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In our world, we consider human life to be precious and valuable. It is meant to be preserved, and a deliberate act of taking a life is considered deplorable by society. This is considered normal. The people of this setting also consider life to be valuable, as it was given to them by the gods. As it is precious, human life is the only thing worthy of being sacrificed to them. This continent is controlled by a theocracy where self-sacrifice is revered and promoted. The gods demands tribute from their people, and being sacrificed to them is the highest honor one can achieve. However, only a select few are worthy of such honor.

Slaves, the destitute, and average people are not applicants for this. The gods want those of merit, who have great potential and have proven themselves through competition. This is done through ritual games similar to our Olympics. These games are often dangerous where warriors or athletes from respective states go up against each other. Those who survive will meet each other in a final contest where there can only be one winner. All those who die in these games would be honored by their families and society as heroes who defended the pride of their nation. However, the winner will be given the ultimate honor of having their hearts removed and their soul offered to the heavens, where they would achieve godhood. Because of these games, outright war among nations has been avoided for millennia.

The religion demands for society to kill off its best people routinely, but I don't want to portray it as evil. The people and their leaders genuinely believe in what they are doing, and they have normal rules against murder and crime, etc. These events also keep the peace on the continent, as these war game rituals have taken the place of war and conflict. How can I get this across to the audience?

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  • "Evil" is a strong word. Many earlier cultures practices human sacrifice or other forms of public executions like gladiator combat, but their portrayal is not necessarily "evil". "Savage", "barbarian", "uncivilized" maybe better terms to characterize them. Would this be Ok for you? – Alexander Jan 15 '19 at 21:52
  • @Alexander change to wording made. – Incognito Jan 15 '19 at 21:56
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    I would recommend that you watch some of the Netflix series "Vikings" -in which the culture of the Vikings is compared with the more normative Catholicism prevalent in England at the time. The Vikings do practice human sacrifice, and the ways that this is introduced to the viewer and treated by the writers of the show are very well done. – JBiggs Jan 16 '19 at 4:55
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First, I will direct you here, because the questions overlap some (but are not duplicates). How to present an alien culture with different morals, without it coming across as savage?

You can't keep the reader from labeling the actions as "evil" if that's what they wish. And perhaps you don't want to stop them. Human sacrifice is pretty awful, at least to our modern minds.

Present your world matter-of-fact. This is how it works. This is why it works. Show the reader these things by how you describe them, not by sitting them down and explaining it.

Your characters might enjoy parts of the rituals, but they aren't doing all of this for kicks. They're doing it because it serves a purpose. Several purposes. Show those purposes.

One example is religious. They (some of them anyway) believe that these actions will please the gods and this in turn will benefit the society. Group ritual actions also bring a community together. They also reinforce social and class stratification in a community, something that leaders may consider necessary for the economy. They empower leaders and give them status. They reward certain families and sub-communities and elevate their status. They distract the people from things they ought not to be concerned with (problems with government, a disaster that could happen, etc). And they reduce leisure time where citizens could be out making trouble. Those are just a few examples.

The reader will take cues from you, the author. If you show these actions as normal (within this context), your reader will suspend disbelief. Of course, when contemplating the book, the reader may think very differently about the moral choices of the characters. And that's okay. You're presenting a world, with all its blemishes. Another route is to create dissidents in your world (it would be odd not to have any, but showing them is your choice). How you portray them, if at all, will help guide the reader as well.

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    "Present your world matter-of-fact. This is how it works. This is why it works." This, everytime. It doesn't need to be presented as good or bad, it needs to be showed to the readers. They'll judge on their own if they want, or just enjoy the ride. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Jan 16 '19 at 9:22
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Portraying the positive attitude of the sacrificial being, as well as which details of the sacrifice to share is an excellent method.

If the people themselves are eager for the honor, that puts a whole different spin on it. Show their desire to be the chosen one in their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Portray the positive emotions, reasons, and reactions.

The exact method of being sacrificed will also make a difference. If it is described with blood and gore and horror type elements, it will come across one way... but if they lay down on a bed of flowers and pass away peacefully, that's a whole different look and feel.

Furthermore, if the God or Gods in question are real and receive the person up in glory, especially if the divine event has manifestations that are visible and audible to an audience, this should further affect the tone and reception of your concept.

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Make sure to genuinely thoroughly understand the worldview of people in that society. Then show (don’t tell) that to your readers.

The commonest problem in portrayals of societies with moralities different from ours is that the author hasn’t managed to understand what it would be like to live in that society. Which is complex, and not the same for each person, and often not explicit. Some people may think of the sacrifice as a noble glory, others as a necessary evil, others as an outmoded cruelty, others as the thing setting us apart from the barbarians next-door who sacrifice helpless animals instead. Most people probably don’t think about it at all most of the time — they’re busy getting on with their lives as traders or healers or bookbinders or nightsoilmen. But their view will certainly not be “it would be bad because [modern real-world-reality view], except it’s justified by [reasons]”. Their morality will be a single unified whole — not simple or consistent or coherent (no real-world morality is), but not just a modern secular morality with a few exceptions bolted on.

So really understand and think it through! A good exercise in this is to read well-written historical novels in periods whose moralities are just sufficiently different from ours to have some major moral differences — just off the top of my head, Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy both do this well. Both involve sympathetic characters doing things we would think appalling, but shows how they fit into the characters’ worldviews. They also show different characters who have very different individual moralities, while inhabiting the same consensus moral universe (e.g. Cromwell, Henry, and Thomas More in the Mantel books).

And then, having thought this through carefully, in as much of its complexity and implications as you can… hide your working from readers! Don’t give heavy-handed infodumps; just show how the characters behave when the subject comes up, as much as is needed to interact with the story. If that means not showing it much at all, that can be fine — provided you’ve got a convincing understanding of your characters’ moralities, and so can portray them acting consistently and plausibly, readers will generally be willing to accept the setting without needing an explicit explanation. The thing that will make readers question it is not the practice itself — it’s if the characters’ attitudes around it aren’t realistic and believable.

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In our world, we consider human life to be precious and valuable. It is meant to be preserved, and a deliberate act of taking a life is considered deplorable by society. This is considered normal.

Only within certain contexts. Some consider the unborn to be exceedingly precious, more precious than the poor and destitute. More precious than criminals. Others see this issue differently.

We have and use the death penalty. Would it be so far fetched to imagine some of the people, within our modern day, watching an execution and thinking that it is a sacrifice to God?

The people of this setting also consider life to be valuable, as it was given to them by the gods. As it is precious, human life is the only thing worthy of being sacrificed to them. This continent is controlled by a theocracy where self-sacrifice is revered and promoted. The gods demands tribute from their people, and being sacrificed to them is the highest honor one can achieve. However, only a select few are worthy of such honor.

We here on Earth also honor self sacrifice. Not to the point of death except in acts of heroism, in which case certainly to the point of death. So far, in broad strokes, you are talking about a matter of degree between what we are used to and your world.

Slaves, the destitute, and average people are not applicants for this. The gods want those of merit, who have great potential and have proven themselves through competition. This is done through ritual games similar to our Olympics. These games are often dangerous where warriors or athletes from respective states go up against each other. Those who survive will meet each other in a final contest where there can only be one winner. All those who die in these games would be honored by their families and society as heroes who defended the pride of their nation. However, the winner will be given the ultimate honor of having their hearts removed and their soul offered to the heavens, where they would achieve godhood. Because of these games, outright war among nations has been avoided for millennia.

Vaguely bizarre, but OK.

The religion demands for society to kill off its best people routinely,

This is a problem to me. Why is athletic, healthy, and rich deemed 'best?'

but I don't want to portray it as evil. The people and their leaders genuinely believe in what they are doing, and they have normal rules against murder and crime, etc. These events also keep the peace on the continent, as these war game rituals have taken the place of war and conflict. How can I get this across to the audience?

To answer your question, you do it by comparison. You provide explicit examples through backstory, written history, oral tradition, swear words, whatever--that points to the thousands upon thousands of lives lost before the tradition was begun.

I see little in your setup that is very far removed from American culture. Some people here wish to die. Some wish to be heroes. Life is only valued under certain circumstances. In some ways, your society is more moral than American culture because your society is keeping warfare at bay.

I'd play up that angle. I'd go toward 'on the nose' and have a character describing how there used to be barbaric cultures that would drum up wars over lies, over resources that were better left alone, over ego, and that these wars would last generations and divide the country more insidiously than anything else the country had ever faced before. that war became the economy. That its funding was held separate from the national budget, because it held a protected status as 'necessary.' That it became a god in its own right, and people prayed to the god of war for victory. And your character can make the philosophical argument that the good of the many (and the fabric of the culture) outweighs the good of the one. And besides, who doesn't want to be a god? And, if he achieves god-hood, he may even be able to end this dastardly game and to warfare.

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  • "We here on Earth also honor self sacrifice. Not to the point of death except in acts of heroism". That's incorrect, but it proves your point. Japanese Culture has traditionally seen suicide as an acceptable way to shield your family from the shame of some dishonor. Suicide for disgraceful actions is traditionally seen as a good person (government and large companies are more closer to the west on the matter, and are trying to take steps to get a more modern view on suicide, but it's an uphill battle). – hszmv Jan 18 '19 at 21:43
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I am reminded of the original series Star Trek episode in which the Enterprise visits a planet called Eminiar 7 that has been at war with its neighboring planet for generations. The war is not fought with actual weapons, but with computers that tally casualty lists. Those deemed by the system to be casualties voluntarily report to "elimination booths" where they are vaporized. It is a sanitized and civilized process that has allowed the horrors of war to become more socially acceptable.

Perhaps you could portray the actual sacrifices as being sanitized and civilized in some way that would be more acceptable and less barbaric than, say, a witch doctor or a Druid removing a living person's heart with a stone knife.

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Our own modern-day society, and the majority of the people in it, are complicit in things that could be considered barbaric. For example, a lot of our luxuries, from shrimp to smartphones, are dependent on what amounts to slave labor in other parts of the world. But it's distant, and most people either aren't aware of it, or just choose to turn a blind eye.

For your fictional society, I would largely portray it from the point of view of the person on the street, who isn't directly impacted by it on a daily basis. He or she may not even think about it much.

There might be a minority group of activists out there somewhere, pushing to re-evaluate or eliminate this practice, or at least to question it. As with "lampshading", I think at least acknowledging objections within the text will make it easier for people to swallow. The majority of the rhetoric people are going to hear about it, however, is going to be positive, stressing its importance and its beneficial nature. The fact that it sounds like this is an "honor" people actively strive to be chosen for makes that all the much easier for people to accept. I'd also expect that interviews with proud designated sacrifices would be widely promoted in whatever your society uses for media. Given all that, I'd expect it wouldn't be hard to portray this society as --in general --no more unenlightened than our own.

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