Creating Culture: Religion: Dealing with the Divine
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
No matter how you feel about religion personally, there is no denying that religion has a strong impact on the world and on a society's culture.
Something about religion is strong enough to compel people to sacrifice money, children, food, animals, time, and sometimes even their own lives.
So how do you approach this in your own novel?
These posts will be written from the perspective of a fantasy or spec fic novel, where you're creating a world from scratch or modifying ours to place your story in. I believe these tactics can be useful for any
genre, however, including contemporary, as these base understandings will impact how your character views the world, where their morals come from, and what they view as expected and acceptable.
So. Where do you start?
There are plenty of religions in the world we live in that you could draw inspiration from, and as you start looking into them you'll probably start to notice a few patterns.
First, you need to decide how your world functions. Another way to look at this is by asking the question, "What myths would these people believe?"
Is there a pantheon of gods and goddesses, like in Greek, Roman, and (most of) Egyptian mythology? Or is there a single god/goddess figure? If there's a pantheon, how is it run? Are all of the deities equal in power or is there one (two, three, however many) major deity/deities and a bunch of minor deities? Are they connected to things seen in nature? (e.g. Apollo/Ra as the god of the sun, Artemis/Diana as the goddess of the moon.) Are the gods in charge of specific cultural elements and feasts (e.g. Bacchus as the god of parties and wine, or [again] Apollo as the god of music and healing)?
If there's a hierarchy, how is that decided? Are the cultural gods above the natural gods? Is there a separation, or do they all serve multiple purposes (as the Greek gods do)?
If the society is monotheistic, how does that god function? Are they all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present? Are they only one of those things? How do they compare with humanity? Why do the humans worship that particular god? Are they essentially a superhuman, like Superman, or are they another type of being entirely?
Once that is decided, you get to start figuring out how the deity/deities interact with the physical realm.
Do they ever become incarnate? Do they take the shape of certain animals? How would a human recognize that the animal is not a normal animal (if they would at all)? Did they used to walk among the humans often but now tend to stay away?
If there's a pantheon, you'll also need to figure out how the gods relate to each other. Are they siblings? Do they get along? Are any married to each other? How does that impact the dynamics of how the world works? Do they tend to get jealous of each other? If they get jealous, how do they act on that jealousy?
Once you know how the gods function among themselves and with the physical realm, it's time to look into how those gods would be honored/pleased/convinced to help the humans. By knowing what the gods care about, you'll know what it would take for the humans to worship them.
For example, a god concerned with farming would probably be pleased by an offering of crops. That same god would probably not be pleased with a sacrificed animal. A god of war, however, would probably prefer the blood of an enemy over the fruit from an orchard.
Lastly, do the gods have any soft spots for specific members of society? Is a certain goddess known for protecting abandoned women? Is a god known for helping those who are lost? When would such gods be called upon? Is there any reason they wouldn't answer? What are the risks of calling on the gods and having them refuse?
Tune in next week for a discussion on myth creation.
J. J. Hanna is a Professional Writing major at Taylor University. In her spare time she creates YouTube Videos and Comics, and practices Karate at a local dojo. If you have a writing question, she'd love to hear from you! She is also looking for freelancing work, so if you have editing, beta reading, or writing needs, or would simply like to chat in a consultation, please let her know. Like what you see and want to get more content like this, or have your specific questions answered? Check out how you can support her on Patreon for as little as $3 a month.
I finished a first draft of my novel! Hear more about it in this week's video: