“I pray to the four winds… and you?”
– Conan the Barbarian, 1982
Writing stories involving fantasy religions is fun and for some folks tricky. Religion is a large part of the human experience, and you lose some great story potential if you choose to omit religion from your world.
This post is not about the deities themselves. Great stories are about conflict and the darker side of human nature, so with that in mind, let’s proceed with some basic design choices, then get into the juicy bits with followers, dogmas, sin, heresy, redemption, and crusades.
You have a couple of things to consider when you design your deity, pantheon or pantheons.
- Monotheism or polytheism?
- Regional or world-spanning religions?
- Alignments or morally ambiguous?
- Great Old Ones?
Monotheism is the belief in one god – possibly an all-knowing and all-powerful creator of the world.
Monotheistic religion is both an efficient and compelling way to set up faith in your fantasy setting.
It is efficient because you only have this one religion to develop and is easy for the audience to keep up.
Monotheism is compelling because of its current day parallels. Familiarity gives social commentaries and political satire more significant impact. You can also draw on modern-day conflicts for your setting, which will help you create meaningful stories, albeit at the danger of hitting too close to home.
Polytheism is the belief in many gods. Creating a polytheistic pantheon has the advantages of plenty of great real-life myths to draw on, and you are less likely to insult any of your audience.
If you choose polytheism, is there more than one pantheon? Is the split regional or racial?
Choose the number of deities and pantheons carefully because you will potentially have a lot of design work ahead of you, and you may have invited more detail than you want.
You also need to determine if the deities are equally compelling. What gives them power, just worship or is fear sufficient?
World Spanning or Regional Religions
You have to choose if your world has world-spanning or local religions as your world grows. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.
World-spanning religions are great for large-scale conflicts. Imagine the power centers of world religions, with all its wealth, and economic and social capital.
If you want to deal with big stories and issues, world-spanning churches have a lot to offer. The possibilities for intrigue and adventure has no limit. If you desire high-stakes swashbuckling tale, you can do that. If you wish to morally ambiguous stories of power abuse, you can do that as well. A clear-cut moral tale about defeating evil – or good – is possible.
Keep in mind that world-spanning religions rely on communications. Better roads and sea routes would mean better integration of the church.
A practical advantage of a world-spanning religious is that it requires less design work, at least at first glance. Wherever you go priest, and holy sites should look the same.
The other end of the spectrum is regional or local deities. Local deities mean more design work as the world grow, but it also adds color and distinction to regions on a smaller scale. Smaller also favors more personal conflicts, thus a greater emotional punch.
What is the universe? Is there a multiverse? Heaven and hell? The truth is probably unknown to both audience and characters, hence the word ‘faith,’ but you as a storyteller may want to know the facts.
The Great Old Ones
The Great Old Ones, by H.P. Lovecraft, has been a fantasy trope since Conan hacked to pieces his first Unspeakable Thing way back in the 1930s.
Is the Great Old Ones part of your cosmology? How do they relate to the devils and demons?
Origins, Prophets, Angels, and Demons
“Prophets have a way of dying by violence.” (Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965)
The core of the religion is its origin. Has the deity always existed or is there an origin story? The storyteller needs to pin down the popular version of these events, its main characters, and locations.
Who are the prophets? How and why did the religion rise to prominence? Are there supernatural creatures, and may they appear in your story?
These decisions will affect everything that follows: contested holy sites, rival dogmas, opposing prophets and how the religion seek to shape the world in its image.
You can begin to work out the details after making the initial design choices listed above. You now know how many churches we are talking about and something about their power. It is time to get to know the churches. What defines a church?
Again we use the method of asking questions as a world-building strategy to get to know a church and its followers.
- Holy sites
The religion’s dogma is the truths the faith holds true. An easy path is to use straightforward faux-catholicism, or you could strive for something elaborate for your world.
Dogma should answer:
- What is righteous action?
- Who are the enemies of the faith?
- What happens when we die?
- Who has the responsibility to lead?
The path of least resistance is perhaps to establish the first impression, then develop the rest as your story demands. The beauty of layered stories is that first impressions are never correct.
How do priests, templars, inquisitors, and followers dress? Do they wear different clothing during sermons and more mundane situations? How do you recognize them? By extension, do they favor certain weapons, and what are the holy symbols of the faith?
A world-spanning or regional religion will require a significant organization and management. You need to decide whether the religion condones violence and includes an armed branch. Is the church part of society’s power structure, or is it somehow set apart from the establishment?
Branches may include:
- The clergy: the servants who tend to the believers and advice the rulers.
- Scholars: places of learning.
- Intelligence and investigation: inquisitors, informants, and spies.
- A church army: paladins, templars and regular soldiers.
Management is the stuff of legends, as we all know. Management leads to mismanagement, the rivalry between factions and vendettas. Different factions may have a competing interpretation of the religion’s dogma, and may again lead to infighting and violence.
The religion’s holy sites are the locations of its origin, the places the divine appeared, and important sites in the religion’s history. Such places are excellent sources of conflict and may also be chess pieces in mundane power politics.
The members of the church are its representatives on Earth. The members are mortals, and as flawed beings, much more interesting than the divine itself.
The storyteller must decide the religions power and willingness to use it.
Stories require conflict, and troubled faith offers many compelling plot hooks: sin, heresy, war, and redemption.
Sin is another exciting option for any aspiring fallen priest. Sin would be breaking the deity’s teachings. To sin is different from heresy as the character knows he or she is doing something that is considered wrong.
The first step of introducing sin into a fictional world is to decide what sin means.
When in doubt you cannot go wrong with the classics: pride, greed, wrath, lust, envy, gluttony and sloth. These sins may work for some deities in your pantheon, for others, the list will require some work.
Heretics fits all sorts of roles in a story or game. They are excellent characters, villains, or supporting characters. Characters or organizations struggling with faith have exciting backgrounds and can easily breathe life into your fantasy stories.
Example: The God of Tyranny Offer a Solution
The lands face a dire crisis, and people crave order and safety. Troubled people are sometimes willing to sacrifice freedom and even tolerate the suffering of others to get it. Does that make people evil? What is the greater good? Is there a greater evil out there. This threat could explain why an otherwise good society supports an evil god.
What if the God of Tyranny offers a simple solution to current problems? Let’s say hunger and plague are laying the lands waste. What if the god argues that the elves are to blame for this malady?
If open worship of the God of Tyranny is too offensive, the god could sponsor heretical beliefs within any lawful church. The clergy of good-hearted god twist and corrupt the dogma, in truth turn to darker powers for a quicker solution, thus become heretics. The fallen priest do no realize what has happened, and will deny it, but has in truth turned to a darker god. Therefore the God of Tyranny builds a new church, one fallen priest at the time.
Crusades are where the religious strife kicks into high gear with religious wars. You may create a world where this is justifiable. You may have a world where the crusade serve an ulterior motive or both.
- The enemy religion is evil, and you should destroy it.
- Your religion has fallen and is, in fact, dooming its followers.
- Your high priests or sponsor are using the crusade as an excuse to deal with their enemies.
- The truth is long-lost, and no one knows how the fight started. All you know is that the competing religions are locked in a destructive tit-for-tat.
The fallen believer should naturally have a chance of redemption. Fallen faith should be all about drama.
You have at least three options:
- Pick the worst possible quest you can imagine – slay a demigod or demon lord or something – and give it to the character. It is easy, straightforward and should provide you with plenty of material. The downside is that this will dominate the remainder of the story and likely derails whatever you initially had planned.
- Reverse the damage. The character must undo the damage caused, and possibly pay penance for the misdeed. It will set back the character‘s advancement, and hopefully, we will learn something about the character. Once completed the story can return to whatever initially planned.
- Pick something fitting – poetic justice, or something that promotes the current story, yet punishes the character for the misdeeds.
Keep in mind that redemption is a powerful motivation, and is likely to dominate the remainder of the story. It is not a plot device used lightly.
What Do You Think?
Am I missing something? Are religion best kept out of the stories? Please leave a comment below.
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- Create Fantasy Timelines
The Reading List
Daniel Abraham, perhaps best known for the Expanse, wrote the Dagger and the Coin series, beginning with The Dragon’s Path (2011). The series eventually sets the protagonist Cithrin bel Sarcour against a vile spider cult. The series is excellent, and describe a religious attack on a secular society. The absence of a mainstream or mundane religion to contrast the vile cult is curious, and undoubtedly no accident.
H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, starting with Dagon (1917) feature gods of sorts: uncaring monster beyond comprehension. Why would anyone care about heresy?
The Name of the Rose (1980), by Umberto Eco, is a medieval murder mystery in an abbey with a religious backdrop of conflicting beliefs. For lighter fare, consider the option for the Sean Connery and Christian Slater movie (1986) instead. You get Hellboy as one of the supporting characters as a bonus.
The Malazan stories by Ian Cameron Esslemont and Steven Ericsson (1999 and ongoing), starting with the Gardens of the Moon (1999) or Night of Knives (2004), has its spin on what god-like characters can be. I have to admit after reading most of Ericsson’s series once I still do not get how the ascendants work. The scope of this world is magnificent, and it is certain that the ascendants would not care less about mortal concerns, wrapped up in their games as they are. Please note that the “correct” reading order may not be what you think, although this is debatable.
6 thoughts on “Writing Fantasy Religions”
I personally didn’t like the explanations too much. As a rather religious person myself, who knows a fact or two about religious sociology and world religions, I found the ideas to be… well, old. There’s a lot to criticize, but I’ll limit myself.
One criticism: Many of the ideas presented here are based on western &/ Christian ideas and phrases (eg: 7 Deadly sins; perceptions of monotheism and polytheism – & no mention of really any other views on divinity; crusades; referring to a religious organization as a church; requiring religions to even have gods). It would be interesting to see concepts such as religious persecution (i.e. Judaism), vision quests (i.e. First Nations groups), karma (Dharmic religions), etc.. I know that it’s easier to write about what’s familiar, but these are used too frequently, or at least, not in any creative, realistic way.
Another: Strict dichotomy against good and evil. As ancient and useful as this trope is, it’s not very nuanced. Often, people will actually make something like “The church wants absolute power/the worship of an evil god, the good guys don’t” be the actual basis of the story when more often, what makes a religion be perceived as “evil” can be quite subjective – since the concept of evil is subjective in and of itself. For example, a Jew in the Crusades may think of Christians as evil, not because theology or politics, but because of basic things like expulsions, forced conversions, and massacres. A Jesuit may view indigenous practices as devil worship, simply because he perceives them to be that way, while the natives think differently. A Hindu may dislike a Muslim for historic reasons or just because he eats something sacred to him. This doesn’t mean that a religion can’t have a lot of negative aspects, or good ones either – rather, it means that a religion being evil is a matter of subjectivity.
Another yet: I find it interesting that when it comes to creating languages (an old pastime of mine), people try to mimic how languages evolve over time, how they influence cultures and how cultures influence them, and how they are influenced by their neighbours, as close to reality as possible. It’s strange that when creating religions, this isn’t suggested, even though following a similar method would produce a much more realistic and interesting faith –
Tl;dr, I feel like the way the article expressed creating fictional religions, is too trope-heavy, and doesn’t strive to make realistic religions – as in, something I can image a fictional person believing in the same way I believe in mine. Unless, that is, you want a pagan/Catholic stereotype, which is AOK, or if liberties are taken.
I would recommend, to anyone interested in writing religions to study religious sociology, and the belief and practises of real faiths. ReligionForBreakfast is a good place for religious sociology – he even has a vid or two examining fictional religions!
P.S. There is still a lot of good advice here! But for myself, following them as guidelines instead of as clear-cut directions helps more.
But don’t take my word for it, I’m not perfect at this. Except for the “study irl religion” part. That’s a prerogative.
Thank you for your insights. Religion is a wildly exciting topic I want to explore, and also update this post in the future.
Starting out this blog, I wanted to cover everything. The goal was, and is, to establish a base for my fiction and games. Everything could be included, and nothing was really sacred if it led to a good story.
It has been a humbling (and healthy) experience to realize my Eurocentric viewpoint is just that: Eurocentric. I feel like a fool for knowing this, and yet ignoring that knowledge.
I need to move forward with more caution and respect in the future.
For example, I learned that “church” was a Christian term long after writing the first version of this post – I thought “church” was a universal term.
Languages are something I need to explore further. Again, my post on languages is all about faking it to make it work in the story.
George R.R. Martin saw himself floating on an ice raft compared to Tolkien’s iceberg, or something along those lines.
Faking it works, in a way, but also may be wildly disrespectful.
I do not recognize the name ReligionForBreakfast, but the YT page seems oddly familiar, so I have probably seen some of the videos and is clearly something I need to explore.
I mean, the front page right now includes topics like Mario’s religion, mana, and the History of Demons, respectively. I could probably spend days on that channel if time allowed.
I think establishing tropes is important before moving forward. Perhaps this channel is a way to do just that.
My preoccupation with religious organizations comes from a desire to find the human story. The divine is only so interesting, people, on the other hand, attracts me to religious stories. Humanity, wonderous and flawed, is fascinating and what stories are all about.
This is, of course, tricky. Being raised with “Christian values,” I respect religious beliefs even if I do not share them. How can I write stories with flawed people and organizations, without disrespecting people’s beliefs unnecessary?
My current idea revolves around people becoming gods – perhaps like Greek mythology and the beforementioned Malazan stories. I am not a huge fan of Steven Erikson (the story is a tad bleak), but the world is fascinating.
You’ve left out a fundamental of religion – rituals and religious practices. How do they do their rituals, who gets to go to them, everyone or only the followers, or priests, or whoever is the high priest. Do they wear special robes or artefacts for the occasion? Are there oracles, prophets, shamans, soothsayers, seers, objects, practices or artefacts that foretell the future? If so, do they tell the future in plain language or riddles, or do they need someone special to translate the prophecy. This can be a great tool to either give clues to what’s going to happen or to mislead the story protagonists or the readers entirely. What place does the religious practice happen in, natural or built, modern or ancient, household hearth or kitchen table, or a Holy of Holies that is never entered except by High Priest or Oracle. What are their practices about birth, coming of age, pairing, death and burial? Do they have telepathy or magical powers, and are these inherited, gifted or the result of special training? Or attained as the result of a quest? What function does the religion have in your story, is it a minor part of the background of your story or is it a major plot device? Do your protagonists believe in it?
Religion isn’t only about the God or gods, it’s the human aspect of it that’s going to be the major manifestation of it in your story, even if you want the gods to be playing puppet-master.
I apologize for my late reply. I always balk at looking back at older writing and wanted to wait until I could do it properly. Thank you for your comments — they gave me a lot to think about.
You are right, of course. I focused on what the world looked like and not on what the people were doing.
Wikipedia define rituals:
A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed according to a set sequence.
We get three categories: rites of passage, communal rituals, and rites of personal devotion. Christian rituals, for example, fit all three.
Figuring out rituals begins with the god’s origin and dogma. A universal god or head of a pantheon should have rituals for all aspects of life: birth, death, marriage, ect. The symbols should be universal, representing community, safety, and include figures and events from history. The Maker in the Dragon Age franchise is a good example.
A deity with a gimmick, like Zeus throwing lightning bolts or Odin being sneaky and secretive, should have dogma appropriate rituals.
For example, the merchant god in the world I’m developing has sacred temples, but the most sacred place is the marketplace. Proverbs like “the market is open or closed” have secret meanings. Anyone stifling trade — including both extreme law and chaos — is an enemy of the church. The church values roads, sea lanes, writing, bargains, contracts, fair laws, and criminal codes of honor. So fighting both rigorous laws and theft follows the god’s dogma. I realize I have thought about communal and devotional rituals for this god, but nothing on rites of passage. What does a merchant god’s funeral rites look like? A wedding should be a grand affair.
Regarding function in the story, for me, religion is about two things: spiritual needs and power.
Sharing a place in the world, belonging, and finding meaning are spiritual needs. I think people have this need regardless of religion. Whether we may find this in a god, ourselves, or each other does not matter. I think this is positive.
The ritual activities fulfill the spiritual need, although the answer is a god, not the self or how the self relates to the dogma of the god.
Building a community is about asserting power, efficiency, pooling resources, getting things done, ect. Religious power is also dominance, both organizational and spiritual. Faith is about spirituality, while religious organizations are about power. Power very often leads to abuse. It is possible to do good deeds, such as charity and helping others, with the ulterior (or additional) motive to maintain power.
Stories are about conflict. For religious characters, this means spiritual needs vs. corrupting power. For pulp fantasy, a genre I adore, the religious antagonists are raving cultists with any spirituality stamped out long ago. Cthulhu cultists fit this category, while the septons of Westeros are more nuanced.
Stories have themes, regardless of whether the writer will admit it. Religious characters are about the need for spirituality vs. corrupted power. How deep we explore the theme depends on the writer’s wishes. Fighting a pulp villain is, for me, about freedom and stomping evil. Wrangling with religion in a political fantasy, such as A Song of Ice and Fire, is about freedom and morality. It is my take, anyway.
That said, the corrupt priest is a cliche, so the writer should look for ways to flip the story beat.
In short, and I may be stretching this, fantasy and themes are so cool, and why religion is great for stories.
Again, thank you for your comments. Revising the post is long overdue, it seems.