Writing Motivation For Doomsday Cults

Doomsday cults have been around for a long time, probably since the dawn of civilization. Writers and readers alike have found them endlessly fascinating. But, what motivates someone to start a doomsday cult? And why do people join?

In the titular panel, Gail Z. Martin, Lisa Hawkridge, Tom Doyle, and Darrell Schweitzer discuss real world cults and how to apply them to your writing.

Who Starts Doomsday Cults?

No two doomsday cults are the same, but many leaders share similar traits.

  1. A charismatic leader
  2. A need for control
  3. A professed conviction that something is wrong in society
  4. The ability to turn anything into a sign that they were right

Why Do People Join Doomsday Cults?

For those who have never been involved in a cult, it can seem fascinating and curious, but humans aren’t that complicated.

  1. Typically, people feel drawn to doomsday cults when they are in a transitory period in their lives
    • Leaving home
    • Ending a relationship
    • Death of an immediate family member
    • Job loss
    • etc
  2. Often people who have suffered personal trauma are vulnerable, especially to someone who says they have the answers
  3. They want to believe, and feel that by joining, they will be able to avoid death. Or have a clean death. Or be rewarded in the afterlife.
  4. People enjoy feeling smarter/better/more pious than everyone else.
  5. The peace of not having to make a decision can be addictive.
  6. And some were simply born into cults.

The 5 Stages Of A Doomsday Cult

  1. Recruiting and preaching. Doomsday is often about 30 years out, because it’s not too immediate, but a generation is soon enough to feel like you should care.
  2. Members are encouraged to give away their worldly belongings, and donate their money and services to the “good of the cult.”
  3. Isolate the members from normal society and other opinions.
  4. People start to see cracks in the leader’s story, but because of the sunk-cost fallacy, often don’t want to admit to themselves, (or others), that they were duped.
  5. Doomsday arrives.

What Happens After Doomsday?

When doomsday arrives and nothing happens, the leaders and the followers are left with few options.

  1. The leaders can make something happen
    • Jonesville – Revolutionary suicide – they drank the “kool aid”
    • Aum Shinrikyo – the leaders secretly set off the sarin attacks in Tokyo, causing the ‘end times chaos’ that the faithful expected.
  2. The followers may turn to violence
    • Turn on the leaders – riot, etc
  3. The leaders may double-down
    • Claim this was ‘a test of our faith’
    • Declare they miscalculated, and move the date out a few years
  4. The followers can outlive the leader
    • Either it slowly falls apart into nothing OR
    • It becomes a religion (7th Day Adventists, some say the Mormons, others say Christianity)

A lot to think about, but somehow simpler than it feels it should be.

Note, most doomsday cults take something from reality, some tiny grain of truth, and preach it through the looking glass. Understanding what factors go into real world doomsday cults can help you create people and worlds that contain them. And remember, when writing your own doomsday cult, you need something that is believable, truth can be stranger than fiction.


Anything the panel ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?

Let me know how YOU’VE incorporated doomsday cults in your writing. And your favorite fictional cult you’ve read!

And stay tuned as I share more writing tips from the over-24-hours-of-programming I hit at Balticon53.

Vlog: 5 Steps For Creating Mythologies

What Is Mythology?

Mythology is folklore and legends that tell how things came to be.

5 Steps For Creating A New Mythology

Creating Worlds

Built Upon The Shoulders Of Giants

These notes are taken from the titular panel at WorldCon75. The panelists were George RR Martin, Jeffrey A Carver, and Alex Acks. The moderator was Jon Oliver.

Where should one start: with the world or the characters?

Tolkien created his world first, George RR Martin and the rest of the panelists created their characters first.

As with so much in writing, neither way is better, just whatever works for the story you’re working on now.

An Approach to Creating a Magic System

Martin prefers his magic to be truly super natural–not fake-science with a formula. Magic that trifles with forces beyond this world. Unknowable. Uncontrollable. With the chaos-like the feel of elder gods.

In Tolkien’s stories, Gandalf rarely resorted to true magic.

If people in a magical world try to codify their magic, doesn’t mean that they’re right. They might fail, or at least miss some stuff.

When Writing Science Fiction, How Close To Magic Can Your Science Get?

We can bend the rules of physics – but keep it moderately plausible for scientists. After all, what are ‘hyperspace’ and ‘wormholes’ if not science-fiction’s method of time travel? Making time stand still while we travel generations away.

Remember, the concept of plate tectonics was just discovered 50 years ago.

Just because there’s a capability out there that we don’t know if we CAN do, doesn’t mean we know that we CAN’T figure it out eventually!

What Makes A World Stand Out To A Publisher?

20170812_135835

I actually got to ask this question myself! The panel description had promised this, but as you see, they clearly hadn’t addressed it yet!

Publisher Jon Oliver chimed in that there are two things that you want to avoid:

  1. Don’t make your world too complex
  2. Don’t make your world too simple

Most fantasies have a pseudo-medieval European feel. It’s been done! Try something new.

Some stories are too excited about telling you all the information about the world, that they neglect the characters and plot.

Martin says, “make it your own.” If you’re writing something based on historical places, just make a historical fantasy. When inventing a world, “turn it up to 11, and do a left twist!”

It’s hard to figure out, the advice sounds basically like: “how do you win a race? Run Faster!” But if you can figure it out, it’s magical.

The Importance of Consistency

It doesn’t have to be consistent with reality, but it must be internally consistent. Remembering what you wrote earlier can be a challenge.

George RR Martin finds it difficult.

  • He’s “blundered into people who help.” The people who run the Westeros wiki have been very helpful. The site is un-vetted by him, but usually right.
  • He has notes, textbooks, and a DOS computer with search/replace capability
  • Most of his world building is in his head – thanks to a trick or curse of memory he remembers “[his] fake world far better than the real world.”

Another method of keeping track of everything that many authors, including Jeffrey Carver, uses is:

  • A spreadsheet with all names, places, and their descriptions

How Do You Convey World and Plot Building Information In A Sequel?

An info dump is only an info dump if the reader doesn’t care about it. Interweave it with the story–maybe tell it from a new character’s point of view–and you can make it interesting again.

Show what the characters do, and then filter in the world building as you need it.

As the writer, you need to know more than the reader about your world. If you must include everything, you can add appendices or footnotes. Using info HINTS, instead of info dumps, is a better idea, you don’t have to share everything with the reader.

Do Characters Mess With Your Plot?

The final question on the panel was more of a back-and-forth than summarizable tips, with other authors quoted. But I thought you might enjoy the conversation.

Martin said, yeah, they can be bossy. Sometimes they’re wrong. But usually, he just goes with it.

Carver mentioned that Jane Yolen when writing a story, found out part way through the novel that the character was gay.

Connie Willis is quoted as saying, “If my characters get uppity, I kill them!”

To which Alex Acks agreed, it’s true, “characters can be assholes.”

Then George RR Martin replied, “killing your characters? How horrible!”

And with that, my notes for this panel are done.

Vlog: Creating Worlds

Built Upon The Shoulders Of Giants

These notes are taken from the titular panel at WorldCon75. The panelists were George RR Martin, Jeffrey A Carver, and Alex Acks. The moderator was Jon Oliver.

Today, I’ll be sharing tips gathered from the titular panel on World Building. With quotes from George RR Martin and the rest of the panelists! Please enjoy!

Building a World – #Balticon Panels

The panelists for this were Joy Ward, Michael Underwood, Don Sakers, T Campbell, and JL Gribble

What Do You Find Most Writers Forget?

  • Geography (T Campbell)
  • Planets are big and not all just one climate (Don Sakers)
  • What’s outside the focus of the setting  (Michael Underwood)
  • Doing their research (Joy Ward)

What Cultural Blind Spots Have You Noticed?

  • What do you eat on an alien planet?
  • Klingon meter maid – who does everything else if it’s a warrior race?
  • Making unique people WITHIN a species/race, rather than the exception to the species/race
  • Do more than ‘warrior race’, ‘science race’, ‘ice planet’, ‘jungle planet’. Species and Planets are huge!
  • Economics!
  • Try to make sure you know how they handle Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs (which Maslov hated and came up with just before a lecture)
  • Interpret things based on your culture’s society, NOT the writer’s personal culture. Study History to see how cultures other than yours did things.

Suggested Fiction

  • “To Hell And Back” – About an autistic hero and flips a lot of related tropes.*

Craziest Experience : Done for Research or That Got Worked Into Your Writing

  • JL visited the Parisian Catacombs.
  • Michael spent a semester at sea- hitting 10 countries, including the Viet Cong tunnels. “The world can be your library.”
  • T Campbell was walking home at 3am, from college in Savannah and someone ran at him. He ran the 2 miles home and heard someone shout, “Hey!” Looking about for the accomplice, he spies a neighbor, sitting on their porch, just hanging out. “You’re dumb for being out at this hour!” They shouted, tossing something at him. T caught it without thinking and looked down. It was a can of mace.
  • Joy Ward met an animal translator and her skepticism got talked away. Now, she’s (with the help of the translator) interviewed almost everything from elephants to hissing cockroaches. (Everything but seals.)
  • Don learned NOT to ask a hospital records staff how to illegally access 20 year-old records. (After asking at four different facilities…)

Other posts I’ve done on World Building Panels:

*Not sure who the author is. Looks like might have been refering to: The Damned Busters: To Hell and Back by Matthew Hughes