Religion in Fantasy – Introduction

by Rose Hill

People often ask about how one goes about creating a religion for their fantasy world.  Often the advice focuses on gods and their domains, as though polytheistic deities function exactly as described in D&D.  There’s a lot more to religion than just deities, and we’ll touch on that in these essays.  However, this is just an introduction to the topic: why you might want to include religion in your fantasy world, why you might not, how much you actually need to include, and a very basic run-down for religious building for those who would like to get started.

Why include religion in second world fantasy?

Second world fantasy is fantasy that is not set on earth.  It is something you–the author–creates.  This involves a lot of worldbuilding.  Many people think of worldbuilding as creating maps, and sometimes languages.  Very Tolkein inspirations.  Just as important–if not more so–is the creation of the cultures that populate that land.

Religion is a huge part of culture.  It shapes the way people think, the values they hold dear, the people they find acceptable, the language they use, the clothes they wear, and how their own family is treated.  Religion can touch every part of a person’s life.  It can inspire someone to keep living and others to take their own lives.  It can give someone a cause to fight for and another a cause to fight against.  Religion can provide rites of passage, always useful when coming-of-age stories are so popular in the genre.

Leaving religion out of worldbuilding creates a noticeable hole.

Reasons not to include religion.

What if you’re building an atheist culture?  What if there is a sharp divide between what people believe in private and how they act in public?

It is entirely possible to build a society that does not look to any sort of higher being for guidance.  (It’s even possible to build a religion that doesn’t look to any sort of higher being for guidance.)  You see this more in sci-fi than fantasy, but it can happen.  You still will want to know basic things about what society believes (about the universe, about humanity/other races, about people as individuals, etc) and how people act, but these do not need to be tied to religion.

What if your character/s is/are atheist?

If they’re atheist in a larger theistic setting, you’ll want to know how they get along around the religious nature of things.  If they’re an atheist (or even agnostic or apathetic) in a largely secular society, it is possible to ignore religion almost entirely.  If it’s not relevant to your plot or your characters, then even if it exists it’s not something you need to include.

Which brings me to my next point…

How much religion does one actually need to develop?

Short answer: As much as your story requires.

Long answer: It all depends on how much religion influences the lives of your characters.

If your story takes place amid a religious backdrop (say a religious festival, or a monastery, or a specific ritual), you’re going to need to do a lot more religious worldbuilding than if your story doesn’t touch on that at all.

The more you want religion to influence the lives of your characters, the more you have to develop.  How do they pray (if they do at all)?  How often do they pray?  What do they pray about?  What sort of formal religious gatherings are there?  How often do they occur, and what happens at them?  How do the values/vices intersect with the characters’ goals and fears?  How much power does the priestly class have over the characters’ lives?  What do the characters think of the religion?  Do they believe it wholeheartedly?  Do they just go through the motions, assuming it’s all correct?  Are there any atheists who think the whole thing is stupid, or agnostics who don’t care and would rather not be bothered with this whole thing?

Develop an idea of how closely you want to tie religion to everyday life.  That will give you an idea of how much you have to build.  All you really need to know before writing is what will be relevant to your story.  If the gods/religion will play a major part in your story, then keep working on it.  If it’s just background flavor, focus on the few things that actually will show up in-story and leave the rest for later.

Very basic religious worldbuilding.

In future essays I will take apart each of these topics at length.  For now, here are the basics you might need to create a religious background that you don’t delve into deeply.

  • Forms of Theism
    • Do they have deities? If so, how many?
  • Places of Worship
    • Church? Temple?  Grove?
  • Organizations/Institutionalization
    • Is each temple independent? Is the religion a nationwide or international organization?
  • Daily Rites
    • What do people do every day that ties to their religion?
  • Other Rites
    • What larger rites of passage are there in the culture?
  • Holidays
    • What are the holidays and how are they celebrated?
  • Prayer
    • Do people pray? Often or rarely?  Structured or free-form?
  • Sacrifices
    • What is offered as a sacrifice? Money?  Time?  Flowers?  Food?  Animals?  People?
  • Taboos
    • What does the religion view as absolutely abhorrent?
  • Vices
    • What does the religion discourage?
  • Virtues
    • What does the religion encourage?
  • Reactions to Other Religions
    • How many religions are there in this setting? What do they think of other religions?  What do they think of syncretism?
  • Other Realms/Realities
    • Is belief in other realms/realities a part of the religion?
  • Afterlife
    • What happens after people die?
  • Theological Traditions
    • Do scholars debate theology? Does the average person?  Are there distinct theological traditions or schisms?

No more than a sentence or two is needed for each of these.  Even that little amount of prep will give you a solid basis to have a religion in the background of your world.  It will add more color and more flavor to the interactions of your characters.

Remember – above all, what matters is how religion affects your characters and plot.  If it affects neither in any way, than none of this matters.  But if it does, give these questions some thought.  Consider not only these questions on a culture/religion/society-wide level, but also for each of your individual characters.  Characters grow out of the world you build for them: if they’re raised in a certain religion, how has that shaped them?  Are they still in that religion?  What do they think of their birth religion now?