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Worldbuilding A Religion – Part Three: How Religion Shapes Characters

Devout by JenZeeIn Part Two, we learned how religion can affect society and culture as a whole. But you can’t have either of those things without the individual people who comprise them, and many times it only takes one person to change everything.

During a recent (recent as in, er, the past two years, maybe?) political event here in the US, I had the particular pleasure of witnessing someone who evidently held little-to-no religious persuasion rant about how people should just leave their religions behind when they went to the ballots, and just vote. Later, when I relayed this experience to a friend who is almost at the complete opposite of the religion spectrum from me, she pretty much gave me this look of they said what, and we both shook our heads in frustration.

What the offending party above failed to realize in their statement is that religion is more than a clique. It’s not just an umbrella that like-minded people gather beneath to exchange ideas (though for some people, this is certainly as far as their religious experience goes). But for many people who call themselves a practitioner of a faith, religion is their source of strength, hope, and comfort. It is a way of life. You will have characters like the person above who think religion can just be set aside for a decision. And you will have characters who will not waver on their religious conviction no matter the cost. You will have characters that are a combination of both those scenarios, as well. Characters are just like people, after all. It’s so much fun!

As you create your characters, there’s a few things you should keep in mind:

First Encounters

Sky Lanterns by wlopTheir first encounter with religion, was it negative or positive? You know what they say about first impressions, and oftentimes it holds true for more than just first impressions of people. A first experience sets up expectations – or lack thereof – for the future.

However, a positive first encounter does not guarantee life-long devotion. As mentioned in Part One, cults work like this. They draw people in with promises, and then suddenly you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Some religions are similar, but without the whole ‘you’re not allowed to leave’ clause.

Likewise, a negative first encounter may not put someone off completely, particularly if your character is aware that the person giving the negative impression is not someone with any authority or credibility within the formal governing body of the religion.

Parents and Family

hope by jiaojiefengWhat role their parents played in their religious life, if any? For many characters, their first exposure to religion will be their family, most likely their parents. This will likely also be where religion is judged the most harshly by your character. It’s one thing to observe those who practice religion from outside their lives. It’s completely different to observe it up close and personal, and to see every flaw and failing – and hypocrisy. How your character’s parents treat religion will dictate how the character treats religion, and sometimes that means their behaviors and beliefs end up being completely opposite.

Rituals and Traditions

What role did religion play in important milestones of their lives? Religion, as mentioned above, is often more involved than just lip-service. It is a way of life, and one way of ensuring the survival of a religion is to make it a part of life from a very young age. Rituals and traditions to mark certain waypoints of a child’s life are one of the more prominent methods of doing this, especially with a coming-of-age. You can probably think of several off the top of your head – infant baptisms, for one. Circumcision. Confirmation and first communion in many churches. Bar and bat mitzvahs. In some cultures, receiving a name is a rite of passage, and people change their names at different points of their lives.

The ways religion can be inserted into memorable occasions are countless. First off, look at what you’ve established with your religion so far, and then see how the main tenets, or reminders of well-known mythology, can be made symbolic for everyday life. These rituals and traditions can be formal events, where an official is present, or casual, where the parents are responsible for putting reminders of faith in front of their children. Some ways to do this are:

At Birth
Consecration or dedication to a specific deity, specific sacrifices required by the new parents, or even the infant receiving a blessing or prophecy by a local religious leader.

If they are celebrated, and how they are celebrated. Are gifts given to the child, or does the child give gifts to someone else? Is there a celebratory event, or just a quiet recognition of the day?

Modern culture could be considered odd, since it delays the onset of adulthood so much. Historically, and in many of the cultures that are not technologically dependent these days, people are considered adults at a much earlier age. Usually the age when they become capable of creating offspring.

Coming of age can be anything from a ‘coming out’, where the children are presented formally as full-fledged members of society, to being allowed to wear certain garments, and almost always makes them eligible for marriage.

Society’s Standards

Fantasy Portraits by juliedillonWhat are the societal expectations of people who call themselves religious? It is not uncommon for society at large to hold people who publically adhere to a religion to different standards. Depending on the religion, the standards may be higher or lower than for the average religion-unknown person. If a religion makes a point of doing charitable works, of being honest to a fault, or of treating all people equally, people outside of that religion will be keeping watch for any fault they might possibly perceive. For those within the religion, it can put pressure on them to be more than they are capable of, and a balance has to be found. But if your character is insecure, the pressure they may feel can be enough to cause them to take drastic actions – and of course, you can use this for your plot. 😉

This is all assuming that everyone gets along mostly peacefully, though. Religion can bring people together in so many ways, but it can also be extremely divisive. Everything that makes a specific religion unique, and what draws certain people to it, can also be used by outsiders to persecute it. And fantasy worlds, and fantasy religions, are not black and white. They reflect our world, and our inner thoughts, even unintentionally.

When you’re looking for complexity in your religion worldbuilding, just look around you and see what you can tweak from your own experiences, or from what friends or family have experienced. The key to believability is to make something resonate with what your readers already know, while hopefully showing them something new along the way.

Title image by Michael Komarck.



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