Fantasy writing can be daunting, there is a lot to create and much to consider when designing a world that is truly immersive.
Like the real world, one of the aspects of day-to-day life that can be considered to really flesh out your world is religion or belief systems. For many, religion forms an integral part of their lives and influences the way they conduct themselves and their business.
Now just a disclaimer, I do not promote one religion over another, everyone is free to choose their own without judgment, the examples I use in this blog are purely for comparison and explanatory purposes of concepts. This post is also intended to be neutral regarding religion.
The orthodox Jewish Shabbat laws are quite strict and are very explicit on what is and is not permitted on the Shabbat with 39 general categories of creative effort that they avoid, which includes working, cooking, using electronic devices, etc.
Or the Five Precepts within Buddhism, commitments made to abstain from lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, intoxication, and the killing of living beings to develop mind and character on the path of enlightenment.
Both of the above examples are quite different but it is clear to see how just that small amount of information would already form an opinion in a person’s mind of how a follower would behave.
Not all fantasy books have to have religion, many authors prefer to leave it out entirely. Sometimes to avoid the complexity that is involved in creating a new religion and sometimes to remove their world further from reality. It is entirely your decision whether or not to include religion in your story and how much influence it will have on your characters.
If you do decide you want to add this dimension to your world, there are a few things to consider.
1)Is your religion regional or universal?
In designing your religion, does your entire world follow the same religion and beliefs, or do you have multiple belief systems depending on the region, race, or species of your characters?
Having multiple religions can be useful as a provoking factor for conflict, either between individual characters or larger religious groups (think the crusades that were supported by the Latin Church in the medieval period).
Universal religions can give you an interesting dynamic if you want to use religion to show abuse of power or control.
2)What category does it/do they fall into?
There are multiple design choices or categories that your religion can be shaped by, the three most basic being Polytheism, Monotheism, and Atheism.
Polytheism is the belief in many gods. These would be the religions with the pantheon like the ancient Greeks, Romans, old Norse, and Egyptians. Many of the gods could be individually associated with different aspects of day-to-day living, like Bastet of the Egyptian pa then is the Goddess of the home, domesticity, women’s secrets, cats, fertility, and childbirth while the Roman god, Vulcan, was the god of blacksmiths and volcanoes.
Please note that just because a religion has many gods, it does not mean it is polytheists. Hinduism has multiple gods but is Henotheistic, which means the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods.
Monotheism is the belief in a single, all-powerful god, the most notable religions that would fall into this category are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Atheism is the belief in no gods.
Bear in mind that the divine is not limited to people but can extend to animals, plants, objects, or ancestors.
3)is there a hierarchy in your religion/belief system?
Do you have a hierarchy? Like the Catholic Church has theirs beginning at the bottom with Deacons and moving up to the Pope or is there a single religious leader with followers.
4) How was your world created?
How was your world created, was it created from nothing? Did your god/s simply bring the world into being from absolutely nothing? No air, no space, no time. Nothing. This is called Creatio Ex Nihilo.
Did it come from an endless, formless chaotic void that was given shape and form by your god/s, creating order from chaos?
Was it created from the body of a deity that sacrificed themselves to create the world?
Or is your world a disc on the backs of four elephants on the back of a giant Star Turtle swimming through the cosmos from the Birthplace to the Time of Mating? (Hello Terry Pratchett fans!)
The possibilities are endless and even the absurd could be perfectly plausible in your world.
5) Do you have an afterlife?
Do your characters pass into another realm when they die? Or are they reincarnated into another vessel?
A great example of this actually comes in the form of Avatar; the Last Airbender.
Each when each Avatar dies, the spirit Rava, is reincarnated into a new person, who then has access to the spirits of all of their past lives. This may not be a true reincarnation in the sense that it is exactly the same person’s spirit being reincarnated into another body, but it is an interesting change.
Do the spirits of your people cease to exist or are they transformed into energy that goes back into a collective energy source?
6)Do you have rituals or traditions?
Rituals or traditions can have a large impact on the way religion is experienced. You can really enhance and give colour to your religion which will really make it come to life.
Does it have holidays that are celebrated on notable days?
Does it have regular gatherings?
Decide if your religion has pilgrimages or not, or if there is ritualistic body modification.
If your world has multiple religions, how you create the traditions and rituals for each of them will also help the reader differentiate between them more easily.
7) Who practices the religion?
Does your religion feature prominently in certain regions or within certain species or ethnic groups?
If it is a universal religion, how much of your population practices it? How orthodox are they?
You can create variations of the religions with different interpretations of sacred texts or by the influence of religious leaders. The Catholic Church is a good example of this, you can see the distinct variations in Catholicism such as Oriental, Orthodox, Roman, protestant, etc. It can be a simple variation, like the change of a name, or more complex like a change of a fundamental concept.
Consider how much influence the religion has on society. How much it has on politics
I don’t have religion in all of my stories and if I do, I do not go too in-depth with them. You don’t have to, so long as you have enough to make it plausible and so long as the addition is relevant to your story it will be enough.
In one of my works in progress, I have an order of makes who, while not strictly a religion, has a hierarchy based on the Catholic Church. The Nymphs from the same book have a religion based on Wiccan ideologies.
If you do draw influences from real religions or if you are writing about a religion you do not practice, be careful that you are respectful. Research, research, research. And do not be afraid to ask questions to someone who practices the religion you are writing about. So long as you are respectful and are not using the information to shine a negative light on the religion, you will find many people will be more than willing to help you.
Keep safe everyone. Happy writing.