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WORLD-BUILDING & RELIGION: Pitfalls, Religious Diversity, Schism & Pluralism

This article features my answers to several questions from the Catholic Writers’ Conference Online that I participated in for several years. They deal with the pitfalls of using religion in fantasy, how I deal with diverse points of view and schism in my work. 

Q: What are the pitfalls of religion in fantasy and how do you avoid them? 

I think some of the biggest pitfalls are:

  • The Straw Man portrayal in which the writer exaggerates facets of religion that he finds irrational or contradictory, and uses them to define religion, or worse, ascribes them to all and any religion portrayed in his work.
  • Creating a religion that is only a cardboard cut-out of a religion. The characters may talk about how important their faith is, but the writer doesn’t really make room for it in the story. There are no feasts or holy days, no places of worship, no prayers, etc. We hear about the religion, but we don’t see it.
  • No religion at all. Not a likely scenario. Even in cultures and subcultures in which a revealed religion isn’t practiced or at least not practiced exclusively, religious and spiritual beliefs will arise to fill the human need to understand what takes place behind the scenery. 

How do you avoid this? Research, for one thing. All of the foregoing discussion applies. Understand the dynamics of an historical religion, however it comes into being, and it will be easier to use it effectively in your fiction.

Second, put yourself on the ground in your character’s shoes and hearts. The nasty ones and the nice ones alike. This is important: If your “villains” are to seem real and complex, you have to understand why they think what they’re doing is heroic or merely okay or expedient or “the will of God” or necessary or whatever. And if your protagonists are to be three-dimensional, you need to be able to give the reader a visceral account of what moves them.


Q: How do you deal with diversity in points of view?  (Do your scholars argue over the shape of God or is there one accepted answer?  Are there schisms?) 

This depends on the story. THE MERI series (TheMer Cycle Trilogy)  was built around the idea that the Osraed (the priest-wizards) didn’t really agree on the “shape of God”. 

They thought they did until a new revelation claiming to be from that God, rattled them. Then they circled the wagons and discovered that they held sometimes radically, sometimes subtly different beliefs. What to do? What to do? 

The question about the shape of God (almost literally) because the central tension at the center of the novels, with the Old Guard believers unable to accept that the shape of God (or at least of God’s Messenger) might be female.


 Q: Do your worlds have several religions, or do they generally subscribe to one faith?  Why? 

Again, this depends. What was the genesis of the faith? In THE MERI, all the people of Carraid-land subscribe to the same faith. But their neighbors to the south do not. 

Why? Because the religion of Carraid-land was revealed by a homegrown prophet. This boy — the first Osraed — relayed his revelation to a clan leader who rose to be king because he listened to the prophet. The Osraed became the chief advisors of the kings. 

This is a religious continuum that affects only the people that live on this peninsula.  The folks across the southern mountain range have different beliefs because God’s revelation to them came through a different mechanism. Obviously, the isolation of these separate cultures was an intentional plot element. When they come together in the third book of the series, there’s a lot of  tension there.

The Spirit Gate by Maya Kaathryn BohnhoffIn THE SPIRIT GATE, however, I drew Christianity, Islam and several different varieties of “paganism” into one tale and explored what happened when each group was intent on controlling the throne of a small, but important country. THE SPIRIT GATE was an alternate history and I wanted to get my players right — so I pitted the Frankish Church, the Teutonic Order, the Islamic Turks, and the not-quite-Buddhist Mongols against each other in the midst of a pagan kingdom.

Add a particularly potent form of magic and stir well (I hope) and the result is conflict where none should exist as several parties try to harness the power of both faith and magic to gain control.

So, the answer to the original question depends on what role religion plays in a story. Is it the source of contention? The remedy for said contention? Both? Is it held together organically by bonds of faith and common goals or is it held together artificially with the spit and baling wire of manmade conventions that only seem to forge unity, but really only enforce uniformity? 

How big a part does it play? Is it in some way at the center of your story, or part of the framework in which the story takes place? In both THE MERI series and THE SPIRIT GATE, religion plays a central role for at least some of the characters involved. Some of the characters’ lives are permeated with their spiritual beliefs, while others look for ways to exploit those beliefs to their own advantage and yet others view religion as a political accessory.


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