Monday, July 3, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #6: Origin Stories

Religion is filled with origin stories. How did the world begin? How did the leader of the gods gain his or her position? What is the relationship between man and god? How did we come to live in this place? Why is that hill named Starlight Peak? These stories may explain the entire universe, a single god, or who created today's problem.

An origin story takes ideas or ideals, turns them into characters, then places them in a story where they act out their positions. In this way, a listener can learn a complex set of relationships simply by learning a story. Because people remember stories far better than long explanations, very complex ideas can be transferred from one person to another with relatively few errors.

In a fantasy novel, an origin story communicates a complicated but relevant set of relationships to the reader. It shows the fundamental tensions within characters, societies, religions, and beliefs. Once the reader knows these tensions, they can better understand the basic forces at work between the characters and through the story.

Because an origin story tells the reader what's important about the universe, it acts as a promise to the reader that the themes and conflicts inside the origin story will mirror the themes and conflicts in the main story. The origin story's purpose isn't only explaining where a conflict came from, its purpose is to demonstrate the shape of the conflict taking place right now. Because the readers better understand the rules, they can now anticipate the nature of the conflict, and anticipation raises the tension.

Meanwhile, the characters now have a boundary to their behaviors, ones that shape their decisions. When a time of crisis comes, do they work within their understandings, do they find a need to break out of their system of understandings, or do they reconsider what they know, coming to new understandings? This is the heart of the story. Resolving that problem gives the story a new energy, sending the characters off in a new yet understandable direction.

The origin story also gives us a glimpse inside a character and their decision making process. We don't need long explanation behind each possible position because the origin story already explained that. Freed from the explanation, the character can then dig deeper into the underlying conflict, deeper into the morality, giving even further weight to their decisions.

Origin stories which don't affect the plot or give us insights into characters might be useful as flavor text, but they can easily mislead the reader about what's important. If you don't have a strong connection between the main story and the origin story, then you should consider cutting the origin story or moving it to a later book where the origin story matters.

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