On Cultures: Religion and Holidays in Fantasy Fiction

Creating a fantasy world is challenging. In urban fantasy and other fantasy and science fiction genres, authors can rely on real religions, cultures, and holidays to add depth to a world. For those of us who choose to build a society from scratch, holidays and religions are often overlooked, cutting out a very important dynamic in the relationships between people of the same culture, as well as the relationships of people from differing cultures.

When I created the world hosting my Requiem for the Rift King series and The Fall of Erelith series, I had a lot of ideas relating to who my characters were and the society they lived in. In The Fall of Erelith, religion plays a huge role in the world and how people act and behave. Holidays, however, were something I didn’t pursue, not until later. When I thought about this, I came to one frightening conclusion:  I was apprehensive about including holidays in my fantasy world because I was afraid of offending people. Holidays are important to people and can bring out extreme opinions. It’s polarizing, and sometimes in a bad way. By including religion and holidays in my cultures, I had to be willing to face the potential fallout from fans and readers.

People care about their beliefs.

And it was for that reason I made a point to be very careful to include religion as an actual part of my fantasy world–not as a backdrop for extremist groups in the story or as an antagonist, but as something that impacts many characters on a daily basis. If real people care about their beliefs, fictional ones do as well.

Religion and its role in a society plays a huge part in how people think and grow. Holidays are a direct manifestation of people’s beliefs.

Sometimes, the lack of religion in a culture is the defining element of that culture. There are so many possibilities. Ignoring the impact of religion and holidays on a culture, I feel, is a mistake. I can’t tell you how to create a realistic culture that fits your world; culture, religion, and society is something that must be balanced. However, I’ll share how I approach creating a society and culture, complete with religions and the holidays birthed by the beliefs of people.

I begin the process by choosing a government type. Society and government are often closely tied together. For example, those who live within a junta will have beliefs surrounding the art of war. They may also have a religion relating to what happens to their souls after death. Consider the vikings; their belief system is closely tied to their war-like culture. The concept of Valhalla is a perfect example of how the culture of a people and its beliefs closely tie in with religion.

More peaceful regions and governments often have more benevolent beliefs. Theologies form their governments completely around their religions. By choosing the government type first, I can often look at a culture and figure out why that type of government works for them.

Then I consider what sort of religion matches with the culture. Piece by piece, a society is born.

Defining a religion is difficult; being honest, I do a great deal of research into real religions and I apply the theories and tenants of these religions to my fantasy creations. I don’t copy a religion from Earth, but I do look at the history of the religions of Earth and apply their development to my worlds.

It’s a very difficult line to walk. I want to create viable religions, but I want to respect the very real religions on Earth. This is part of why creating a fully-rounded culture is sometimes frightening for me. Have I delved too close to a real religion? I don’t want to offend people, but I want to tell stories with well-rounded societies. Once I began adding religions, holidays followed in its wake. People have holidays for many reasons. Some celebrate an event, such as a birthday. Christmas is the obvious example. While it’s a Christian holiday, other cultures have embraced some of the secular elements of the holiday. I considered that too. How would these holidays I’m creating impact those who don’t believe in the religion associated with the holiday? (And here is a key point: many holidays are associated with religious belief.)

When I create a culture, I determine the holidays based on the nature of the worshipers and people living there. A society heavily reliant on farming, for example, will have harvest holidays and planting holidays. These are causes for celebration–not necessarily religious in nature, but tied to their ethics, beliefs, and lifestyles.

When I’m creating a culture and functional society, I’m weaving a tapestry rather than identifying a single thread. Because of this, it’s one of the hardest pieces of worldbuilding for me to implement, as the beliefs of the people are truly what shape who my characters are. I’m not really creating a religion or a holiday, but rather a lifestyle.

And that, I feel, is why it’s worth the effort to create a culture complete with religion and holidays.

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Worlds Defining Characters

I find it almost ironic that my first post on Today’s Author is on a subject near and dear to my heart: Building believable worlds.

However, it isn’t just the world I want to discuss, but the characters who live on them. The cultures of the world, the scope and expanse of a world are all important. How does a world define our characters? Earth has gone a long way to define us as a race. We are defined by the locations we live. Those of us who live near oceans or rivers have learned to fish. Those of us who live in the desert have adapted to the heat and the dry winds. Those of us who live where snow falls eight months out of the year have adapted to the cold. Our cultures are defined by the world we live in, whether we like it or not.

Imaginary Places, Imaginary Friends…

I’m not going to talk about the real world. I’m going to talk about Alskoran, a world of my own creation, the world depicted in the map at the top of this post*. (Yes, I drew it. More on that later.)

Alskorans is a continent divided by conflicting cultures and people. It doesn’t look that way from this view. It just looks like a bunch of lines defining where people live. Surely that can’t make that much of a difference, can it?

It can, and it does. I’d like to call your attention to three places on the map. You can’t see it from this angle, but take a look at the Rift. If you were to consider the real world compared to mine, the Rift is like the big brother of the Grand Canyon. The really big brother of the Grand Canyon. So big, it takes the best horses in the world more than two weeks to navigate the canyon trails to go from the top to the bottom. It is a dry, hostile place, with a great river cutting through the depths of the ravines. Danar, to its north, is a desert wasteland. He who controls water controls life.

These two places have drastically different cultures. The people of the Rift live and die by the quality of their sturdy horses and their skills riding them. The river offers them life, and it may as well be a God to them, because they don’t believe in Gods. Life and death are constantly at battle with one another, and the people have evolved to handle this fight very well. The Danarites, on the other hand, have a very strong belief system. Their Goddess provides water, and water means life or death to them.

The people of these two locations, although very close to each other in geographic terms, are drastically different. Horses are rare to the Danarites. The Rifters are the premier horsemen of the continent. The Danarites live in a place similar to Death Valley on the west coast. Horses can’t really survive there. The ones that do survive belong only to the elite, because they’re the only ones who can afford to water them. Without horses, their trade is limited. In Danar, they are a self-sufficient people, suspicious of anyone who isn’t them. The Rifters live in an equally harsh terrain, but in the depths of their canyons, there are grasslands and fodder for their beloved horses.

All of these things are due to where they live.

Then there is Kelsh, which is to the east of the Rift and south and east to Danar. Unlike Danar, it is a fertile land, with forests and lush farmlands.

Resources are at the root of the ongoing conflicts between Danar and Kelsh. No one remembers what triggered the ongoing feud between the peoples of the two regions, but the conflicts have developed to a point it is almost genetic in nature.

Their cultures have evolved to account for this ongoing dispute.

Location, Location, Location…

Location plays a huge part in defining culture. Whether you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world, understand how the location of your people changes the culture of your people. If you want a people to behave in a certain way, you need to account for that in their lifestyle. Cultures are formed because of necessity. Cultures evolve for many reasons, including an easing of lifestyle, luxuries, and religion. Trade can change cultures, as the people learn about how other people do things. Immigration really changes things. There is a reason America and Canada are referred to as mixing posts and salads in the cultural community. When you put a bunch of different cultural groups together, the lines separating the cultures will eventually blur.

So, how do you build a realistic world, a realistic people, and a realistic culture?

Start with understanding the world your characters live in. Your setting shouldn’t just be a place your characters stand on as they do the things they need to do. The best stories include the world as a character. Sure, the world doesn’t (often) have lines, but it’s always there. It’s a huge factor in the behavior of your real characters. Yet, time and time again, I read books where the world is nothing more than a cardboard cut out. It’s left with no depth, no realism, and no vibrancy.

Understanding Your World

If you want to build strong characters, start by building a strong, vibrant world. Even if your story takes place on Earth.

What? That doesn’t make sense! I can almost hear the questions now: Why do I need to develop Earth? We all live here! We know what living on Earth is like! That’s a waste of my time.

It’s not. Seriously. It’s not. Unless every story you ever write takes place in your home town featuring people you know, you need to research. If you live in Manhattan and want to write about someone living in Boston, you better do your research. New Yorkers are used to streets that make sense. Bostonites? They can navigate their way through a rubberband ball. They have to. Their streets are more convoluted than the typical mirror maze. I’ve been there once as a driver, and the idea of going back scares the liver out of me.

Boston’s confusing roads have become a part of their culture. The people have adapted to them. If you’re writing about Boston, and you’re from New York, you may forget this tiny little detail that impacts the life of a person from Boston on a daily basis.

Boston grew in a different way than New York. That history has stuck with the people of Boston. It has defined a different culture than its southern neighbor. Boston and New York, while both American Cities, are nothing like each other. I’ve had the pleasure of being guests of both cities, and how much they differ is absolutely amazing to me.

If you want to write about Earth, you need to know what you’re writing. You don’t just need to know the modern setting, but the history of the setting as well. It really makes a big difference on making the city feel alive. To making your setting feel real.

To skip across the ocean for a moment, this is one thing JK Rowling got right with her Harry Potter series: She made England feel real. She gave it a history. She gave it a culture. Then, she changed it up on us. She made it a place easy to imagine, easy to relate to, and then she gave it a feel of England.

That takes a great deal of skill. To write in such a way where a setting feels nature, a writer has to understand the location and its impact on the people living there.

Your setting is a character, and it’s one of the most important characters you have. You develop your living, breathing human characters (or non-human, as the case may be) but many don’t take the time to really understand the world their characters are from.

Sure, you may have an idea for the type of character you want to create, but how did that person become the type of person they are? A person born and raised as a slave isn’t going to take to independent thought easily. It’s nurtured for them to be anything but independent, self-reliant, and bold. Someone who was taken to be a slave in the middle of their lives is a different story. Understand how your culture and world will develop your characters.

If you need a real-life example of this, consider North America versus China. The way Americans and Chinese view the world is completely different. A good first step is to study real cultures, real people, and identify why the stereotypes of these cultural groups exists. Then, use it to your advantage.

Bringing a World to Life

The hardest part is bringing a world to life. Ironically, you do this through your characters and their interaction with the world. Just as the world defines the characters, the characters in turn define the world. For example, a culture with high water needs may build a dam. This changes the nature of the world around them, while the changes to the world also change how the characters react to each other, trade, and so on.

We can argue about the chicken vs egg situation all day long, but one simple fact remains: A great book has both characters and setting.

After all, we don’t just call Tolkien’s work “The Lord of the Rings.” No, we imagine ourselves as revisiting Middle Earth.

And Middle Earth is more than just the people. It’s about the places. What would The Lord of the Rings be without Mount Doom? Without Mordor? Without The Shire? Each of these places has culture unique to them, and that’s a huge part of why so many of us love Tolkien’s novels. We’re not just told about places, we’re taken there.

When you start writing your book, or even as you continue it, don’t just think of your setting as a cardboard cut out. Instead, view it as your most important character: The character who defines the lives, the motivations, the traits, and the customs of all of your key players.

Your world may not have lines, but it plays one of the leading roles.

* A Side Note about Maps: I draw maps, including cultural boundaries, kingdom lines, and terrain types as a way to help me define my world. This exercise is important to my process, though I don’t expect many people take it to quite the extremes I do. It does help me make my cultures feel a little more authentic, however. And it helps me see what characters see when they look at a map.

On Being An Unexpected Writer

Writing fiction is one of the central features of my life.

Confession: that sentence evokes a strange feeling of dislocation as I write it. It’s strange to think about just how many hours per week I spend writing and thinking about fiction.

This wasn’t my life’s goal, not something I always dreamed of doing when I grew up. I read loads of novels and short stories, of course, in all sorts of genres: Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, etc. To write them, though… this was never something I ever considered.

Mostly, this was due to other, stronger passions and career ambitions. In part, it was because my family and culture regarded storytelling skill as trivial bullshitting and blarney, a fine ability to go with conviviality among family and friends, but not anything that should be regarded as an actual skill with any real marketable value. In part, though, it was because I took up with my mother’s milk the assumption that (in the unfortunate lingo of Missouri in the 1970s) “only drug addicts, queers and Communists” wrote books. It might be OK to READ books sometimes, but it wouldn’t be at all respectable to WRITE them.

Needless to say, I didn’t fit in well as a child.

How strange it is, then, that after so many years of thinking that writing is something that only “other people” do, a respectable, boring, 9-to-5 day job, statistically average guy like me should recognize writing as one of the mainstays of my life. The foundations laid down in my youth still whisper that this is somehow wrong. Playing a sport of some kind (softball, bowling, cycling, hunting, etc.) would be a sufficiently manly past-time, as would the watching of other grown men play a sport of some kind (football, baseball, basketball, auto racing, etc.). Even watching cooking shows, political screaming and other forms of mindless television for hours on end would be more acceptable. After all, who in their right mind would deliberately make things up and not only write them down, but worry over the phrasing so that their lies would be more convincing? Every now and then, the cognitive dissonance can be almost overwhelming.

How important is writing to me? When other things don’t go well, I dust off my hands and get on with the next task. When my writing doesn’t go well, I agonize, lying awake at night wondering what has gone wrong with me.

Recently, I read that Miguel de Cervantes didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. He never wanted to be a writer; he worked for, and succeeded at, a career in the army. It was only after twenty-odd years of military service that he began to cast around for something else to do, some new passion in which to invest his hours. “Don Quixote” was one of the works that resulted, probably the best known work of Spanish literature in all of history.

I wonder if Major Cervantes’ superiors knew that he was a scribbling away on odd bits of parchment during his lunch breaks and on slow afternoons in the quartermaster’s office. All those reports, memos, budgets and other administrative tasks that were so vitally important at the time are now just dust, unrecorded and unremembered. If only all writers with day jobs could draw comfort from latter-day success of their hobbyist fictions!

My first real book is out in the world, trying to find a home. I’m working hard not to build up expectations for how it will fare in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition. My next book is banging at the doors of my mind, trying to get out and onto the page.

Do other writers function the way I do? Is your writing a pair of glasses through which you view the world?