Writing Excuses Episode 27: World-Building Religion

The Writing Excuses team sits down to talk about religion as a world-building device: your characters probably believe in something, so what is it? How does it affect their lives? How does it change their thoughts and motivations (and swear words)? And when you’re developing a fake religion, how do you avoid religious bias and keep from offending people? Is it best to develop something completely new, or make a few changes to a real Earth religion?


Develop a religion where people worship something that no one would ever worship in our world. And it can’t be silly.

45 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 27: World-Building Religion”

  1. I’m currently re-reading several of the Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern novels. Initially she gave no significance to religion on Pern. But in a much later interview admitted that, even though she never mentioned it in the stories, religion was still there.

    One slight clarification, since I’m a huge Katherine Kurtz fan: the church in her Deryni novels is a reflection of pre-reformation Catholicism. She is big on historical parallels, and represents the church as it was between roughly the 11-14th centuries (depending on the time period in the series). And she offers an even display of both the beauty of ornate ritualism and the ugliness of blind hyper-orthodoxy.

    David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammer’s series includes in interesting extrapolation of Christianity into not only the future, but a high-tech post-Earth human culture.

    Frank Herbert’s Dune is another that extrapolates Christianity into the far future.

    For my own part, I am writing what I can only distill as supernatural thrillers. The stories deal heavily with Judeo-Christian history and themes. And I decided early on to be unabashed about religion in these stories — if you don’t like it, you’re just reading the wrong script (or eventually, watching the wrong movie). That is the world view I chose to take, and that set the tone for most of the characters and the conflict.

  2. If you are borrowing existing religions its a good idea to pick ones that you don’t have a chip on their shoulder with. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read (even outside of sci-fi and fantasy) where the Author’s dislike of Christianity shines so brightly its almost blinding. Its so common I think that’s one of the reasons that Tad William’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn stood out to me so much (as I told my friends “the fake Christian Church isn’t evil”).

  3. The writing prompt got me to thinking: what is there in the real world that no one would ever worship? Do people who are – not to put too fine a point on it – absolutely loony count, or is this just things that you could never build a whole religion with multiple adherents around? How about small, fringe-y cults?

    Number one on the list of “things no [sane] person would ever worship” is probably capital-E Evil, which is why fantasy religions dedicated to just being a generally rotten person (and possibly destroying the world, or at least wrecking up the place) have always rang rather false to me. But it’s hard to get people to agree on what is and what isn’t Evil. Given my political beliefs (upon which I’m not going to elaborate any further), tyranny is a pretty major evil from my perspective, but it’s still easy for me to imagine somebody worshipping a deity who explicitly backs the “Draconian police state” ideal (that’s Lawful Evil for you D&D fans) even though their heart is essentially in the right place, because they believe that strict social control backed by the threat of substantial force is really best for everyone. I’d admittedly have a hard time making such a character *sympathetic*, but I can at least imagine them following some sort of path to their conclusion that makes sense to them. And more to the point, I could definitely see some people embracing those ideals in real life. I’m not even going to touch current events, but I don’t have to; history has given us multiple examples of people who’ve really thought that whichever God/gods they believe in really does want them to do this, even if it means doing the sort of stuff that would otherwise be evil. It’s all okay in the name of the “greater good.”

    And when you start thinking about things people wouldn’t worship that don’t boil down to “gods that support ideals that I personally dislike strongly” (like, for the sake of example, furniture – which I quite like but don’t consider worship-worthy), you risk getting silly pretty quickly. Maybe I’m just not creative enough, but I’m having a hard time thinking of something that no one would ever think of worshipping in real life that at the same time isn’t completely ridiculous. I’m interested in seeing what others come up with.

  4. This was a pretty timely piece for me, as I’m trying to get motivated to do some world-building for a book/series I have in mind. I’m not sure how much of a role religion will play in the story, so there may not be a lot of immediacy in what was said specifically for my situation as it stands. Still, there is some good information in here if you look below the surface, on the philosophy of world-building. I’m wondering–was this Part I of a series? What other world-building topics are upcoming, if any?

  5. To Kevin,

    Well something doesn’t necessarily have to be a living person to be worshiped. My idea that stemmed for the writing prompt was people who worshiped the intact machines just a few years after an apocolypse. after a sufficient number of generations of chaos following a full blown break down of society, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine scared survivors emerging and being completely amazed at sky scrapers or computers.
    Meanwhile I can’t imagine any of us worshiping a car or somthig similar.

  6. Just a thought that came to me, but one of my pet peeves is cults in fantasy literature.

    A lot authors just create some cult of “bad guys” but it doesn’t make any sense for any character they create to belong to the cult. If I, as the reader, can’t understand why someone would join your evil cult or super-secret religious order, then it’s hard to understand why it would even exist. If some cult is going to bring about the end of the world, it’s kind of important to understand what the cultists are getting out of their membership besides and early death.

  7. Hey, just a quick idea —

    I know (and greatly appreciate) all you guys are doing for free already, but was wondering what you thought about putting a forum up for all the writing prompts you send out. Maybe have a link next to the “comment” link that allows those of us that come here every week to share (and possibly critique) with others what we’ve written.

  8. For the prompt, I thought of something simple and elemental that is often a factor in religions (and some rituals). It is never the actual *focus* of the religion, but once I started thinking of it as the focus, I came up with some pretty interesting options.

  9. What, you mean I can’t create a religion that revolves around worshipping old shoe leather?

    Actually, following the line of thought that people will worship *anything*…

    I wonder if an interesting permutation of this week’s prompt would be to base a religion around something overtly silly and make it serious, make it make some kind of sense. Of course, my sense of what’s “interesting” tends to be deranged at best…

  10. Years ago I had a vague idea for a story about a religion that worships cabbage. They chose cabbage because it is a little known fact that Jesus served cole slaw as a side dish the day he fed the masses with fish (cole slaw goes so well with fish, don’t you know). Then there came a schism between the cole slaw eaters and those who preferred sauerkraut, much as the Protestants broke away from the Catholic church. This was of course followed by a tremendous war to determine whose use of cabbage was the most pious. I never did anything with the idea other than to write an introduction. It’s probably just as well.

  11. I found this one really interesting. As an Jewish-raised atheist, I really struggle with writing religion. I’m saved a bit by the fact that I have a lot of really religious friends (including priests!) who I can turn to. I think the hardest part when you are world-building on Earth with real religions, is trying to realistically portray how various people of faith respond to the supernatural. At least I find that tricky. If you are a late 19th century Episcopalian and you die and become a ghost how do you feel about that? That’s my current headache, actually, for a piece I’m writing.

    I love the idea of a writing excuses livejournal. Thanks, Mike! And I loved the writing prompt too, second only to Dan’s “zombie on the front lines of the undead army” prompt, which I had some fun with. I’m going with a religion where the object of worship is hard, mind-altering drugs. The poppy plant, I think, will be at the center of it all.

  12. Speaking of things that deserve worship, here’s a bacon update:

    The bacon-flavored mints are actually not bad–they taste kind of minty, and kind of bacony, but not in a bad way. It’s weird. Next time I go to a con, I’ll be sure to bring some to share with everybody.

    Saint Anthony, patron saint of bacon, comes with a “prayer to assist in the enjoyment of quality bacon.” Which is awesome enough, but the best part of all is that he is also, apparently, the protector of pigs, hermits, gravediggers, and epileptics. That couldn’t possibly be more awesome.

  13. @ Jake,

    Actually, Asimov did something along those lines in his Foundation trillogy. There was a point in the development of the galactic periphery after the fall of the Empire at which nobody understood how old Imperial techonology worked anymore, and it devolved into a religion. The local ‘priests’ were taught how to do basic maintainance, but they didn’t understand what they were doing. The Foundationers who were able to do actual repairs and invent new technology used this religion to control the region.

    My world setting has its own religion, but the realities behind that religion I took from a broad spectrum of world mythologies. I’ve long been fascinated by the commonalities in mythology, especially the universality of dragons and ‘the others’ that exist in a supernatural dimension but can influence human affairs (fairies, elves, Olympians, djiini, etc). I’m doing something a little different with it, though, because “the others” in this world have decided to go into hiding rather than accept the worship of the human population.

  14. To Jake –

    Well, I can’t imagine any of *us* worshipping cars, or computers, or what-have-you (except in the metaphorical sense, for some of us). But I can still imagine someone in real life who’s never encountered these things (not that many such people still exist) considering them gods or tools of the gods or something upon encountering them for the first time, perhaps with the aid of an opportunistic charlatan/”high priest.” Think cargo cults.

    On a tangentially-related note, the gods in the setting I’m working on right now are more the kinds of beings to inspire terror than worship, although not quite at Lovecraftian levels; they still have intelligible personalities, at least insofar as megalomaniacal sociopaths have intelligible personalities from the perspective of people who aren’t either of these things. A couple of them are actually friendly; and the only reason the world is still a livable place is that the Creator was one of these, and he set things up so that the others can’t indulge themselves *too* much. I use the past tense because as far as the other gods know, he’s dead; not all mortals are aware of this, and not all of those who are believe that he’s really dead, but at any rate most of the limits on divine intervention he built into the natural laws still hold. The other “nice” goddess is loosely based on Eris as portrayed in the Principia Discordia.

    This isn’t to say that mortals don’t worship any of the dangerously insane ones, but those mortals who aren’t dangerously insane themselves generally focus more on not making them angry, which occasionally works. You don’t make a sacrifice to ensure a good harvest; you make a sacrifice to increase the odds that when the local divinity gets bored and decides to blight someone’s crops for a laugh it happens to the village down the road (for example). I’m still fleshing out the actual rules, but I like the idea; it affords me plenty of opportunities to be bitterly cynical through my characters. I’m trying to avoid making any of these religions obvious analogues for religions in the real world, as I have the feeling that would be more irritating than thought-provoking.

  15. I wanted to add a comment about another example of taking a religion that already exists and changing a few key things to use it in a fantasy work. In Kate Elliot’s Crown of Stars series, the religion is very similar to medieval Catholicism in form and function with only a few major content changes. Elliot does an amazing job of incorporating this religion into every aspect of the world in which these books are set. From its major role in the central conflict to its presence in the functioning of the governments of this world (or conflicts with the governments that it does NOT play a role in) to the automatic practices and beliefs in the characters’ every day lives, this religion feels complex, important, and entirely believable. It seems that many fantasy books almost ignore the issue of religion or belief structures. It didn’t even occur to me how strange ignoring that aspect of the human experience is (especially in settings loosely based on medieval europe) until I read Crown of Stars. Not that religion or belief should play as big a part in every work as it does in Crown of Stars, but I do think that it still remains under-utilized in many works of fantasy. Thanks to Brandon, Howard, and Dan for addressing the issue!

  16. Something has been bothering me since Monday. I try really hard to put my bias aside when I write, but my hostility towards religion and fear of religious people is really deep.

    I’m a (happily married) lesbian and there are few religions or religious people that don’t think I’m some kind of Sinner because of that. I will spare you all the life saga.

    But to be quite honest, even when BYU was mentioned, I cringed, knowing other gay people that went there and remembering their stories about how they were treated (and expelled) because of who they are. (Not that this has anything to do with our wonderful podcasters, I feel very safe with their words, writing, and online spaces.) It’s just an emotional writing question that is true for me when any religion is brought up that has a problem with lesbian and gay people (and that is almost all major Earth religions).

    I’ve written about religion and I’m world-building a long-term project with an Earth religion (the Episcopalian Church); but my religious bias is strongly atheist. Spiteful, actually. And very, very obvious. I didn’t think about it much before. Now I feel… stuck. Help!

  17. This was a fascinating topic for a podcast, the most interesting of all to me so far (perhaps the fact that I am not a writer has something to do with that)

    You make great points about not offending your readers. Years ago I read one of Mercedes Lackey’s book’s, The Lark and the Wren. The book’s world is dominated by what is clearly a jaded caricature of the Catholic Church, which harries the protagonists in various ways throughout the story. As a devout Catholic I remember being annoyed or possibly slightly offended by this portrayal while reading the book. I finished it, and enjoyed the story overall but the experience somewhat turned me off to that author. None of this was really conscious at the time, and some of her other books look rather interesting but upon reflection she has been subconsciously stuck at the bottom of my “to read” list. The fact that I am well past my prime years of devouring SF/Fantasy novels means she will probably never get a purchase out of me.

    Especially not anytime soon when I need to start MY reread of WOT :)

    As a believer stories that are devoid of religion have often rung a bit hollow to me. It is not always necessary, (Star Trek:TOS) but when handled poorly is somewhat aggravating (Star Trek:DS9-Only the silly aliens believe in any sort of Higher Power)

  18. @Eliyanna

    Have you tried writing with an alias? Sometimes it helps to put me in a different frame of mind. I can be or at least act like someone else under a different name.

    I was in drama in High School and it taught a lot about getting into character.
    I try to keep this in mind when I want to write in a female POV; it’s very difficult for me to emulate a woman’s thinking from a male persective. So I act.

    Hope this might help a little.

  19. Eliyanna:

    Perhaps you can try thinking of religion in your world much like any of your other characters. It can be a hero or a villain, it can have strengths and flaws, and it could be funny or dire. And to avoid being cliché make sure you have well thought out reasons for why your world’s religion are a certain way. Go back through the previous Writing Excuses that deal with character development and put your religion through the paces!

    Remember, it’s fiction. Your world doesn’t have to function the same way the ‘real’ world does!

  20. Just a quick suggestion for Elyanna,

    Consider how our world view could have been impacted if a group of space aliens visited our world at the time of the Sumerians. Would the aliens be regarded as gods? How could people interpret their actions? What kind of motives could the aliens have in making contact with us at that stage? Say the aliens leave Earth after a few centuries of interaction. How would the initial impressions change over time? How would they differ?

  21. JovasKig? You meant that isn’t what happened?
    Posted by Mike Barker

    Heh. Heh.

    *Looks aroud warily*

    It’s a secret to everyone.

  22. @ Ben; Thanks for the suggestion, but I’m not sure that will help. I’ve been thinking since you posted, that the the problem might be that I like my bias.

    @ JovasKig; Very cute! But the trouble isn’t my imagination. My specific writing problem is real-Earth religions and the fact that I’m not presenting them in their best light. I’m trying to figure out if that’s something I need to fix and if so, how.

  23. David Farland’s (Wolverton’s) Daily Kick in the Pants this week has been on “Religion in Fiction,” a two part series so far.

    I’ve been looking about for an archive of his posts (they originate as emails), so you guys can see them. .I know it exists, but can’t find it.

    You register for his email this way:
    “Please feel free to share this email with friends. If you would like to be added to this list, just email dwolvert@xmission.com and say, “Kick me!””

  24. Eliyanna – I’d say that Ben’s observations about looking at religion from the perspective of your characters are spot-on. They’ll have different perspectives than you (which is what makes -anything- in fiction interesting anyway, really) and sometimes just seeing things as Jimbob the Protaganist rather than Joe Shmuck the Author can make a world of difference. Just make sure your characters also present some good attributes as well as bad.

    You might also want to find yourself a beta reader and ask them to take a look at your work, and that way you might be able to get some specific feedback to help you smooth things out.

    Oh, and thanks for the link Guerry. Might have to check it out. :)

  25. I covered religion to a small extent in my ShadowChildren series (currently in production). The Vampire community in the flashback episodes were led by a ‘Chorus’, consisting of 7 elder vampires linked with a psychic connection allowing them to speak and act as one. The idea being, “2 heads are better than 1, so 7 must be f***ing fabulous”. In reality of course, 7 heads are just as likely to make poor decisions as 1 head, something else that plays into the series.

    I am curious as to why Mormonism can’t exist in Ender’s universe? I don’t know much about Mormon beliefs and don’t understand how this would be.

  26. Eliyanna:
    Just remember that good villains always think they’re right–if a villain is being evil just for the sake of being evil, then no one’s going to be interested. Now, on the assumption that an intolerant religion is going to be a “villain” in your story, just make sure you treat them as a community that thinks it’s right. They don’t just persecute homosexuals because they’re mean, they persecute them because they think they’re saving their souls. That doesn’t make them right, or tactful, or even effective, but it does make them more sympathetic, and it makes your story more honest.

    Now, your comment that you “like your bias” is very telling, and suggests that you might not WANT to present them in a more sympathetic light. That’s fine too, as long as your eventual plans for the story don’t require any members of this religion to read, appreciate, or purchase your story. If you’re righting something that’s just for you, you can say anything you want. If you’re writing something specifically for the atheist subset of the gay and lesbian community, then a biased presentation of a religious group might be what that audience wants. If, on the other hand, you’re writing something that you hope will open somebody’s eyes and increase communication, it would be best not to present that somebody as a biased caricature.

  27. Byron:
    As a child, I interpreted the idea that “man was created in God’s image” to preclude the concept of sentient non-humans. Thus, the buggers in Ender’s universe did not fit. I’ve since developed a broader concept of what “God’s image” might and might not include.

  28. Sam,

    Your story about a cabbage-based religion could still be done. Just present it as a satire of the foibles of people and their tendency to get worked up over differences of opinion. Your story reminded me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian where there is schism over Brian’s unintentionally created religion.

    “The Gourd!”

    “No, the sandle!”

  29. Thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions about my “issues” – particularly Dan’s comments on how to approach villians are helpful, although after all is said and done, I think I’m going to make my main religious character (a priest) a hero, if nothing else to force myself to find his voice more authentically.

    I think I have a lot to think about, and I really value the feedback and time people took to help me out. I don’t want to make anyone a carictature, and I have a million important people in my life who are religious. I’m going to work hard to find that balance.

    Thanks again.

  30. I just laughed out loudwhen I re-read my post from 2 seconds ago. Me, a lesbian, is going with “some of my best friends are religious!”

    It’s like, ya know, not that there’s anything *wrong* with that.


  31. Joe,

    The simple fact is that religion, and particularly the Catholic religion in Medieval Europe, was in many ways a repressive, unjust force. The fact that someone portrays it that way in a book doesn’t necessarily mean they’re biased or dislike the religion. Not every story with an evil or stultifying caricature of Catholicism is a _His Dark Materials_.


    One of the things that I think it’s most important to remember is to distinguish between religion as part of the story, religious themes in a story, and preaching to the reader.

    I absolutely hate being preached at. There’s a well known web comic (no, not Howard’s) which has an evil female character who’s been, at least in part, redeemed from her wicked ways. During her redemption process, she was staying with a holy man. He talked to her, which I have no problem with, but the author took the opportunity to footnote the holy man’s comments with long biblical quotations which effectively broke the fourth wall and were directed at the reader, since clearly the characters within the strip never saw them. I found this highly offensive. If I want to attend a sermon, I’ll go to church, thank you. Yet earlier in the same strip, the protagonist decided not to engage in sex with his girlfriend until after marriage. This occurred during a story arc, it was entirely in keeping with the personality of the protagonist, and I didn’t find it offensive at all. It was just part of the story. Religion in a story doesn’t bother me. Preaching at me is a sure-fire way to lose me as a reader.

    Finally, not all religion in a story is overt. Gene Wolfe is a devout Catholic and his works are full of religious themes and allusions. Sometimes, the religion is blatant and part of the plot. (The Long Sun series concerns a generational starship where the inhabitants have forgotten they’re on a spaceship and have come to worship the computerized avatars of the ship’s creaters.) Other times, you may not even realize that it’s a religious issue that’s underlying the story if you’re not both reasonably well educated and a careful, observant reader. He’s excellent at approaching religious issues from a secular angle, and I’ve never felt as though he were preaching at me.

  32. I agree, Dan (not the podcast Dan), I really enjoyed Terry Goodkind’s: Sword of Truth, but I didn’t like being preached at, to, and around and round we go.

    I’ve read through all his books and liked the story itself, but… I’ll never buy another done by him, because of the sermonish themes that pervade through out each book.

  33. Dan (not the podcast Dan) hit the nail on the head for me. Maybe it’s a quirk for me as a reader, but I like to read stories where the author doesn’t necessarily seem to have their own agenda in terms of plot, be it religious issues, anti-war, what have you. With that said, I love it when the characters bring up those exact issues. It seems a bit strange even to me as I think about it from an abstract point of view… I love seeing characters debate these things. I hate it when an author brings these things OUT of the story, into the ‘real world’.

    I suppose it’s the escapism aspect. If you read as a form of escapism, then dragging such heavy issues into a real world context sort of defeats the point, doesn’t it?

  34. One of the best comments for me in the podcast was Brandon’s idea of focusing worldbuilding on the things that cause conflict in the story. Or finding the conflict in your imagined world.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t do all sorts of other worldbuilding (like Tolkien did). Just that most readers won’t care about the world if the story isn’t running in the foreground.

    Also, I think this comment applies to ALL genres.

    If you’re writing a Western, one powerful way to complicate your story is to look for the conflicts in that setting. Heck, the setting is usually where the main story problem comes from. Same with thrillers, adventure, SF. If you’re writing a romance, you’re looking for the conflicts that can complicate the situation. Many such conflicts can come from culture, geography, etc.

    You can take that to characters as well–look for ways to develop characters that cause conflict.


    Have you read any of James Maxey’s stuff? He’s a solid athiest who grew up Christian and is quite anti-religion. However, you should see him use religion in his stories. It’s very, very interesting. He’s got two novels out and two shorts on Intergalactic Medicine Show online. You might want to check him out.

  35. Hi, all. I just started listening to this podcast two days ago, and I’m all caught up, now.

    I was very intrigued especially by this episode because I, like Eliyanna, am an atheist. For that reason, I generally do not include any sort of religious themes in the things I write (I’m unpublished at the moment), and when I do, I try very hard not to let my biases interfere.

    However, I thought about it from the other side, and I have a suggestion for believers–of any religion–that might make it easier for you to write more effective atheist or agnostic characters/cultures.

    Most people who are believers believe in only one religion. If you want to write an atheist or agnostic, think about how you feel about any religion that you don’t believe in.

    For instance, how do you feel about Zeus? Odin? Coyote? Quetzelcuatl? Are you tolerant of people who do believe in those gods/mythos? How would you react if you were removed from your culture and thrown into one where everyone around you followed what you felt was a false religion?

    Anyway, just some thoughts. :)

    I really enjoy the podcast, guys. I’ve taken more notes–in the car with my digital voice recorder, at work on my computer, at home in my notebook–than I have listening to any other podcast.

    Keep up the great work!

  36. For an interesting mix of religion and fantasy/sci-fi (depending on which books you’re reading), I’ve always enjoyed Christopher Stasheff’s work. He somehow manages to put huge amounts of religious/philosophical discussion into his books, without making them less fun or seem preachy. At least to me. I think it’s also interesting, as his religious characters are usually highly intelligent and thoughtful, where a lot of writers tend to go the opposite direction.

    I grew up reading a lot of science fiction, especially Asimov/Heinlein time frame, and one thing that alway bothered me was the extreme anti-religious preachiness that a lot of those authors would indulge in. Every time it came up in a book, I was instantly thrown out of the story and brought back to reality. I never got to the point where I stopped reading an author for it (even with Pullman’s HDM, some of his other stuff is still enjoyable), though it does make me more careful about reading their work because I know I might have that same reaction again.

    Anyways, I love this podcast, and I look forward to reading Dan Wells’ work when it comes out. I’ve been enjoying Schlock and Brandon’s books (even though my library here does not HAVE ANY), and I just re-read WOT to prepare for the last book. I love the fact that you all seem to have such fun making them, and each one makes me laugh as well as learn something new.

  37. I’m trying to build a world for a story and have a question I hope someone can help me with. There’s a portion of the story that requires religion, and I want to use Catholicism. But am I allowed to do that? I want to have monks and crosses and other Catholic imagery, but can I? Do I have to create a different religion? It’s not so much the actual beliefs I need, just the cool imagery.

  38. Jenny,

    If you use the imagery, there has to be a reason for it, I think. Doesn’t make it impossible, you just have to decide why they wear crosse, etc, and it has to be a good reason.

    All: the writing prompt reminds me of Orson Scott Card’s Short story “Holy.” If you haven’t read it, I recommend it as an example of worldbuilding.

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