A Guide to World Building in Fantasy: Religions

Religion is a significant part of world building in fantasy because every society has its own origin story. Even in places where the popularity of religion is fading, it still heavily imprints on society. It is the story of creation and how your characters perceive how they fit within it.

Developing a framework

Getting the key aspects of a fantasy religion together will act as a framework you can amend and build. For plotters, this is a great starting point with. For pantsers, (like me) it’s a foundation you can develop further as you write the story.

What role does religion have in the story?

Your world building must relate to the story you are telling. If it is critical to the plot, it will require more detail. However, religion leaves an imprint on culture, even where beliefs have faded. Here in the UK, many western values and our sense of what is right or wrong stem from Christian beliefs. It is worth asking why your characters hold on to certain beliefs and values. The likelihood is they derived from ingrained cultural beliefs which first stemmed from religion, even if they do not practice it.

How many religions do I need to create?

If you have many characters originating from different places, then it is likely their beliefs will differ. However, if you consider the histories and people’s migrations in your world building, you may find similarities in beliefs. E.g. Indo-European languages derived from an original source, and allude to fragments of a once shared mythology. At the other end of the spectrum, when the west reached Japan and told them of Christianity, they had no concept of the soul.

How many deities are there? What are they like, and what are their roles?

Is there an entire pantheon, a stripped-down set up with a dual goddess and god, or a single deity? Do spirits live in every tree, stone, and river? Is there a deity aligned to specific purposes, like Ares is the Greek god of war and Thor is the Norse god of thunder and agriculture? Is there a creation myth and perhaps one which will explain how the end of times will play out? Such stories will make your characters understand their place within creation.

How do deities and mortals interact?

Are the gods real and interact plainly with mortals? Are they prominent characters in your novel? Or is religion purely based on faith, and it is by a mortal’s interpretation to decide if the gods are helping or hindering them?

Gods will have their motives and will probably differ from mortal characters. Are they uncaring towards mortals or kind? What must a mortal do to gain the favour of a god?

Suggestions of how mortals can attempt to gain favour from a god:

  • Adhering to religious practices: If religion has a firm footing in your world building, it is probably ingrained in cultural practices and law. There may be places of worship, sacred sites, relics, etc.
  • Asking for help in forms like prayer or curses and looking for omens sent from the gods.
  • Bargaining: e.g. if you help me win this war, I will raise a grand temple in your name
  • Sacrifice: This doesn’t purely mean virgins in white dresses chained to pagan altars. Sacrifice can mean pilgrimage, fasting, a vow of silence, and the offering of land or materialistic goods. Typically, the greater the need, the greater the sacrifice. e.g. Iphigenia’s death at the hands of her father, Agamemnon, to appease the goddess Artemis. Returning to Indo-European culture, the Threefold Death (strangulation, wounding and drowning) is often referred to. Agamemnon was caught in a net and stabbed to death in his bath. Bog bodies, such as the Lindow Man, also show signs of the Threefold Death, which some argue is a ritualistic killing rather than a means of executing a lowly criminal. Like Iphigenia, is the Lindow Man a prince of the Britons, sacrificed by his kingly father in a plea to his gods to be rid of the Roman occupation?

Morals and the way of life it teaches

Religions usually come with terms and conditions, and if followers adhere to them, they are rewarded in the afterlife. These could be taught in ways such as stories, sermons and art.

The Afterlife

What happens after will affect those characters who follow this religion. Does how they live dictate what happens to them in death? Do funerary rites help the spirit on its journey into the afterlife? The promise of an afterlife comforts mortals, but the unknown also brings worry, e.g. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the Gift of Men was mortality, which they later called the Bane of Men as where they went in death was unknown to them.

Is there the possibility of mortals becoming demigods? Julius Caesar was lucky enough to become deified when a comet in the sky coincided with his death.

Festivals, holy days and rituals

Such days can be vast community events, or they may be very private times for thought and reflection.

Further considerations

Creation stories and the stories of the deeds of deities (alone and with mortals) can aid in establishing morals and show how their followers see their place in the world.

The political influence of religious groups can vary, and some may carry the weight to sway monarchies and governments to act in particular ways, e.g. through auguries or physical wealth. A religious order backing a monarch can be interpreted as their divine right to rule.

The roles and occupations within a religion, such as priestesses, druids, nuns, and monks.

Atheists have always existed. Do not be afraid to include nonbelievers, but consider how religious groups perceive them.

Consider how one religious group perceives other religions. Are they accepting, or do they think theirs is the one true religion? Are there arguments within a single religion? E.g. In early Saxon times in Britain, there were huge arguments about the date of Easter.

Remember: you have the free will to create anything. Take the Red God in Game of Thrones and The Eternal Fire in The Witcher as examples. They are clear analogies towards earlier Medieval times during the growth of Christianity when missionaries discouraged the worship of pagan gods and named it devilry. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with this. But fantasy writing allows you to create a unique world without resorting to tropes, prejudices and the oppression of certain groups found in our world and histories.

Final thoughts:

Religion will help set a moral groundwork for your character’s beliefs and how they perceive themselves in all creation.

Always go back to the four questions I posted in my Introduction to World Building when working on any aspect of world building:

  1. How will this affect other aspects of the world I am creating?
  2. How will this affect the behaviours of my characters?
  3. How might this create conflict within the story?
  4. Does this actually need to go into the book?

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