Faith in Fiction 8: Creating a Viable Fictional Faith

A question I frequently field when it comes to inventing religions for fiction is: How do I go about it?

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. Is there a priesthood? Whence did it arise?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?



Faith in Fiction 8: Creating a Viable Fictional Faith — 5 Comments

  1. I got drawn into the idea that a faith determines architecture. Mosques have lots of open space, because you have to kneel down to worship. Christian churches have (or used to have) boards that displayed the hymn numbers, because singing was part of the rites. (Nowadays they have Powerpoint slides, with the accompanying open span of wall for projecting onto.) Having fixed on a faith that involved dancing, it was obvious in my first novel that the worship space should be open and round, the better to be able to circle around hand in hand.

    • I think a faith does determine architecture. Baha’i Temples have nine sides with a door on each side to symbolically welcome people of any religion or coming from any direction in the world can enter. The seats are in the round because Baha’is have no clergy and do not use altars. Devotions are highly participatory and consultation is a critical part of regular Baha’i worship, so seating that allows the congregants to face each other is ideal.

      This can have interesting (and sometimes frustrating) effects. In a Baha’i community in which the membership can’t afford to build a center for worship, we are obliged to purchase or rent buildings that were built for other purposes. The San Jose Baha’i Center, for example, is an old Methodist church with a long rectangular sanctuary, raised dais and small apse. For a group of people who want to be able to see each other and who find circles most conducive to the way we worship, the layout of a space intended for a single speaker and a couple hundred listeners can be quite challenging.

      • OTOH, to step out of the traditional architecture can be liberating. My church has to move (long story involving litigation omitted here). I would love to see them rent the old Borders Bookstore site, down the road. It has lots of open space for meeting and having services in; there are already bathrooms and even a cafe area. And of course there’s a huge well-lit parking lot, and a big sign ready for our logo. Alas, I think this is too big a change for some.

  2. Thank you, Maya!

    I had to arm-wrestle all this stuff out when I created Nuala, but this will be handy as I continue writing Alfreda novels. Because if magic is real, then the 1800s are going to be a very different place. This will also be useful creating alien religions, in fantasy or SF.

    Will we eventually see these essays as an eBook?

  3. Oooh, cool. Asking those sort of structural questions are wiser than many of those I’ve seen, recommending you start with the creation myth.

    (On which I go on about here.)