N.K. Jemisin's Recipe For How To Make A Religion For A Fantasy Universe

Fantasy fans know that a well-built world is crucial for an irresistible story. And author N.K. Jemisin always immerses readers into new and interesting worlds. The author's recent Dreamblood books tell the tale of Gujaareh, a nation torn apart by war in which the Gatherers, priests of the dream-goddess, are responsible for ensuring peace. Reviewer Natalie Luhrs boasts that "Jemisin excels at worldbuilding and the inclusion of a diverse mix of characters makes her settings feel even more real and vivid," and part of her excellent worldbuilding is her intricately crafter religion. Today the author reveals her "recipe" for whipping up a religion fit for a fantasy universe.

The folks at RT asked me to describe how I came up with the Egyptian-flavored religion in the Dreamblood books. The straightforward answer is, simply: I made it up. There's some Jungian dream theory in there, a little Egyptian religion, and a whole lotta "Yeah, this sounds cool, let's try that." But that's not much of an explanation, and since I was making dinner while writing this, I thought I'd try a different tack to explain what was involved in the "making it up" process.

You will need:

  • 1 Whole Actual Real-World Culture*
  • 1 Origin Story for the Universe
  • 1 Origin Story for Humanity
  • Several Taboos
  • 1 tbsp Historical Syncretism
  • Respect (generous handful)
  • Several Heroes and Heroines, complete with Larger-Than-Life Tales
  • Several Prophets, Popes, or other religious leaders, complete with Motivations
  • (optional) 1 Destruction Story
  • (optional) 1 Trickster Figure, with attendant Pantheon since Tricksters never appear alone
  • (optional) Dash Antagonistic Extract
  • (optional) 1 Resurrection Story
  • Salt to taste, along with Other Economic Elements

*IMPORTANT: Do not use Imitation Real-World Culture. Imitation Real-World Culture is much easier to obtain than Actual Real-World Culture, but using it will result in an unpleasant Exploitative Aftertaste. Imitation Real-World Culture may be recognized by its stereotypes, illogical assumptions, and "iconic" imagery that owes more to Hollywood and video games than any actual art.

Preheat consciousness to Thinky.

Research Real-World Culture until you have a clear understanding of the way its religion works. Be sure to look both at those who believe in the culture's faith in the traditional way and those who do not; there are secularists, atheists, and alternative believers in every society. Consider how the culture's young believers are educated; its rituals and goals; how it deals with threats. Add Historical Syncretism to your research at this point, because all religions borrow ideas from other cultures and faiths; you need to know what those are. Leaven your research with Respect: whether you adhere to this religion or not, it's a way of life for someone else.

(For added contrast, texture, and flavor, examine more than one Real-World Culture. Compare and contrast!)

Now make a roux to form the base of your new religion. Melt Origin Story for the Universe in a saucepan, then slowly sprinkle in Origin Story for Humanity. You may wish to add Destruction Story, Trickster Figure with Pantheon, Antagonistic Extract, and/or Resurrection Story here, if you wish. Most religions contain these in some combination or degree.

When this base is properly blended and browned, add all the people-based ingredients: Heroes, Heroines, Religious Leaders, and Motivations. Stir until tender. Note that your own beliefs will influence the dish's flavor, so consider yourself an ingredient too.

Simmer this mixture in Salt and Other Economic Elements, because religion is frequently closely intermingled with the way a society produces goods, exchanges wealth, and trades with its neighbors. Taboos should be added here as well, as they will derive from your culture's views on law, health, and public welfare. DO NOT POUR OFF! Your religion must be served in this broth.

Serve with a generous garnish of Respect, and maybe parsley.

For a more specific explanation of how I came up with the religion in The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, please see the Extras section at the back of The Killing Moon!

You can pick up the latest Dreamblood book, The Shadowed Sun, available in stores now. For more fantasy stories, visit our Everything Science Fiction & Fantasy Page!