History Helps You Write: Religion and Government in Fantasy Fiction

Last semester I took a history class that covered all of history up to 1500 A. D. The textbook was hard to get through and I never really had much of an interest in history, ancient world history in particular. However, besides having an excellent professor and the best college learning experience yet, I learned something in this history class that I knew would take me far in my own writing, thus causing me to appreciate the subject more than I have before.

How?

History Helps You Write Religion and Government in Fantasy Fiction
Photo Credit: Michael Metzler Jr. 2015

It’s true that we learn from history … if you’re willing. America’s Founding Fathers learned from history in writing the Constitution. Apparently the countries involved in the two World Wars did not learn from history before jumping into chaos, but in our modern times we can look back at those World Wars and see the disastrous outcomes. We can look on ancient governments, social systems, economic growth and decline, and go, “We know that didn’t work, so we’ll avoid this and try another way.” It’s as simple as dropping a banana peel, slipping on it, and saying, “Hm, I probably shouldn’t do that again.”

Well, maybe not that simple, but you get the gist. We learn from history. The past creates a better future, but only if you learn from the past. You don’t want history to repeat itself (you don’t want history to repeat itself [you don’t want history to repeat itself {you don’t want history to repeat itself}]). Whoops.

So, what does all of this have to do with writing? Answer: Everything. I could go on and on about how history inspires writing. War and Peace is an extreme example of this, as Tolstoy took historical plots to shape the smaller plots in the characters’ lives and used real historical figures as main characters. This usually goes for most historical fiction, but I’m talking beyond that. Our life experience alone, disregarding all other history, makes the writer in us. My past, the things I did, what I learned about, and everything in between is a vast and almost immeasurable resource for my writing (besides Google). You could write a whole book going off of experiential life and knowledge alone and it would be a fairly successful story. And it’s not like you lead an Avenger’s life or anything. …Right?

 

In my history textbook, I read about the caste system in India with the “untouchables” as the lowest in the social pyramid. These people were more inferior than slaves. If you think about it, the word untouchable is pretty extreme; how would you like to live your life as a filthy, impoverished, unworthy outcast? An “untouchable?” (Yeah, I didn’t think so.) These were my thoughts as I read, and I soon had an idea … “Hey, what about “untouchable” as in glory? Like a god? How about a character who is named the Untouchable because they all think she is a powerful goddess and that she had enough power to kill by a single touch?”

Inspiration Bombs. Wheeeeeeee– BOOM.

In an article I read for history class, there was a certain paragraph that stood out to me about what Gautama said about government. He said that a king is successful if he provides citizens with free will to earn for themselves, taxes the wealthy, helps the poor and needy, and educates the unskilled. If he does not do these things, his kingdom will see a decline spiraling down from cause and effect: The poor are forced to steal from the wealthy, causing the wealthy to keep guardians to protect their wealth, leading to thieves and guardians arming themselves to protect themselves against one another. All this provokes the wealthy to press stricter laws and punishments until everyone is armed and afraid. Suspicion leads to fear. Fear leads to violence. Increasing violence leads to suffering, the decline of people’s lives. Eventually, people will die shortly after the age of reproduction, orphans will rampage the streets, and morality will become so rare that the meaning of the word virtue will be forgotten, much less even heard anymore.

Inspired yet? There’s your next dystopian novel for you.

Disregarding Guatama’s wise thoughts on government, you can create a certain government with elements from different governments and economical structures throughout history, ending up with a unique society in your story. Some people say there is no ideal government, and that there never can be, but what if you can create an ideal government for your world? Other people have set up idealistic governments; you could take what people wish governments could be and put a variation of their ideas into action. Thomas Jefferson has much to say on ideals of government.

I’ll use Star Wars as an example, as the storyline completely revolves around government, the Republic, the Senate, the Rebellion, the Empire. Democracy! Unlike a lot of people, I immensely enjoyed Episodes I, II, and III. The reason for this is because Anakin’s characterization is absolutely genius and I’ll even say he had a good excuse for his whining (but guilt manipulation, no). Whatever Lucas was trying to do with the young Darth Vader worked, and I felt tension, sympathy, desapir, and repulsiveness throughout the three movies. But there is something that makes this possible (besides the soundtrack): Anakin’s characterization is based on the change in government, the conflicts within the Jedi Council and the Senate. Obi-Wan, his master in Jedi training, is like a father to him, yet he begins to believe friendly Emperor Palpatine’s rumors that the Jedis mean to grow powerful and corrupt the Republic, and the Republic is where his loyalty lies, Jedi or Sith. Overwhelmed, thinking his friend Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council don”t trust him, Anakin gives in to the Dark Side and joins forces with Palpatine, thus becoming Darth Vader. If it weren’t for the problems in government, Anakin would be a very boring character, and there may not have been any prequels at all. You who hate the Prequels! Hark to this paragraph. These three movies are the foreground of the original trilogy, with the political and governmental problems creating  the characters, thus making the whole story of Star Wars one of genius and legend.

(Don’t get me wrong; I do like the original trilogy better.)

 

I had to write an essay for the same history class on ancient Asian religion. I chose Shinto, Animism, and Buddhism. These religions are chock full of writing inspiration and ideas and this is also a fascinating aspect in history. If you’ve ever studied ancient religion before (or any religion, for that matter), you may have noticed that a lot of governments are actually built around that country’s religion, which is amazing to me; take Islam. On the other side, America’s culture and government are totally secular and yet over 300 different religions abound throughout the nation. I think every religion is unique and holds much potential for writing ideas pertaining to the inception of a unique religion in the fiction world that you have created, fantasy or sci-fi.

I’m going to use Star Wars again as an excellent example. The Force is most certainly derived from Asian religions, though it’s not completely a religion; the Jedi use it and it is this power of the Force they rely on rather than depending on their own human strength to defend and protect the Republic, to fight for galactic freedom. Jedis don’t exactly sit like a Buddha and meditate with their pinkies in the air, but the whole thing with the Force in Star Wars is in fact very similar to these Asian religions. This goes specifically for Animism: This religion goes way back to ancient times, and the people believed that there was a power, a spirit that was found in all things, nature, and surroundings and that they can feel the movement of this divine spirit, a factor that is found in some contemporary religions.

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” – Obi-Wan from Star Wars IV: A New Hope

Animism is a really cool religion, but it’s such an ancient one that there’s different theories floating around on what the beliefs actually were besides the aforementioned Force. There’s tons of others you can get ideas from as well, it’ll just take a little research. The fact that there are three different religions that believe in the same one divine being (Jewish, Christian, and Islam) is also an interesting one to consider … you may have more than one religion in your story, and they might all have similar elements or the same god, prophet, or saint.

Another thing I hereby add is philosophy. Many philosophical thinkers came up with theories about how the universe was created and how it exists; so it could be put in the religion category, though philosophical thought usually doesn’t have to do with supreme divine beings. I had to write an essay on the Presocratic thinkers (philosophers before Socrates’s time) and I was astounded at the brilliant ideas each guy had. One man, Empedocles, stood out to me the most with his ideas on how and what the universe was founded upon. He said that the cosmos is formed by four roots: earth, water, air, and fire, as well as Love and Strife. The four elements do make sense, and you could do a lot of things with those, but Love and Strife was an important part to me in my inspiration; Love unites and Strife pulls apart. There is love and goodness in this world, people do care for each other and wish well. However, there is always Strife, constantly pulling things apart, raising chaos and suffering and hate and sorrow and death. Wars. Therefore, Love and Strife are constantly in competition with each other, with one giving  way to the other and vice versa. If you think about this, it really makes sense when you apply it to our world.

 

To sum it all up, the best way to come up with your own unique government or religion for your fantasy story is to study governments and religions from history. Learn as much as you can about them. Hear from the experts. Were these governments successful? How did the economic structure play out? Why do specific religions have so many followers? There are countless questions you could ask yourself, and I would suggest research as being key so that you can get an overall idea … and loads of inspiration. Come up with realistic outcomes and let your government and religion help shape your characters and the plot. Involve bigger problems for better suspense and more tension in your story.

As always, good writing to you and I’d love any thoughts and ideas from my readers. Enjoy your holidays.

 

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6 thoughts on “History Helps You Write: Religion and Government in Fantasy Fiction

  1. Great advice! I’m worldbuilding a fantasy fiction idea, and delving into history, religion and government has really help me add layers. It’s been fun researching other cultures and how their politics or religion affects how everything works around a city or village, and I can adapt different pieces to my own world.

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    • Thanks! It’s fascinating how weaving in elements of politics and religion (particularly problems with these) can create a world and thus a story. Good luck to you in your worldbuilding! It can be tricky but it has potential to open up a whole world of interesting information.

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  2. This is a great post! It’s nice to see that other people also think that using history as a guide to telling stories is important.

    I’m also glad to see that there are more people out there see the great potential in Anakin Skywalker’s story.

    Keep writing great insights. 🙂

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