The Designer Guide to Secondary World Religions

Ragnarok Publications has been gracious enough to host an article that I wrote on designing fictional religions on their blog.
How do you avoid clich├ęs like Crystal Dragon Jesus, the Evil Church of Evil, and smarmy secularist characters who know the Bible better than lifelong churchgoers? You build from the ground up—or in this case, the sky down.
The Three Qualities of Religion
First, let’s start with three qualities possessed by all religions: cult, code, and creed.
Cult: every religion practices some form of organized worship, with formalized rituals and fixed times for liturgical celebrations.
Code: all faiths promote a particular set of morals derived from their beliefs.
Creed: all religions profess belief in a body of theological knowledge. A faith’s creed is how it defines itself.
When designing your world’s religious landscape, consider what form the qualities above take in each religion. A particular faith’s cult, code, and creed should be intertwined. Ask yourself how they’re interrelated in each religion and how those interrelationships affect the beliefs and behavior of the faithful.
There's more at the link.

Having recently devoted the lion's share of my time to writing fiction, I can honestly say that it's refreshing to dip my feet in the waters of theology, even if only the shallow end. Readers have commented that my theological training has helped to differentiate my fiction from the standard SFF market, especially since I avoid the preachy, heavy-handed style of pink SFF.

Theology may have fallen into disfavor in the academy, but authors of genre fiction could do worse than to at least make a cursory study of the subject.

We've all heard of physicists and astronomers groaning about the technical inaccuracies in Star Wars and Star Trek. Take it form me, theologians are no less prone to eye rolling when fantasy novels glibly speak of gods needing human worship to survive or SF authors take it for granted that increased knowledge of the natural world will somehow render belief in the supernatural obsolete.

Getting back to the countless hours I've spent toiling in the word mines of late, progress on draft two of The Secret Kings proceeds apace. I'd like to thank the upstanding individuals who've volunteered as beta readers. I'd like to have at least two more, so if you'd like to get an early look at the third Soul Cycle novel and make positive contributions to the final version while you're at it, consider signing up via the email button in the upper left sidebar.

Even if you haven't finished the first two books in the series, there should be just enough time to read Nethereal and Souldancer before beta reading for The Secret Kings begins.



  1. Have you looked at David Weber's Safehold series? It has both prophecy and myth (with myth given as part of prophecy in order to deliberately stunt any type of technological development). But within the limits of the society, it is meant to be stable and productive, for humanity to thrive and fly under the radar of the aliens that had almost annihilated them.

    1. No, I haven't read Safehold, though I've heard of it. That's a fascinating premise.

      Also, glad to see that you clearly read the whole article :D

    2. Aliens look for emerging-tech species to preemptively wipe them out before they can become a threat. Humanity still manages to almost get to high enough tech to win, but is defeated. Send colony ship out with goal of being hidden from alien tech-searchers for ~1000 years.

      You're the colony administrator. What sort of society do you decide to make?

      Answer: set yourself and the others with you as archangels and angels (and obviously superior to mere mortals, because you have tech which you pass off as divine blessing). And make sur the passengers were brainwashed to have no memories of life before being woken up on the colony.

      What does the church become? How does the truth come out? What happens when a nation starts building up tech and beats the military forces the church have compelled to go against it?

      And will they ever get back to space, defeat the aliens, and return triumphantly to Earth?

      There are some similar story-framing elements as he used in Empire From the Ashes, and Weber is The Militant Dragon, after all. Try it out!

  2. I think that the secularist viewpoint encouraged by the modern world causes this. There's a temptation to see religion as wholly fictitious, serving no purpose.

    1. Agreed. All the more reason for even atheist writers to study the subject if they want to portray religion in their books. Otherwise they end up with caricatures. That's why His Dark Materials failed as a story.

    2. A lot of problems can be fixed with enough research. :)

  3. Brilliant post, Brian. Hyping and sharing to all the things.

  4. It's definitely fun, I agree. Even if you're not a man of faith, thinking how people would search for God is interesting in itself.

    It's why stories like Eragon leaves me cold.

    Good article!

    1. Thanks. I haven't read Eragon. Could you expand on your comment in a spoiler-free manner?

    2. My experience is based on the movie and articles I've read on its theology. I've not read the books due to finding them generally uninteresting. As for the view on God, well, it's not given much attention.

      It basically consists of:

      - Things were built a long time ago that make no sense. Implication being that the old ways are irrelevant and therefore wrong.

      - Elves have lived thousands of years and see no evidence of God, so they're ambivalent on any spiritual presence.

      It's all so colorless. This is a Fantasy world! Why would you make it so grey and dull?

    3. Thanks for the info. What you're describing is a standard issue projection of morally, intellectually, and creatively exhausted postmodernism onto a pseudo-Medieval setting. Even GRRM did it better.