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Creating God: Religion in Fantasy – Part 4

If you missed Part One of this article you can read it by clicking here.
If you missed Part Two of this article you can read it by clicking here.
If you missed Part Three of this article you can read it by clicking here.

When the Overlord asked people to give me some topic ideas for this column and religion popped up as one idea, I approached the topic with extreme anxiety and dread. No, I really did. The reasons for my anxiety and dread were many, and I won’t go into them, but I just want to say to Fantasy Faction readers—thanks. Most of the comments and feedback I’ve had on this series have been very kind and only provoked more thought. So thank you for being such a lovely, tolerant group of readers.

With that, I present you with the post that will probably get me in the most trouble: the role of authorial worldview in creating a new religion.

I’m going to start by making one thing very clear (I hope). For the purposes of this column, I remain a writing agnostic. I think whatever you want to write has a place somewhere in the world of literature. My job with this column is to help you (hopefully!) tell your story better by giving you ideas, helping improve your craft and structure, and offering tips that have helped me improve my own writing. If you write something that I don’t like, don’t agree with, find abhorrent or too disturbing, etc., that’s okay—I don’t have to read it. Likewise, you don’t have to read my stuff, and we can still be friends. But as far as this column is concerned, I try very hard to maintain my agnosticism about the content of your work.

That said, here’s the statement that will probably get me in trouble: I think your worldview—whatever that is—absolutely has a role in what you write.

“What?” you say. “C’mon, Amy—we have to write to the market, and the market doesn’t like (fill in the blank).” Or maybe, “I hate preachy fiction. We should keep our views out of our work!”

Maybe. Maybe not. The thing is, you can’t really help it. Your own religious beliefs, whatever they are, will likely seep into your work no matter how much you try to avoid it. That goes for political views, moral and ethical views, and social views as well. Even your personal approach to life is likely to show up somewhere in your work. Look at all the feasts in some of the fantasy books out there. Most of those authors have said at some point that they just love food. Brian Jacques practically made a career of making readers hungry.

What I do think you can—and must—do is be mindful of your views as you write. You can choose to be as blatant or as subtle as you wish, but I think it’s really important to watch for ways in which you might turn off readers by being too blatant or heavy-handed.

Some things that I try to consider as I write:

  • How might this story be received by both people who believe similarly to me and people whose beliefs are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum? I am not saying you must write to the market or temper your opinions to make your work palatable. I’m just saying you need to consider who you’ll offend. Maybe you’re okay with offending, maybe not—that’s your choice. It’s just something to consider.
  • Has my story turned into a manifesto or epistle? If so, you probably want to tone down your opinions a bit. Even others who share your beliefs will be turned off by something too preachy. Just as an example, I’m a Christian, and I very, very rarely read anything labeled “Christian fiction.” I find most of it too preachy for me, even when I share the core beliefs!
  • Can someone who doesn’t believe as I do see the story in this work? If not, you’re probably preaching. A good way to test the water is to give your work to someone you know disagrees with your worldview. An honest beta reader will tell you if you’ve crossed the line into manifesto.
  • Am I being as intellectually honest as possible? Tough to gauge, because obviously, none of us thinks we’re intellectually dishonest. But read with a critical eye. If you wish, add a character to play devil’s advocate for your main characters. Give us some unfaithful, some skeptics, some agnostics who are otherwise on the side of the protagonist. And even better, let them win some arguments. Admit (through your characters) that there might be things you don’t understand or don’t know about your own worldview by nodding to the opposing viewpoint.
  • Does my worldview always win, and does it completely humiliate the conquered when it does? I think this is another one that’s up to you, but be aware that if your worldview always wins in astounding, unbelievable, and totally humiliating ways, people will start to walk away from your story.

Again, these are only my opinions, and I think there’s room for a very wide range of worldviews in fiction, especially in speculative fiction. And certainly there are examples of very clear worldviews in fiction that have become huge commercial successes. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is a perfect example. The author has done nothing to hide or downplay his own individualist viewpoint, and he’s certainly seen tremendous success. However, his unapologetic approach has also turned off a lot of readers who might have otherwise continued reading his work.

This is really all just food for thought and a peek into my own process. You may have different opinions or questions or processes, and that’s all fine. As you go forth and create your worlds and religions, I hope you find a comfortable place where you can tell the truth of the story you have in your head.

Next week, I dust off my amateur musician hat and look at how to write songs in fantasy…

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10 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    This has been such a fantastic series Amy, thank you so much for opening my eyes to so many areas of religion and its importance within our genre 🙂

  2. J.L. Mbewe says:

    Wow, this has been a great insight into creating religions in our stories. If we have religion/faith/etc in our stories, I think it helps to have it arise organically from the story. One of my novels I was working on started with a simple story line, a cool sounding idea and then it ran into the question, “why?” and that problem/question gave birth to a religious system. It was kind of neat to watch it come together. Your series of posts helped to clarify some things. Thanks!

    • Oh, I totally agree with you there–that it should be something that rises organically! But then, I’m a pantser–everything in my stories arises organically! I think a very good plotter and world-builder can probably sit down and write out all of this stuff in great detail before penning a word of story and still make it convincing. I just don’t happen to be one of those people. 🙂

      Glad the posts helped you! 🙂

  3. J.L. Mbewe says:

    Oh, and I can’t wait for your next post on writing songs! 🙂

  4. Ruth Fanshaw says:

    I agree with the vast majority of this. 🙂

    I’m also a Christian who rarely reads “Christian Fiction”, and the main reason for that is that, on the occasions when I HAVE read it, most of what I read really hasn’t tended to be all that well written.

    When I was a new Christian, I went through a phase when I thought that anything I wrote OUGHT to preach Christianity. And everything I wrote during that period was utterly abysmal. 😀

    I agree that our worldview is going to come through in some form, and I think that’s a good thing, on the whole. But I really believe that it’s more effective when it’s a natural part of the story and/or subtext than when it’s pushy and “in your face”.

    To me, the universe would make no sense without God – the God I know in my own life. But I no longer distort my stories to aggressively hammer that home. My Christian worldview will always be part of the subtext of my stories – sometimes it may even the part of the theme; but it is my earnest endeavour no longer to ram it down people’s throats. 😀

    • Ruth, I went through that phase, too–the proselytizing phase. Oh my gosh–I was terrible! Fortunately, that was 20 years ago, and I got over myself. Mostly. 🙂 I think anyone who reads my work will see my particular point of view, but I’ve also had people who are agnostic or atheist say that even though they saw it, they weren’t bothered by it. That was reassuring. Most of my work is too pagan and unclean for a lot of folks who read Christian fiction, anyway.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Oli says:

    That’s a great article. Your points about the inevitable presence of your worldview in your writing are bang on. I also don’t think we need to be overly concerned about an overt ideological perspective hampering us commercially: Alan Moore seems to have sold some very nice numbers of explicitly anarchist work (that just happens to make utterly gripping reading).

    • Oli, thanks for the comment. I think you’re right–I honestly don’t think most readers care about the worldview as long as A) the story and writing are compelling and B) the worldview isn’t used as a sledgehammer. 🙂

  6. B.T Lowry says:

    Hi Amy,
    Thanks for the excellent series of articles. I’m writing my second fantasy novel and would like to have religion, spirituality, and mythology integrated into the world and much more intricate and diverse way than in the first one, so I did some searches on the net and found your thoughts. Very helpful.
    I think you did a good job at being a ‘writer agnostic.’ At the same time, I totally agree with you that our own convictions will affect our fiction. No one in the world is totally objective, because we are all subjects. Even science isn’t purely objective, what to speak of fiction. Well that’s my opinion anyway. He he.
    I’m from Canada but I’ve been living in India for a long time and studying spirituality here. As you probably know, religion is a very big deal here, and the diversity of convictions under one ‘roof’ can be quite astonishing.
    I’d like to add to your thoughts, andshare here some different ways in which people worship here (though many are not exclusive to India). I think these broad categories may help writers to innovate belief systems of their own. This might get a bit dense and chart-like, so bear with me.
    Most of the differences come down to this question: what is source of everything?
    Some say it is a person, a single supreme God or Goddess, usually with a spiritual form unlike our own bodies. Others say that beyond all form there is formlessness, either a void or an all-pervasive energy. This is actually a major disagreement between philosophical schools. The formlessness party says that the absolute truth is above matter and therefore free from all designations; the other party says that God’s form is non-material.
    Of those who consider God to be a person, some endeavor to describe God’s specific attributes: form, sound, activities etc. They say that some people have seen God, and written to tell the tale. It is not impossible and you can do it too. Others say that while God does possess attributes, nobody has or can perceive God directly (or if they somehow did, they wouldn’t survive). In a story, you might have one character who wants to meet God, and another who says that such a thing is impossible.
    Now among those who believe in a personal God, there are different opinions about who God is. Some people say one god is above all others; while other people say the same of another god. So it may be, in a fantasy world, that there are competing ideas about who the real god is. Conflict could be ideological or could escalate to the physical.
    The followers of a particular god have different practices and convictions, depending on the nature and teachings of that god.
    Polytheism: here, no one god is above all the others. All gods are, if not equal, at least in the same stratum.
    There are also many different varieties of demigods, with different levels of power. Some control elements and/or the senses of the bodies of living entities. Others preside over modes of nature—creation, maintenance and destruction—which in turn control all the elements.
    Furthermore, some gods are described to have the capacity to expand themselves, meaning that they can take another form while simultaneously remaining in their original form. They may be able to do this repeatedly. Although the expansions seem to be distinct individuals, they are all aspects of the same god.
    This may sound a bit dense and complex, but I hope it opens some possibilities for imagining varieties of divinity in stories. If you’d like to study more I recommend a book called Sri Caitanya Siksamrta, which is basically a survey of human consciousness. I’ve found it really helpful for conceiving of different kinds of people.

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