If we’re creating new cultures or shedding our own light on real world ones, religion and faith often play a central role. It’s been vitally important in the development of our world, so why should that not be true of any other? There are different challenges to writing religious characters and places, depending on whether we have to research them or create them from scratch.
Religion, I find, is the hardest difference between me and my characters to write about, and it faces most of us. If you write about characters from a different time period, they’re likely to have very different relgious beliefs to you, even if on paper they’re the same. At the moment I’m writing about a character who is a devout Methodist, raised by West Yorkshire Methodists who were born in the 19th Century. I, on the other hand, am not. On any level.
I was born 100 years after them, baptised and confirmed into the Church of England – which is much more about the tea and flower rotas than it is about God – have drifted towards Paganism and don’t actually like God. Considering that we believe in the same deity, our religious beliefs are radically different. How can I get inside his head, and what’s it like in there?
There’s some things that are easy. He was probably deeply uncomfortable with being stuck in a pub for the rest of eternity (did I mention that he’s a ghost?) and not fond of the screeching 15th Century nun who’s also stuck in that den of iniquity. He also thought that he’d accepted God’s salvation, and his ghost-hood must therefore be punishment for not doing… something. He thinks he knows what it is, and his attraction to his male roommate (not dead) is also going to weigh heavily on his mind.
Even if you’re writing characters who follow the same religion as you, you can never assume that you believe the same things. Take Catholicism, for example. The early Roman church performed same-sex marriages. The Celtic church had married and female priests. In the medieval period, the church taught that both parties had to enjoy sex for conception to be possible, and for it to avoid being a sin. All of these beliefs are vocally opposed by at least parts of the Catholic church today, and you might not think to check if that’s always been the case.
In many ways, it’s easier to write about a character who follows a fictional religion. You get to create it, and create the deities to go with it, and it’s an excellent vehicle for that oldest rule: Show, don’t tell.
Take, for example, a hypothetical temple in a hypothetical world:
The grand temple stood at the end of the street in a grand plaza. Its spires rose into the mist, and the morning sunshine reflected off the grand West window, glinting off the robes and jewels of the Elder Priests in their stained-glass glory and reflecting onto the pavement below, where worshipers waited for the heavy doors to open and let them in.
And contrast that temple with this one:
Halfway down the street was a large house with shuttered windows on the upper floors. As the first carts started to trundle past to market, a priest, wrapped tightly in his thick brown robe, swept leaves blown in overnight out of the door. He waited there, leaning on the worn bricks in the weak sunshine, to accept the morning’s delivery of flour and eggs, and greeted the first children arriving for school.
Those, I hope, show you a lot about the religions and, by extension, the cultures of the worlds they’re in. You can have a guess at how a visitor to the town would be treated, depending on their wealth and social status. You may be able to infer something about the religion’s attitude to life after death, and you should definitely know something about the power the religion wields. From that you know how the culture is likely to treat the poor and the sick, and how they’re likely to regard the rich.
Use religion, whatever world or period you’re writing, to create a window on that world. Whether it’s stained glass or plain is more important than you may think.