Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Writing Cultures #2: Belief Systems

This is part two of a blog set about writing culture. If you haven't read part one, which is on settings, I recommend checking it out first over here: Writing Cultures #1

You now have an awesome setting for your book and culture. So what's next?

Let's talk about belief systems.

Belief Systems are really one of the most important things when it comes to defining a culture. Religion and faith is what outlines a culture's morals, their celebrations, their principles, their architecture, mythos, etc; Even if it isn't a religion, strictly, every culture has an outlining set of morals that is seen as common sense and courtesy.

Which is why I'm bundling them all into the label of Belief Systems. Just for ease of clarity.

So for a fantasy world and culture, how on earth do we make a belief system that feels realistic, deep, interesting, and sensible?

Let's look at some different types of belief systems in fantasy series, and see what they do both the same, and differently.


In a monotheistic belief system, there is a singular God, though there may be an opposing force. It's often based heavily off of real-world monotheistic systems such as Christianity or Catholicism.

Examples where monotheism is found in Fantasy: The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan; The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss; The Watergivers Trilogy, by Glenda Larke.


In a ditheistic belief system, there are two gods of equal power and (often) influence. Usually, there is a light god and a dark god.

Examples: Shadowdance, by David Dalglish; Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson.


In a polytheistic system, there are multiple gods, often in a pantheon and with a 'King/father god' over them. This is often based off of Greek, Roman, or Egyptian mythologies.

(This, from what I've seen, is a very common system in modern fantasy.)

Examples: Riyria/The First Empire, by Michael J. Sullivan; Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson; The Night Angel Trilogy, by Brent Weeks; The Gentleman Bastard, by Scott Lynch.

Superiority Complex/Divine Rule

There's probably a more official term for this belief system, but this term seems to work.
This is when the society is based upon one group of people being superior to another. Even within other belief systems, this is a subsystem that is often found.

Examples: The Forgotten Realms, by R. A. Salvatore (Drizzt chronicles, female Drow are superior to males); The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss (The Adem, women are considered superior while men are useless)The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson (People with light coloured eyes are considered superior to those with dark eyes)

Caste System

This is a similar system to the previous point, where there is a distinct and strict class system that people are forced into from birth. It's basically impossible to get out of a lower caste into a higher one.

(Much like the previous point, this is also often used as a subsystem of belief within a larger system)


Let's return to the Arctic culture that was started in Part One.

What kind of belief system would work well in this kind of setting? What would be realistic?

What kind of environment do we have to work with?

This is an arctic environment. This likely means that it is located near one of the poles of the planet (if the planet is similar to our own). This means that in summer, the sun barely sets and in winter, the sun barely rises. Extremely long days for half the year, extremely long nights for the rest of the year.

Let's make it ditheistic.

In this culture, there might be two gods. One god is the Day god, the other is the Night god. The Day god is associated with warmth, light, clarity, and life. The Night god is the opposite of that, associated with cold, darkness, deception, and death.

Great. So what is the mythos behind these gods?

Well, to this culture the world is either ruled by light or ruled by darkness. There are small transition times, but that's it.

Therefore, these gods are in a constant, endless battle. The Day god rules during summer, fights with the Night god, and then the Night god rules during winter, so on and so forth. The short nights or short days during either season are explained by the other god trying to wrestle back control. It's an endless cycle of darkness and light.

How does this kind of belief system effect the culture?

If there are two gods of equal importance, there are likely two priesthoods: one for the Day god, the other for the Night god. If this is a governmental system based around the main religion of the people, then during summer (while the Day-god is in control), it makes sense that the priesthood of the Day would be in control, and vice-versa for winter.

Let's go even further. In summer, people are under the rule of the Day god, and follow him. In winter, they are under the rule of the Night god.

Perhaps it goes even further. If a person is born during summer, they belong to the Day god, and are trained, for a time, under the priesthood of the Day god, and must still follow the Day god even in winter, always linked to the Day priesthood. The opposite would be the same for winter and the Night god. Whichever season they are born determines the god they belong to. What would that mean? During summer, those belonging to the Day god would have more power than those belonging to the Night god (again, the opposite would be true in winter)

This immediately creates conflict, even as a subplot or as a possibly strong enough conflict for a main plot in a story, simply by adding a belief system to the cultural layers.

What if someone is born during a transition period? Right between summer and winter?

Perhaps they choose which god to follow. Perhaps they are part of neither, forced to be on the outside of the system as some kind of outcast. Perhaps they belong to both.

If this culture is highly dedicated to their system/religion, there would be religious symbols carved in their holy/sacred places. They would have folk art outlining the conflict of the gods and the stories that are a part of their overall doctrine and mythos. There would be certain laws in place during some seasons that are not present in others. There would be different curses, as curses are often linked strongly into the religion that a culture is based on.

That's one example of a belief system for this culture. How would a different belief system change it?

If we go back to the magic system (control of heat), if there is only a small group of people who are proficient with the magic, there is the question of whether those people are considered blessed or cursed. If they are considered blessed then perhaps they are the rulers of the culture. The inverse could also be true, with those who use magic being outcast. (Though, in a society where magic is literally key to survival, there would be no sense in persecuting those who possess it, much like the nonsense of mutants who can breathe underwater being persecuted in Waterworld.)

There could easily also be a polytheistic society, in which there are gods for multiple things, and every section of society follows a different god.

For a monotheistic society, there would be a god of all creation, and likely some kind of lesser evil that was trying to destroy the god of creation as a force of destruction.

Of course, there are also far more ways to show a belief system for a society. Is this a society that was based in pacifism? Is it a society based in combat and warfare, bent on conquering other societies? Are they neophobic, making them afraid of any kind of change and afraid of travellers? Are they seafarers? Explorers? Are they nomadic, following herds of animals, or do they have a permanent town/city?

All of these things filter down into how the people interact, and the distinct character of the culture.

That is what a belief system all boils down to: the characterisation of the culture. If a person's character is defined by how they were raised, their environment, their position within their culture, and their personal beliefs, then a culture's character is based upon their beliefs.

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