Tag Archives: creating religions in fiction

World Building: Creating Power Structures and Religions #amwriting

ALL societies have an overarching power structure of some sort because someone has to be the leader. Similarly, all smaller segments within societies, from families to business, to churches, to governments have organized leadership structures, even if they aren’t formally described as such.

Power structure: the hierarchy that encompasses the most powerful people in an organization. An overall system of influence between individuals within any selected group of people.


→Assistant Leader(s)

→ →Assistant(s) to the Assistant Leader(s)

→ → → Middle-Level Clawing-their-way-to-Assistant Assistants

→ → → →Lower-Level-Hoping-to Survive-to-Retirement Assistants

→ → → → →Peons-Who-Do-the-Actual-Work-But-Don’t-Get-to-be-Called-Assistants

Religion rarely is a component of sci-fi but often figures prominently in fantasy work.

This is because a common way to train magic-gifted people is by apprenticeships, religious orders, or a school of some sort.

If you are taking the religious route, how important is the actual worship of the deity(s) in your tale?

Is there one god/goddess or many?

Benevolent or malevolent?

In many historical societies in this world, the Church/Temple was the governing power. The head of the religion was the ruler, and the higher one rose within the religious organization, the more power one had.

SO, in your world, how important is religion to your characters’ journey?

To convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work in the cities and towns, the segments of society outside the church.  Merchants, priests, teachers, healers, thieves—each occupation has a place in the hierarchy.

  • Is religion central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What segment of society outside the church has the power and privilege, and who is the underclass?
  • How does the underclass live, and what is the role of religion in keeping them in their place?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder, and how is it viewed? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  1. What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  2. What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  3. Who has the power?
  4. Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  5. How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  6. Who can join the priesthood?
  7. Do people want to join the priesthood, or do they fear it? How is the priesthood trained?

In the Tower of Bones series, the overarching government in Neveyah is the Temple of Aeos, which is really a large commune run by mages. Mage-gifted children must be trained, and a school exists for that purpose. Aeos is the Goddess of Hearth and Home, so her style is a gentler, community based kind of religion.

Tauron is the Bull God, who rules the world of Serende, but who wants to be the only god in the universe. Hoping to force Aeos to become his wife, Tauron has attacked and imprisoned Aeos’s husband, the Mountain God Ariend, and has taken half of Ariend’s world. In Tauron’s world, only the strongest are worthy of survival.

Aeos managed to find her husband’s prison and reclaimed half his world, but she can’t undo another god’s work. Thus, her husband’s prison remains a prize in the ongoing war of the gods.

These actions of the deities brought civilization to its knees on the three worlds. At the time of the Tower of Bones series, the worlds have mostly recovered.

When I created the religious power-structure in the Tower of Bones series, the opportunities for creating tension within the story grew exponentially.

As I said, the underlying premise of the story is that the gods are at war. But the imprisonment of Ariend caused the Universe to bar the deities from acting directly against each other ever again.

Thus, their battles are fought through their people, their clergy who are gifted with the ability to use magic.

When one god makes a move that affects the balance of the worlds, the others make a change to counter it and their people are the playing pieces in their great game.

That meant I had two radically different religions to create, that of Aeos, and that of Tauron. Highly structured religion is central to my characters’ worlds of Neveyah and Serende. Their places in their respective societies revolves around their positions within those hierarchies.

But what if your work has no religious element?

On Monday, we will explore creating political power structures.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Carl Pippich Karlskirche Wien.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Carl_Pippich_Karlskirche_Wien.jpg&oldid=234767606 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dommersen_Gothic_cathedral_in_a_medieval_city.jpg&oldid=319795786 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Cole Thomas The Return 1837.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cole_Thomas_The_Return_1837.jpg&oldid=301862305 (accessed May 29, 2019).


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#amwriting: World building: Society, and Magic

Today we will examine society and magic, two disparate concepts with one thing in common: both require a solid framework to imagine the story around. In other words, you have to understand them well.

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence, Scene - Justizia ca 1584

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

First let’s discuss religion and society: Who are the movers and shakers?

In all societies, there is a hierarchy of power. Someone is at the top and someone else is at the bottom.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you have a microcosm of space in which you can convey the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Who wants power, and what lengths are they willing to go to gain it?
  • What place does religion have in this society? Is it central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder and how is it viewed? Remember, you only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws what are the consequences?

This creates atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have but the reader does not. There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of Grok, or the political climate of West Berlin in 1961. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

Consider this story: a woman is separated from her husband by the Berlin Wall.  Every day, on her way to her job, she rides her bicycle past the wall, knowing that on the other side, less than a block away, is her husband. Yet the couple is divided by an impassable barrier. How the wall affects her is shown in her everyday life. In this story, the history of how the wall came into existence isn’t as important as how its presence destroys her family. The wall represents the ideology of those who rule in her divided city, so the reader comes to know the politics of both East and West Berlin by her experiences in trying to cross that barrier.

And now for the magic:

If magic is central to your story, it is critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If you make your characters too clever, readers won’t be able to relate to their story. 

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverWhen magic is part and parcel of a story, rules and limitations create the tension that moves the plot forward. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. No one character has all the power. The two most powerful wizards, Dumbledore and Voldemort, are evenly matched, but neither one is all-powerful. Both wizards want something from Harry. Harry has to work hard to gain his the full use of his abilities.

Harry’s struggle is the story.

  • Who has the magic, and what social power does this give them?
  • What are the limitations of his/her powers?

Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Conflict is what drives the plot.

What challenge does your character have to overcome in regard to his magic?

  • Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
  • If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
  • How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
  • Are they hampered in anyway themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize his abilities?

Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for the hero to struggle, and no story to tell.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic. My serial, Bleakbourne on Heath, is set in a parallel earth that is one shadow away from this one. Bleakbourne, situated on the Heath River, is where the fey and the mortal worlds meet. Leryn, my main character, has many adventures with people who have certain parallels with our history and who are drawn from Arthurian legend, but who are given my own particular twist.

I had to sit down and write out the rules for Merlin’s magic. In Bleakbourne’s world, wizards are born with the latent ability to wield magic, but it is considered a science, and craftsmanship is valued above all else. Skill is what gives a sorcerer power. Certain rituals must be observed.

  • Spells work two ways, and the second way always reverses the first way—this is called symmetry.
  • The words used in spells are of the old, dead, Romani language. Unwords are syllables that have a null meaning and are often inserted for symmetry.
  • All the Romani words with more than one meaning must be chosen carefully because they can be either too short or too long for symmetry. Too long a word will not work at all as you can lengthen, but not shorten them. The sorcerer must choose a shorter word, which requires him/her to insert an extra, closing unword, or the two spells wouldn’t be symmetrical. There are four unwords to choose from, but only three chances to get the spell right

In the Bleakbourne series, the use (and abuse) of magic is the underlying theme.

In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there has to be a damned good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when these institutions affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

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#amwriting: creating religion within the context of the tale

Assunta, by Titian, 1516-1518, via Wikimedia Commons

Assunta, by Titian, 1516-1518, via Wikimedia Commons

One thing we fantasy authors must occasionally deal with is developing religions within the context of the tale.

Most of what we will discuss here won’t actually make it into the written pages of your tale, but if you don’t have a good understanding of what you are writing about, you will inadvertently introduce discrepancies into your tale.

First, ask yourself “why does this religion matter?”  If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong in your tale.

However, when you have a heavenly power-struggle, you have some intriguing opportunities for mayhem.

Are there many gods and goddesses? What is their relationship with each other and how does it play into your story?

If you choose to create a religion as a key plot point, here are some questions to ask:

  1. How central to the life of the protagonist or antagonist is religion? Is the protagonist a member of the priestly class, perhaps a priestess or priest of a particular god or goddess?
  2. What does the protagonist gain from following this deity?
  3. How jealous is this deity?
  4. What is the protagonist/antagonist willing to do for their faith? Will they die for their deity or is it a more abstract religion?
  5. The priesthood—who can join?
  6. Can only the nobility rise in the priesthood, or can anyone with the ability to learn gain power within the organization?
  7. How do the nobility and the priestly class get along? Do they have a good accord or are they jostling for power?
  8. And within that religious organization, who has the most power?
  9. What does that person do with their power?

How important is your religion politically? In Rome, the church was central to their government, in some cases having more power than the ruling nobility. During the Middle Ages, Rome slowly fell under the political control of the Papacy, which had settled in the city since the 1st century AD. In the 8th century, Rome became the capital of the Papal States, which lasted until 1870.

You don’t have to re-invent the wheel here–history is full of great ideas to draw upon.


Painting by John Collier, “A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia” via Wikimedia Commons

Consider the Borgias–Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says this about them: Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Savonarola, among others. They were also patrons of the arts who contributed to the Renaissance.

See? Even George R.R. Martin knows that the renaissance offers great opportunity for good plot twists in your fantasy project.

Now let’s examine the political environments of the medieval city-states of Venice, Milan, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, and CremonaRodney Stark, an American sociologist of religion, proposes that the city-state was a ‘marriage of responsive government, Christianity, and the birth of capitalism’ as we know it. He argues that these states were mostly republics, unlike the great European monarchies of France and Spain, where absolute power was vested in rulers who could and did stifle commerce.

It has been suggested (in Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge) that by keeping both direct Church control and imperial power at arm’s length, the independent city republics of medieval Italy prospered because their commerce was based on early capitalist principles. The church was still involved in their daily lives, but this slight, deliberate separation of church and state ultimately created the societal conditions that brought about the artistic and intellectual flowering of the renaissance.

And for you, the author, understanding the commerce and economics of your fantasy society is extremely important, so that inconsistencies don’t get introduced. The reader won’t care, and doesn’t want the background info, but you need to know it.

If your protagonists are poor, why are they poor? Is poverty widespread, or is it only the one family? Where is all the money–is it in the hands of the church or is it in the hands of the middle-class? If it’s in the hands of the church–you’ve a good plot-point to work with.

Thus if religion of some sort is an integral part of your work, you as the author must have a good knowledge of what the influence of that institution is, the structure of the priesthood, the power they wield in society at large, how (or if) they control the economy, and how this organization is viewed by the ordinary citizen.

St. George and the Dragon, Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

St. George and the Dragon, Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

Many authors avoid this altogether, by having only a vague mention of religion, simply mentioning a connection with a particular deity as the reason for the ability to use and control magic.

Others make religion and opposing religions the foundation of their works. How you handle religion in your manuscript is up to you, but if you make it a central part of your tale, I suggest you create a document in which you establish the basics of your religion(s) clearly. Update it as the rules evolve, which they certainly will do over the first two drafts of your novel. During your writing process, refer back to this document regularly.

The reader doesn’t care about those details, and will put the book down if they are included. But if you don’t know what you are writing about, can’t remember what you wrote three chapter ago, and contradict yourself too often, your reader will lose the ability to suspend his disbelief.

Keeping the reader immersed in the tale, forgetting that it is only a fiction is the primary goal every author wants to achieve.


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