the aspect of his writing that I find the least appealing.

      2. Morality, whether religiously motivated or otherwise, is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. I mean, we talk about right and wrong in the abstract, but it gets a bit touchier when it comes closer to personal actions and reactions. Mankind appears to have an infinite capacity for self-justification. We can all agree, for instance, that reacting in anger is generally a bad idea, but then someone cuts me off in traffic and it’s a different story. 🙂 I think there is a tension in the Christian philosophy (if there is such a thing as a cohesive philosophy in a religion so diversified by denomination, but that’s a whole other discussion) between justice and mercy and practitioners get caught in a trap of situational ethics.
        When a writer tries to create a fictional religion, I think you’re right. It does require a great deal of analysis and what does the author have to base it on but their own moral compass? I don’t recall reading Gemmell, but Nat Russo has a very interesting take on religion in his Necromancer’s Awakening series, one that rather turns traditional western religious tenets on their head without eschewing a sturdy moral structure that is fairly clear cut. I think that it is a mistake to try and cut out ambiguity, even though a lot of people are very uncomfortable with it. It’s so much easier to have an issue cut and dried, eg. this is ALWAYS right and that is ALWAYS wrong, than to accept that such black and white constructs aren’t always possible.

  1. I suppose by defining the religious beliefs/moral foundation of your fantasy world you are more or less saying this is what you subscribe to. Gemmell had a rather mysoginist attitude and a belief in summary justice that recalls Charles Bronson films. For all his overtly religious stuff is of the gentle Jesus meek and mild variety, he puts the application of the gentle and mild laws in the hands of Bronson-like thugs who are his idea of real he-men. I heartily dislike organised religions and the theocracy in my fantasy world is an ugly place. The utopia I’m striving through my characters to create is a spritual, pantheist sort of place without any religion.
    As you say, it is a lot easier to have a code that sets out exactly what is right and what is wrong, but in practice the spin doctors get to work on it and insert opt-out clauses so you end up with the anything goes morality that most religious people subscribe to. Try to unravel all that and you end up in a minefield!

    1. I hear you. The problem with summary justice is, what if you are wrong? After all, there are very few ways to fix dead.
      In my books, I tend to differentiate between religion and faith. Religion being a formalized construct that puts human beings in charge of other human beings, with God as a nebulous figure, somewhere in the aether. Whereas faith is a connection between God and the individual. I don’t agree that most religious people subscribe to “anything goes.” In fact, just the opposite, which tends to produce a judgmental world view wherein anything that contradicts or even appears to contradict, their own structure, is deemed sinful. As such, religion becomes more about controlling what others do, and less about controlling one’s self. Faith, on the other hand, is more about living in ways that bring one closer to an ideal. Human’s are imperfect. There is no getting around that. But it is a step in the right direction to strive toward ideals like honor and courage and kindness. My books tend to hold an aspect of religion/faith and the ways it can be good, as well as the ways in which it can be twisted into something harmful.

  2. I put that badly. When I say that religion becomes anything goes, I mean that the people (men) who lay down the laws of a religion take their holy texts and they interpret them to get out of them what suits the lawgivers best. One bunch interprets it one way, another strand of the same root belief diverges. So you end up not only with Jews, Christians and Moslems from the same core belief, but all the shades of Judaism, Christianity and Islam we have today, fighting it out with one another. It’s how the interpreters of religious texts can condemn taking life in one situation and condone it in another, how woman get treated as property rather than equal human beings. You end up with a morality that changes to suit the occasion. Yes, they then condemn anyone who doesn’t think like they do, but the rules are flexible enough to mean that the rich and powerful are usually right whatever they do.

  3. Yes, and you see the pattern repeated throughout history. Religion used as a sort of whip to keep people in line rather than a guide to draw believers closer to each other and divinity. I don’t think that all organized religion is bad, but I do see it as having the potential to be twisted into something harmful.

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