Tuesday, May 04, 2010

CoyoteCon Presentation - Rough Draft

Creating Your Own Religion

Creating your own religion must be easy to do. People have done it for millennia …

Religion is the epitome of all that is good in humans – and all that is debased and wicked. Typically, in fiction religion is used to give a face to a culture and to define the good guys and the bad.

There is no type of god or theological system that you can imagine that hasn’t already existed. The models of greed, fanaticism, selflessness and righteousness are best found in religious history. A touch of historical realism will help you tell a more convincing tale.

If your culture is primitive, research primitive religions. If it is medieval, the medieval church and its heresies will give you useful ideas. The struggle between the Petrobrusians and Roman Catholics is an example of cultural tension.

If a god or goddess is a main character think through their personality.

An excellent example of this type of character development is Eddings’ Aphrael. She is personable, loveable, mysterious, and a bit edgy. She makes people uncomfortable and contented in turns.

Eddings, consciously or not, used a mixture of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern theological vision. He sets a polytheistic pantheon against what is essentially a Medieval Christian Church. The Ellene god is modeled after medieval theology and structure.

In the polytheistic model, gods and goddesses are flawed. They fight; they’re incestuous, pugnacious, bitter, nasty and distant. They lust after and despise humans, or they are protective, walk among humans and can be easily placated but remain unpredictable.

Priests are human and by definition flawed. It’s easier to write about a flawed human than it is a perfect God.

Historical models help. Is your priest a Richelieu? A St. Patrick? A Peter, a Paul, a Thuggee with a bloody knife, a philosopher, a dirty, smelly beggar with a mixture of wisdom and foolishness?

All those types are modeled in history.

Ultimately, most characters are ourselves. They are an extract of the good, the common, the nonsensical and deeply disturbed bits that hide in all of us. Refine from yourself just the elements you want.

A well told story is like music. If your characters seem false, shallow or unbelievable to you, they will seem out of harmony to your readers. The religious elements in your story should further the tale. This is especially true in Christian Speculative Fiction. Your reader wants a well told story. If they want a sermon, they’ll go to church.

In Pixie Warrior all the religious elements are muted and if collected together would make one fairly short paragraph. It takes more words to summarize them than it did to include them in the story.

Only include enough religious elements to further the action. A well told tale makes the improbable seem real. This is true for religious themes too.

Magical elements are essentially religious. If you include them you must be consistent. Even if you never tell your reader what it is, you should have a clearly defined rational for its existence and effects.

In Pixie Warrior I have my characters do things that seem magical, but any Pixie will tell you, “There is no magic.” It is all biology. Pixies see magic as the tricks perpetrated by wicked fairies.

Religion is more fun when it’s presented with irony and humor. The Israelites knew this as did First Century Christians.

God tells jokes, creates word-plays, and teaches object lessons with dry and sometimes wry wit. He speaks with scorn, he placates; he opens the vast invisible panoply of heavenly hosts to view – partly to reassure and partly with smiling amusement at puny human doubt.
From an earlier post on the same subject:
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Religious Elements in Fiction

I posted this on Gary's blog in answer to a question. I'm reposting it here.Pixie Warrior has religious elements in it. They are casually mentioned and not developed at length.
Unless religion is an important part of your story, you won’t need to include many details. What detail is required should be accurate, unless you write fantasy fiction. Then it can be what ever you wish.
The historian behind this Pixie writes religious history. Some of the beliefs I document are strange and even unhappy. Most of the groups I research were or are prophetic movements. They believed that the judgment day has a discernable time, and they set their collective mind to discovering it. The results were often tragic, sometimes funny, and always embarrassing.
I’ve gotten to know the men and women involved in these movements by reading their letters, diaries, articles and newspaper accounts. They were people of faith, even if misguided. The best way to handle religious matters is kindly but truthfully, even if you think the beliefs were misguided and the practices regrettable. There are religious figures who were corrupt, venial, perverted and violent. Kindness only travels so far.
In fiction you have the right to create villains. You want villains. A book with only good guys is usually boring. You can make a villain out of anyone by how you describe them.
Religion is complex even when belief systems are simple. Human feelings are tied up in irrational beliefs. Religions are also power structures, even when they are not meant to be.
Belief systems tend to create hierarchies. Christianity transitioned from a 1st Century synagogue-like system of older men and assistants to a system of Bishops and underlings in about two centuries. Systems that have tried to restore that primitive era do not maintain it for long.
It is possible for people to believe anything and to find symbolism in anything. Christianity found the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic Law symbolic of Christ. Other religions find symbolisms in creation, in flowers, birds, even umm goo.
I’ve wandered from my original point, haven’t I?
In fiction religious elements should be limited to what furthers your story. If it doesn’t tell your story, there is no need for detail. If it does tell your story, give the details. At this point fantasy and historical fiction part ways. I get to make up my belief systems. If you write historical fiction, you will have readers who will see flaws if you are not accurate.


  1. God is always vengeful or beneficent. What if he is doubtful? What if he looked down from heaven one day and said "My Self! WTF have I done down there?"

    Here is a god that started out with the best of intentions and desire to create something good and beautiful. He did a great job on the landscape and after his first try with dinosaurs and reptiles, he got better with fish, birds and mammals.

    But then he over-extended himself. He tried to create man. He gave man a brain. He gave him a soul. But something went wrong with man. Sure he was intelligent and imaginative, but he also was aggressive and insatiable.

    This gentle and creative artist of a god watches as his crowning achievement, man, wipes out whole species, rape the land, spoil the oceans, and even foul the air he breathes.

    A beneficent god would wave his hand and repair the damage. A vengeful god would have wiped man from the face of the earth.

    This doubtful god cries over his mistake. He still see flashes of genius and greatness in man, but he also see so much that he deplores. This god becomes unsure. He can't bring himself to destroy man although deep down he knows that would be the best answer.

    This really has nothing to do with religion because man, in this case, is unaware of god's shame. In this scenario man go along oblivious to his creator's disappointment.

  2. Harry,

    You remind me of a short story I read way back when. I wish I remembered the title and author. I found it in one of my dad's SF collections.

    It's an assesment of a student's science project. L. G. Jehovah is failed because of the end result, though his start is praised.

  3. I never did like how the bible was written, so in my 3rd book I created a story that would be more plausible. I took religion out of religion and turned gods into 'mere' humans. As such, I have created a religion of non religion and yet left open many doors to explain how religion could have formed from so long ago LOL....Sometimes there is no religion in a story, sometimes it is part of the story and sometimes it is the story. I guess it all depends on the story itself....Very good discussion, I enjoyed it.