Welcome back! Last time, we had a brief look at a few different styles and tones for worlds, along with possible frameworks you could use.
I know I said at the end of the last post that we’d be looking at geography, climate, resources, and peoples, and we will, but first I’m going to talk about God/gods. This has actually turned into a longer post than I expected so ‘geography, climate, resources & people’ will have to wait until next time, I’m afraid!
This is really, really important for you as a writer to know (unless you want to decide later). What is the origin of your world?
This is something your characters do not necessarily have to be in agreement over, and that’s fine, but you need to know and here’s why: conflicting, contradictory absolutes equals inconsistency (unless you have a built-in mechanism able to somehow contain that).
– Is there an absolute, semi-absolute, authority/authorities that created the universe? What defines a ‘god’/‘God’ in your setting? (We’ll discuss the form they could take in a bit).
– Did the Universe ‘just happen’? Is it the result of a Big Bang following a ‘Big Crunch’ in an endless cycle of repetition? Was the Universe always simply there?
– Were the gods made before or after the Universe’s creation? Are the current gods leftovers from a previous universe? (Are/were there proto-gods that preceded the current gods? Do different gods have different planets/stars – do different planets have different gods?)
– Is God, (a monotheistic God) absent, uncaring (“the Clockmaker”), or is He personally involved? (She would be ‘Goddess’) And if He/She is involved, to what extent? (we’ll get onto interpretations later)
– Is the universe malleable and respond to the beliefs of those inside it, allowing ‘various truths’ to be true and present at once, even if they are contradictory (and if they are contradictory, what sort of paradox is there?)
– Also: does time travel exist? And can you undo/erase previous timelines: what is the cost of doing that? (This one’s in with “gods” because it is a ‘godlike’ power).
You see, all of these will shape not only how you perceive the world, but how it works. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, Aslan the lion makes several appearances, and is not always recognised. Because of Aslan’s presence, (and sometimes, absence), the protagonists and other characters react differently; indeed, that appears to be one of the points of the series.
As a writer, you have the choice to inject personal beliefs into your works (this sounds like a really obvious statement), but you also have the choice to allow others’ beliefs to be present as well, just as you have the choice not to enable other beliefs. If you inject an overriding, core, foundational ‘there are no others’ – and that is the absolute, unbreakable canon law, then surely it is so. But if it is so, you must abide by it, even if your characters kick and try to find ways to shatter it (which could be an interesting plot in and of itself). There are varying degrees of this, of course, and it’s up to you how far you take it. How you enforce it is also up to you. It can be heavy-handed, or a gentle touch.
For example, characters could be aware of the ‘earth mother’ – a spirit that is within the world. That spirit may or may not be real. Under some doctrines, belief in that spirit would make it real; if there is an ultimate authority, she might have to bow to that entity, or she might be that entity.
Another key question is:
Can gods die, and if so, how?
If the world is shattered, does the ‘earth mother’ spirit die with it, or does it become incorporeal and continue on its way? How long can it last? How is it sustained? With belief? Because all her followers are dead (unless they’re in a spaceship or on other worlds). That’s just one thought for you.
Other Points of Consideration
What power do your gods have? What binds them, what are they answerable to, is there a hierarchy, is there a collective? Are they narcissistic/exaggerated projections of aspects of humanity given form? Do they have domains? i.e. the god of love, the goddess of commerce. Are there male/female counterparts to one another – are they married, can they have relationships; who or what can they breed with/create? How are they regarded? How are they made, if they are made; how old are they?
Do they have enemies? (return to the first question: what power do the enemies of the gods have? Etc.).
What if the gods disagree? Is there a war? How is it determined? (It will depend on their power. For that matter, how do they acquire power? A source of energy/energy-well they tap into, via faith, or are they just beings of immense power? By absorbing the profile/power of other beings? Are they like suns – burning energy and their finite lives will implode, leaving something akin to a black hole (and who knows where that might lead – portals, other dimensions, dream worlds?). Something else?). How much chaos and discord will be sown? Is your ‘survivor’ the last of his/her/its kind, having outlasted (directly/indirectly) the rest? Maybe there was no ‘war’ and they just died of old age? It’s up to you. But in most mythology, god wars are terrible things. Compare and contrast that to a harmonious, monotheistic deity (all power or as not) – which fits your world better?
If you are using ‘imported’ religions from our world, perhaps with a twist, perhaps not, thinly veiled or openly, many of these questions will already be answered, but it’s still worth considering them for your own world.
The next important question deals with faith –
Faith – the reality and the believed
If God is real, manifests Himself to His people, and there is undeniable proof that He is the ultimate, only, and absolute authority and all the other ‘gods’ are proven to be false, you, the author, have a problem. That problem is this: why would others persist in following proven false gods (or remain atheists) if there is irrefutable proof – and a God who is prepared to step in and visibly demonstrate His might? How do you stand against that? Well, you can’t. Free will is out the window – it’s just a choice between submission or death.
This might not necessarily be viewed as a bad thing by some characters: if such a deity was responsible for creation and was viewed as the only true source of justice, then some might claim he/she/it not only had the right but the responsibility to hold his/her/its creation accountable, elsewise, there could be no justice. That view is unlikely to be shared by everyone to say the least. The conflict could prove interesting – especially if there are those trying to delay/prevent/slay such a deity.
Perhaps a different approach would be the question of whether or not mortals have the ‘right’ to free will, or if it’s a gift, and whether or not it can/should be taken away depending on their actions. A group could advocate that ‘humanity’s’*
(*or insert a fantasy race of your choice)
collective and individual actions warrant an impartial, objective judge to weigh them against a moral code. Other factions might be opposed to this (I would imagine that human nature being what it is, there would be much outrage and indignation at such a stance).
Of course, a twist on this would be that it isn’t actually ‘God’ but a magical projection, an illusion, or whatnot, or perhaps that whole enough people believing thing, in the which case, your protagonist/antagonist had better find a way to change peoples’ minds or eliminate them – after all, it’s quite possible that the ‘God’ they imagined is a monster. Another take on this would be to make a not-all-powerful singular god (possibly against an existing pantheon or against a godless world).
Indeed, in a science fiction (perhaps a steampunk) setting, an extremist sect could try to create their own god – an A.I. supercomputer, for example. How you approach it is entirely up to you, the author, as well as how you handle the ethical and moral dilemmas.
*Perhaps a race of sapient robots and their ‘creator’ returns?
It depends on the style of the story. Humans tend to view things through their own experiences, and ‘subjective morality’ does not translate well to ‘absolute morality’. How you portray your ultimate God, if your intention is that He’s all powerful, all-good, and the Creator, is going to depend largely on your own experiences and views of what ‘good’ actually is. One way around this is to have characters view God through their own particular lens – and not provide a ‘word of god’ author narrative. In this way, you are not dictating to your readers and you allow room for interpretation – it also allows the characters to be vastly misguided to a little misguided, because no one gets it entirely right all the time.
Also consider: how is this god worshipped?
Do prayers have power, or is it simply the answer that is powerful? Does faith have power? What relationship do people have with their deity? Through idols, incantations, song, via conduits (such as priests/priestesses), rites (nature rites, ceremonial, etc), prophecies (a whole other sticky mess: how are they interpreted?). Is there organised religion? Does it include tithing? What about holy sites? Temples, cathedrals, monasteries, nature shrines, tombs?
Are there ‘restless dead’ in your world, and is there a way to hold them back? Even if your characters don’t agree with the gods/religion, is it regarded as the ‘lesser of two evils’ as it holds back the legions of restless dead that would otherwise plague and roam the earth and sea? Are the spirits of the dead – unbelievers, perhaps – held in another realm that can be crossed or interacted with by the living? Is there a ‘day of the dead’? Perhaps being undead isn’t seen as a bad thing or perhaps it’s a terrible, terrible curse; perhaps everyone is undead, and the hope is to live again. Perhaps there are no ghouls, ghosts, or the like; perhaps the black arts can’t animate the bodies of the dead. Maybe magic, especially necromancy, is considered to be an abomination and a grave sin – with real and dreadful consequences. That price could involve defiling your soul, and gradually transforming you, or barring you from the next life. Maybe the restless dead are the remnants of necromancers, forever cursed to remain in this world. Perhaps an arc would be trying to find redemption for one’s ancestor, having inherited a terrible stigma? Perhaps redemption isn’t possible: the moral might be simply to stay well away from such evil!
In a sci-fi, could nanites or some other force animate corpses? If so, how do you shut them off? Electromagnetic fields, perhaps?
How about the heroes and villains of the faith? One person’s hero is another’s villain. What form do these take? Prophets, demi-gods, messiahs, champions (e.g. Joan of Arc). Maybe they are the ‘superheroes’ of your world. How do these figures inspire your protagonist? Do they inspire dread, awe, apathy? Are they held up as symbols, the story of who they are far greater than the reality? Or perhaps their story is far more underrated than the actual person. Again, it is up to you!
What does it mean to be ‘sanctified’, for something to be ‘holy’(set apart)? By contrast, what is unholy, unclean, impure? Who is unholy, unclean, impure? Are there laws that are set in place by that deity? Are those laws extensions of its own character, and therefore, violating those laws grieves and angers it?
Does ‘sin’ exist, and what does it mean? At what point do society’s laws and the deity’s laws crossover, and at what point are they in conflict? Who has the greater authority: the secular or the religious? And when?
Is there a final judgement? Is there an afterlife? Is there a soul? Where do souls go upon death? Are they reincarnated, reborn into another world? How many afterlives are there? Is there purgatory (or a version of it)? Is there hell? Does it resemble Dante’s description? Are there ‘levels’ of holiness? Can salvation be won through good deeds; can it be bought? Is it a gift? Is there redemption?
What exactly is ‘justice’, what is ‘vengeance’, and what is ‘mercy’, and who decides? Are there angels, archangels, devils, demons? Are there priests who stand as arbiters (rightly or wrongly) of a deity/deities? Do they have power? Either in the form of ‘magic’, miracles, or something else?
Is there evil? Is there absolute evil, or is it subjective? Is there good? Is there absolute good, or is that subjective? What are the scales: how are deeds and/or intentions measured, if at all? And even if deeds and/or intentions are not measured, what are the consequences? And do they matter?
Something else to ponder: are good and evil equal and opposite, or is one greater than the other? Is evil merely a corruption of all that is good, and pure and right, a state of depravity, ‘fallenness’, or is it its own entity, as powerful, or more powerful than good? Is life greater than death, death greater than life, or are they one and the same, equal and opposite? The answer to this will determine morality within your setting. Again, there is room for multiple belief systems, but you need to decide which, if any, are correct even if you never reveal it.
Can your characters afford to risk angering an almighty God/Goddess/gods, even if there’s a chance that those deities don’t exist?
Those are just a few thoughts.
How I handle things
On a personal note, how I deal with this is to give the characters only a partial picture of ‘the Truth’ and let them figure it out from there. In allowing the characters to have different beliefs, the readers also, are allowed to draw their own conclusions – and by not shutting that off, it maintains dialogue and discourse. Do I know as the author? Absolutely I do. Am I going to share that? Maybe some day.
Either way, I would advise caution when writing anything with real-life overtures. Religion, belief, and faith can and are extremely personal to some people and less so to others. Remember if you’re writing a book with the intent to share it, you’re doing just that: sharing. Your characters, of course, can be as sensitive, obnoxious, abrasive, self-righteous, or zealous as you like. Now, enough about religion! Stay tuned for geography, climate, resources & peoples!