Religion – never has there been such a divisive topic in the world. I’ve already talked about featuring religion in your fantasy world building. In today’s post I wanted to discuss the darker side of religion – the side that causes conflict. Conflict is at the heart of any narrative after all.
In order to understand the nature of religious conflict, it’s important to understand what religion means to people. Religion influences everything it touches and has shaped our history, culture, laws, foreign relations, advances in technology and science and even things like diet and clothing choices.
It closely forms people’s identities, histories and their understanding of the nature of life. When those beliefs are attacked or challenged, this can breed conflict for a number of reasons. When a belief is challenged, it’s more than a simple disagreement with an idea. For some, these disagreements feel like a personal attack on the person or a community. This leads to an “us versus them” attitude with all the anger that follows.
I think it’s important to understand that a lot of violence coming out of religious conflict is partially due to fear as well as anger. It’s not always a simple matter of “I hate people who are different just because…”
For example, those who believe that atheists are turning the world into a godless place may be afraid that their loved ones will turn away from god and lose their place in the afterlife. Even if the original thinking behind it was good i.e protecting loved ones, the actions that can come out of it can be anywhere from mildly unpleasant to ending in violence.
Sometimes people can justify horrific acts in the name of what they think is right, what terrifies them and how they think they can protect their loved ones. While violence is never an acceptable response to this fear, it’s an interesting way of looking at the motives behind certain extreme actions.
So, why is any of this important to you?
If you want to use such a sensitive subject as religion as the basis of conflict in your story, I think you need to understand and research it in this world first.
Understanding the motivation behind actions (like murder or waging war) will help you to create conflict that is deeply rooted and believable. Having an atheist or a priest character as the bad guy…just because, isn’t really good enough. The same goes for having a certain character as inherently good e.g. a monk or a nun.
In cases like these, it’s usually the author’s personal opinion being projected into the novel. While this might not necessarily be the worst thing, in a fantasy world, you’re working with a clean slate. The reader doesn’t have the benefit of sharing a history with this world. Or understanding why these bad guys are inherently bad with no explanation.
One side of the debate in your novel may be fully formed (the side you agree with) but the other side might feel flat. The reader will pick up on this.
If you want to paint a group of people as good/bad and have it feel believable, I think you need to build the foundations around why things are this way.
I’m always disappointed when the bad guys in fiction are flat characters. I want to understand the motivations behind their actions. Why do they do the things they do? Are they angry or are they scared? Are they doing what they think is right, even if it’s at the expense of others?
Culture and history closely decide what is right and wrong. So those with a completely different history to our own will probably have very different beliefs – as you can already see in the variety of religious belief in this world.
In a fantasy world, the religious stories that shape your societies’ norms and values will be influenced by history that you write. This will also affect the perception of morality. What’s good and bad in your fantasy world might be completely different to this world.
My example from last week was: if you’ve got a society that worships death, is murder immoral or a good act?
Human sacrifice was fine in south America not that long ago really. If you’re writing a character that believes human sacrifice is a holy practice, you might have to crawl into their head and think about how they justify it (whether they’re the good or bad guy).
Understanding different perceptions of morality can help you build layers in your narrative that don’t just end in the typical good vs evil approach in fantasy.
While there’s obviously nothing wrong with the good vs evil set up (it’s popular for a reason) I prefer morally grey characters. I want to see not just conflict in the narrative, but conflict within the characters’ own minds.
Injecting conflict into world building
The scale of conflict will largely depend on how big your world is. Mine spans lots of different countries so I’ve got more to think about. However, even if you’re setting your world in just one country or city, there’s still plenty of room to inject conflict.
Let’s face it, if there’s something humans do well it’s disagree – although things might be very different if you’re not using humans of course.
First of all, not everyone in one country is going to believe exactly the same thing. Not even in one city will they all agree. In the UK, for example, we’re largely secular but we have so many different religions and ideas floating around it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all. Christianity has hundreds of different denominations – and they’re all meant to follow the same book.
People will always find something to disagree on, so why should that be any different in your world?
Possible sources of religious conflict:
- Religious denominations living side by side in the same city/country
- People from different religions crossing borders
- Different interpretations of the same religious stories
- Ideas on the afterlife and burial
- Expectations of the role of men and women
- Opinions on homosexuality and other sexual behaviour
- Conflict between different types of priests/hierarchies
- How much influence religion has on law, education, foreign policy (church and state debate)
- How religious laws affect trade and foreign relations
There’s a lot you can do on this subject, which is why I wanted a separate blog post on it. The thing that has helped me the most with world building is research into this world. I think it’s important to understand as much of the world as you can if you want to create your very own fantasy world that’s immersive and believable.
How do you feel about using religion as a source of conflict in your world? Is religion a big feature of your world? Please share your thoughts below.