A belief system is usually associated with religion, but they can also be personal and political.
Beliefs may seem simple on the surface, but because they're developed and reinforced over the course of a person's life (and sometimes change during that lifetime), truly understanding the nuances of any given belief system can be tricky.
As a developmental editor for romance books, I have spent a lot of time digging deep into the whys behind the decisions we make as humans (and aliens, vampires, and shapeshifters 🙂 ). And I've found that there are six foundational types of beliefs that are essential for every fully developed character.
If your heroes, antagonists, and even secondary characters are missing any of these six, you may find gaps in your story or readers may complain that a character is unrelatable or that their decisions are unbelievable.
So what are the six types of beliefs and how do they form a belief system that underpins every story we craft?
In today's article, we'll explore the 6 foundations of a strong belief system. Then we'll talk about how they act as opposing pairs and how the push and pull between different beliefs can breathe life into your characters.
What is a Belief System
In an article for Medium, Tim Redding defined a "belief system" as...
Your belief system is the invisible force behind your behavior.
This is a fairly broad definition, but it's elegant and simple. As storytellers, we can build on this bare-bones definition to add rich layers of emotion to our stories that will move and inspire readers.
Beliefs are a Supporting Core Value that directly relate to a character's Void, fears, goals, and motivations. And beliefs can manifest as juicy story elements like meaty inner conflicts and character-defining augmentations.
If any of the terms above are unfamiliar to you, click below to read up on them. Then come right back to see how they work directly with a character's beliefs:
Each of the six character beliefs are paired off in sets that usually act in opposition. I published a quickie guide in Storysmith U that tells you exactly how and where to use the different types of beliefs in your plot and character growth arcs. That guide, How to leverage Belief Systems in Character-Driven Plots, is totally free for a limited time, so head on over to SSU and check it out. 🙂
Enroll in the SSU guide How to leverage Belief Systems in Character-Driven Plots
Learn more about the 6 types of beliefs and get access to exclusive examples, charts, and discussion that will show you how to connect your characters' belief systems to key plot elements.
For now, let's focus on understanding the difference between the six types of beliefs and why each one is important to your storytelling process.
The 6 types of beliefs every character needs
Think beyond religion, politics, and wealth for a moment. Those are the big three areas that we tend to focus on when we talk about conflicts, motivations, and nearly all the other reasons that people do what they do.
But why do we focus so much on these three areas? There is a reason people dedicate their lives to the god they believe in. And a reason why some activists are willing to die for the cause they champion. And yet another reason why people are willing to bend or break their personal morals to acquire wealth.
Each of these reasons is actually a complex combination of beliefs.
Our individual views on politics, religion, and money are a reflection of our overall belief system, the way each of the 6 foundational types of beliefs drives us to grow and evolve. And those 6 types of beliefs work in combination and in opposition.
The six types of beliefs are core, abstract, limiting, progressive, personal, and societal.
Core beliefs steer all our important life decisions. These high-risk beliefs are important to who we are as human beings, and we will make unthinkable sacrifices to defend them.
Abstract beliefs are things we say we believe in but don't have much real interaction with. These are low-risk beliefs. Since they don't affect us much personally, we can walk away or change our minds if the pressure gets high.
Limiting beliefs both protect us and restrict us. These are the things we convince ourselves are true so that we don't risk facing disappointment or loss. But these are also the sorts of beliefs that stunt our personal growth.
Progressive beliefs allow us to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and set an example that we hope society will eventually follow. These are the beliefs that we know would require significant effort to incite positive change but that we are convinced are essential to a healthy future.
Personal beliefs come from the core of who each of us is as an individual. Our personal beliefs change throughout our lives as we grow, learn, react, and transform. While these beliefs reflect our fears and our hopes at any given time, they primarily represent our individual morals and deep-seated aspirations.
Societal beliefs are instilled into us from a young age. Sometimes, this conditioning is so subtle that we don't even realize how it's shaping our behavior, opinions, and choices as adults (and especially as children). Societal beliefs are the result of consistent behavioral reinforcement and the safe assumption that this is the way things "should be" since it is the way they have "always been".
How the 6 types of beliefs act in pairs
Below, we'll walk through examples of each type of belief and talk about how each of the three pairings of beliefs set up natural conflicts we can exploit as storytellers.
Core vs abstract beliefs
The way to tell a core belief from an abstract belief is whether the character is willing to sacrifice something they love for the pursuit of this belief.
Someone who believes that their god is the only god will be much more willing to take a hard stand on matters of religion—even to their own personal detriment—than someone who is an atheist or is open to the idea of multiple pantheons. For a believer, their deity's approval and the promised reward of their afterlife is worth fighting and sacrificing for in their life on Earth. And they're committed to defending this belief even when it (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally) harms other people. This is an example of a core belief.
Someone who has never doubted their gender identity or known someone whose life is in turmoil because of how society treats transgender people may say they believe in trans rights. They may even believe they're willing to demonstrate their support. But if they were asked to make a large personal sacrifice to protect or progress the rights of transgender people, they might decline or find excuses why they can't help right now. They can walk away from this conflict with little personal loss. This is an example of an abstract belief.
Limiting vs. progressive beliefs
This pairing is probably the easiest of the three sets to identify and separate, because they clearly act against one another.
A young woman who has only seen older men in positions of power might believe that she shouldn't challenge that incumbent Representative for his House seat. Her belief that she will fail or be ridiculed if she runs for this office is based largely on her age, gender, and (possibly) race. This is an example of a limiting belief.
The woman from the example above may or may not represent the majority of people like her, but even if she does, gaining critical momentum for change takes time. The movement to treat female professionals with the same respect, opportunities, and compensation as their male counterparts has been gaining traction for years, but that progress is typically slow. Hiring decisions are usually made by individuals who either do not realize their own inherent biases or have no desire to change those biases. Real change takes time and effort because progressively minded people must continue pushing, educating, and empowering minority groups until enough people's mindsets have been changed. The struggle will be long and hard, and championing these causes may be risky. This is what defines a progressive belief.
Personal vs. societal beliefs
Personal and societal beliefs can be tricky to separate from one another, especially in our own perspectives. The key to telling them apart is understanding what beliefs a character holds because of how and where they were raised vs beliefs based in transformative personal experiences.
Two examples of personal beliefs:
- 1Angela has learned that when she puts in hard work and is persistent, diligent, and committed to following through, she is most likely to meet her goals. So one of Angela's personal beliefs is that hard work = success.
- 2Throughout his time working in corporate America, Daniel has noticed that his most stoic and non-reactive colleagues tend to be promoted faster and more consistently than people who give in to public displays of emotion. So one of his personal beliefs is that emotion has no place in business.
Fear of loss can contribute to personal beliefs, as can desire for success. Fear and desire are, after all, two sides of the same coin. Personal beliefs also parallel personal morals and can stem from a desire for freedom and happiness.
Let's look at two examples of societal beliefs:
- 1In the affluent neighborhood where he lives, a young man with darker skin is walking down the street in trendy baggy pants and a designer sweatshirt. The older white people he passes by either hurry away from him or avoid eye contact as they pass. He's done nothing threatening or suspicious, yet he's experiencing the result of generations of social conditioning that instilled fear and mistrust of people who look like him.
- 2Jana sees one of her female friends kissing another girl. She feels uncomfortable, and that discomfort slowly turns to dislike as she starts to avoid her friend. Jana has been indoctrinated that being "like that" (sexually interested in the same gender) is a chosen "lifestyle" that is "wrong". Depending on how self-aware Jana is, she may never change her views, or she may need to go through several stages of personal growth and situational exposure before she can begin to recognize and correct her innate bias.
Societal beliefs are the reason we need to know where a character lives or grew up when we're creating their backstory. These beliefs vary between different cultures, parts of the world (or even country, since the United States is so large), and age groups. Concepts like racism and bigotry are rooted in stubborn, outdated societal beliefs.
Societal beliefs, like core beliefs, can come from a place of absolute certainty, an instinctive reaction. But the foundation for that instinct is a conditioning based in fear of change or loss (of freedom, status, power, connection, wealth, etc) as a group.
My examples above showcased the negative aspects of societal beliefs, but they can also be positive. Positive societal beliefs are often founded in a desire for safety, autonomy, and pleasure.
How belief systems drive character arcs in romantic fiction
Take a few seconds to think about each of the six types of beliefs we just explored. Can you name at least one of each type in your own belief system?
You probably have way more beliefs than just came to mind (and you may have had trouble separating some of the different types). Most of our foundational beliefs live in the background of our psyches, guiding our behavior and directing our choices. We usually only directly think about what we believe when a belief itself is being challenged.
Our characters are the same way. But as the storyteller, it's your job to know everything about your character before it matters. This is why crafting a comprehensive backstory is so important. And because beliefs quietly guide a character's choices, they are an integral part of developing a fully fleshed characterization for each of the players in our stories.
Belief systems in action: Want to see some examples?
When I first drafted this article, it was much longer. I tend to be verbose, and (true to form) I had crammed 3000+ words into what was supposed to be just an introduction to belief systems. My original article had examples of specific plot and character elements and how each belief contributed to each combination. I even had charts!
But I didn't want to overwhelm you.
If today's article left you a little confused or overwhelmed, don't panic. This is heady stuff, and it can take some time to really absorb. If that's where you're at right now, bookmark this page and come back to read it again later. Write down any questions and let them simmer for a while. Or come back to this article and leave me a comment about what's tripping you up.
BUT! If the definitions and explanations in today's article made sense and you're ready to set up a belief system for one of your characters, I have a special treat for you. Instead of packing all-the-things into this one article, I've split out the technical stuff—the examples and charts and story suggestions—into a quickie guide in Storysmith U. It's totally free for a limited time. All you have to do is log in to your SSU account (or create one if you're new to my online university).
Enroll in the SSU guide How to leverage Belief Systems in Character-Driven Plots
Learn more about the 6 types of beliefs and get access to exclusive examples, charts, and discussion that will show you how to hook your characters' belief systems into key plot elements.
Even if you don't have time to dive in right now, secure your free guide on How to leverage Belief Systems in Character-Driven Plots, and it will be waiting for you whenever you're ready. This offer won't be free for long, so enroll now to save your spot.
Questions, comments, and a final exercise
Can you think of a situation where a character might hold beliefs that fit into more than one of the categories above?
While a belief might seem to be (for example) both personal and societal, choosing one or the other of a pairing will help you narrow down your character's Essential Core Values and flesh out their backstory.
Take a minute to think about how you can craft a belief system for your character that empowers relevant, striking, emotionally rich story arcs.
What belief combinations can you brainstorm? For example:
Societal + Abstract
Personal + Progressive
Core + Limiting + Societal
Leave a comment to let me know what you came up with! Or, if you still have questions, let me know below.