Friday, July 7, 2023

Worldbuilding 101 for Writers: Writing Faith and Religion

by A.C. Williams @ACW_Author

If you woke up this morning and spent time reading your Bible, why did you do it? If you know someone who faces eastward to pray, do you know why they do it? Do you know an Amish person who doesn’t wear clothing with zippers or snaps? Or maybe you know a Jewish person who doesn’t eat pork. 

Why do people do these things? 

So far in this Worldbuilding 101 series, we’ve talked about Existing History, People and Social Circles, Language and Communication, Climate and Geography, and Agriculture. All of these are really important elements to building a believable world your readers can engage with. But this month’s topic is potentially the most important worldbuilding element for establishing the motivation behind why your cultures have developed the way they have. This month we are talking about Faith and Religion.

I want to be sensitive and considerate as I approach this topic because it can get a little heated sometimes. And that should tell us how important faith and religion are in culture. In fact, I was told as a young person that there are three topics you never bring up at social events: Politics, Money, and Religion. They cause division and strife and conflict.

Well, since these three elements are so important (they wouldn’t cause conflict if they weren’t important), we need to discuss them and consider them when we build a fantasy world. They have impact. They influence culture. They are the catalysts for war, for peace, and for society as a whole.

So this month, we’ll tackle Religion. Next month, we’ll tackle Government and Economics.

While there are dozens and dozens of methods for approaching religion in a storyworld, we only have time to talk about the most important elements. There are many other resources you can use to guide your decision making in this process (one of my favorites is the World Building Made Easy series by Janeen Ippolito). 

Faith and religion are the primary motivators for practically everything we do in our lives. Even if you “don’t have a religion,” that is your religion. All “religion” is truly is system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices a person uses to navigate life. 

Now, obviously, as Christ-follower my view on religion is a little bit different than the dictionary definition, but in forming a storyworld religious system, you need a structure. And, like it or not, the structure of different religions varies from culture to culture. Within that variance, cultures develop in different ways because what we believe about the supernatural, the afterlife, and death itself alters our entire personal and cultural worldview. 

The easy way to do this, of course, is to base your storyworld’s religion on one that already exists. And that’s perfectly fine. You can use the same names. You can switch names out. But in some cases, that’s not what an author feels is best for the story itself. So what if you need to create a religious system for your fantasy world? Where do you start? 

You can ask many, many questions in order to build a foundation for your storyworld’s faith and religion, but 

Basic Questions to Ask When Creating Your Storyworld's faith: 

Is the primary religion of your world monotheistic or polytheistic? 

If your world’s religious structure has one deity figure, advocates of that religion will have different perspectives on the world than a culture with more than one god. Regardless if the culture is monotheistic or polytheistic, it will affect language and clothing and architecture and all sorts of cultural areas. Contrast the architecture of current Washington D.C. and the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. 

How does your world’s religion influence your characters’ daily lives? 

Do they pray every day? Do they make sacrifices every day? Do they bring offerings to a temple every day? Do they have to wear specific clothing or keep their heads covered? Religion and its strict proponents usually LOOK and SOUND religious. How will you show that cultural norm in your story?

How does your religion talk about sin and/or redemption?

If your religious system is based on works, it will affect how those who follow it behave. They will be law-abiding citizens. They will do everything in their power to obey what their religion says is right (whether it’s right or not, because that’s what they believe.) Does the religion even talk about sin? Does it talk about redemption? Is that even possible? If you have a character who believes he or she cannot be redeemed no matter what happens, it’s going to make a huge difference in how that character behaves. 

What does your religious system say about the Afterlife? 

How do your characters view death? Is death a reward or a punishment? Is it equal to life or better? Or worse? How a character views death will inform how they live life. 

There are so many more questions you can ask about setting up a religious system, but if you can develop some reasons for your characters’ motivations based on these questions, you’ll have a really great starting point!

Award-winning author, A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if she isn’t, her socks won’t match. She has authored eight novels, two novellas, three devotional books, and more flash fiction than you can shake a stick at. A senior partner at the award-winning Uncommon Universes Press, she is passionate about stories and the authors who write them. Learn more about her book coaching and follow her adventures online at

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