I always start with a real religion. This keeps me from “winging it” or just throwing stuff onto the page because I need to manipulate a character right about here (something I call Puppet Master Syndrome and which I try very, very hard not to do). I determine what sort of religion(s) my society will have and I look to world history for scenarios that fit the stage my action takes place on and the stage the religion in question is in at the time.
When I wrote THE MERI trilogy, I wanted to explore that unique time period immediately after a divine revelation, during which the existing religious institutions recoil and the new revelation is questioned, tested, and resisted—often violently. I looked to history to provide examples of the types of reactions any new revelation elicits from the existing ecclesiastical institutions, from the scholars and savants who have been watching for just such a renewal, and from the rank and file believers.
When the Báb [Arabic for “Gate”] (a key figure in the Bahá’í Faith) declared in 1844 that He had come to usher in a new age and would be followed very quickly by a second Prophet, all hell broke loose in Persia (Iran/Iraq). The Báb was executed for heresy and 20,000 of His followers were massacred. This was exactly the sort of social unrest I wanted to portray, and this period within my own faith offered a multitude of views of the same set of events. I could view that period through the perceptions of the new faith’s Prophets, its first disciples, its enemies, and those standing by with varying degrees of fear and loathing as the drama unfolded. I could also avail myself of the opinions of those watching from a discreet distance.
Major questions I ask and answer when inventing a religion for a piece of fiction are:
- How did it arise? Is it a revealed religion whose revelator is known and documented? Is it an animistic religion with origins so ancient no one remembers them? Is it a syncretic faith cobbled together from a variety of sources with conscious intent? Is it a state religion created by the governing class to control their subjects?
- If it has scriptures, what is considered canon? Is there a collection of books by various authors compiled over time (such as the Bible), a body of teachings from a prophet or avatar that were collected after the fact by His followers (as in Buddhism and Islam), or a series of treatises penned by the revelator Himself (as in the Bahá’í Faith)? Was there an oral tradition of some duration before these scriptures were canonized?
- What phase or age is the religion in? Is it newborn, adolescent, in its glorious prime, middle-aged, ancient? How much has it been “man-handled” by its adherents?
- Is there a priesthood? Whence did it arise?
- What are its core doctrines and how do they affect the lives of its adherents? Are the doctrines conveyed by a priest class reflective of the scripture, or are they somehow different? If so, why are they different? What forces shaped the current doctrine?
- What are its rites, holy days, Sabbaths, etc.? Were they enjoined by the revelator? Adopted after-the-fact? Adapted from the previous religion or from tradition?
- What is the most powerful element of this faith insofar as its followers are concerned? Is this the same for its ecclesiastics or are they more attached to a different aspect of the faith?
Once I have this thumbnail background on the faith, I try to bear it in mind as I’m writing. I try to put myself in the character’s shoes as they deal with the events I’m tossing at them and allow their faith to inform their actions and reactions.
Now, depending on who the character is, that influence can take any number of forms. My character may be a member of the clergy dealing with perceived heresies, or she may be questioning her own status and wondering why labeling one belief as heretical and another as orthodox is even necessary or wise. My character may be a believer or a non-believer; a skeptic (either of religion itself or of man’s assumed authority within it); a died-in-the-wool enemy of the faith’s status quo.
As I suggested in my last post, the answers to such question as the ones I posed above can give you a marvelous framework within which your fictional society can function—or fail to function. In any event, I think you’ll find it will help you create a richer world for your characters to inhabit.
Next time: Does the age of a faith make a difference?