Belief systems

How often do you say or think something related to religion each day, even if you’re an atheist?

“Oh my god”, “Good heavens”, “Jesus Christ”, “Bless you”, “God only knows where your shoes are”, etc. etc. etc.  

So why am I mentioning this?  Because many fantasy novels are set in a time when things are a bit more primitive, medieval or ignorant, and if you look back at similar periods in our own history, you’ll find that belief systems were extremely important, to the point of being a matter of life or death.  People needed something to believe in so that they could understand why the world works, as well as someone on high to swear at or live in fear of when things didn’t work out the way they should.  Religion evokes a sense of wonder, awe, ecstasy and trepidation, which is something you can lean on in your stories, because that feeling is already there in your readers.

But because this is fantasy you can branch out with your belief system, such as having:

  • Multiple gods.
  • Evil gods.
  • Gods who can be seen/visited or who appear before your characters.
  • People who become gods, and gods who become people.

It’s up to you if religion features as the main theme of your book, but if your characters refer to it, then they need to be able to experience it in their daily lives as a tangible presence.  Think of your own town; how many churches, temples and mosques do you pass on your way to work?  You might not go in every day, or at all, but you know why they’re there, what they’re for and what your options are should you choose to join them.  Ideally, your characters need to have the same types of options, whether they believe or not.  Consider George R R Martin’s trees with faces in his Game of Thrones series, they’re here and there around the place, but very visible and visit-able for his characters.  His characters also disagree about the old and new religion, and whether it’s right or wrong to believe in one or the other.  So if your characters start talking about their beliefs, it adds to the richness of your story by having them get the chance to see, visit, discuss, fight over and understand places of worship and the belief systems themselves.  If you also add mystery and magic to your belief system you can also introduce an enticing mix for readers.

Inspiration for belief systems can come from your own religion, or mix and match from various religions.  But don’t limit yourself to contemporary beliefs, as some of the most fascinating religions occurred in ancient times.  Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Celts, China, Minoan, Japan, Aztec, Inca, Mayan and Stone Age Europe all had incredible belief systems than you can borrow ideas from, and these can help to frame the “flavour” of your novel and the behaviour of your characters.  You can use religious beliefs to constrain or liberate your characters, which can be very interesting for the reader, particularly if there is an edge of mystery about it and your character is forced down a path they shouldn’t travel.

But regardless of your belief system, try not to “preach” too much.  Think back to your own experiences and what frustrated you most with a religious-type who just kept going on and on and on.   If there’s one thing that can bore a reader to tears it’s pages of preaching.  Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” books did this extensively in the latter half of the series and it really spoiled what was otherwise a brilliant concept and story.

I’ll add more about specific belief systems and cultures as this blog continues.

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