WARNING: Contains Spoilers for the American Gods book and Starz show
American Gods, a Starz show based on the book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, is a complicated show with a simple premise: gods grow in power through belief. The more people believe in a god, the more powerful he or she becomes. This notion predicates the entire world of American Gods. But the show is full of mystery, slowly revealing the truth about the many characters, each of which seems to be more clever than the last. You’ve got the cunning Odin, who is desperately trying to convince the protagonist Shadow Moon to believe; new gods like Media and Technical Boy; and a host of other characters, like the surly Czernobog and the Zorya sisters, who appear to be Eastern European immigrants living in Chicago but are actually the Slavic god of death and goddesses of the stars. Things get more complicated every week, and I love it. I wait religiously for Sunday to come so I can watch the new episode. And even though there are a ton of stories being simultaneously told, it all works because of the foundation. We can learn a lot about world-building from stories like this one.
The idea that gods gain power from the belief of their followers is not a novel one. I immediately am reminded of the Trojan War myth, with Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena all screaming, “Pick me!” to an unlucky Paris. I even encountered it once in a Dungeons and Dragons story. This idea works because it is simple; it’s a great foundation to build a world upon. Obviously, Neil Gaiman thought so. And even a weird, complicated world like that of American Gods follows logically from this one simple premise. If the basis of a god’s power—and even their existence—is based on belief, then where you have believers, you have gods. A place like America, with immigrants bringing their gods from every corner of the world—now that’s where things can get interesting. There will have to be new gods, too, based on the new beliefs that we hold in the 21st century. And of course, the gods, old and new, are going to crave belief from humans. Now you’ve got a world and the basis of a story.
I know that many writers have ideas like this one brewing somewhere in the deep recesses of their brains, or perhaps filed away somewhere in a dusty bit of gray matter. I’m not suggesting you use this idea, but as an aside, I believe that an idea can spawn as many stories as there are people to write them. Maybe you’ve been in a writing class where you’ve been given a simple prompt, and then everyone reads what they wrote. Give a group of writers an idea like this one, and you’ll get as many different stories as there are seats in the room. You could create a fantasy world where various gods are mounting crusades to forcibly convert believers, or a sci-fi world where some modern god like the Mormon version of Jesus suddenly manifests in outer space because a critical mass of believers was finally reached, causing the religion spread to billions of people living in hundreds of colony worlds. With one simple idea, you can build a world, and a story, too.