At some point during the world-building process, writers run into the issue of faith. What do your characters believe in? What is their religion, if they have one? What religions are present in the world you’ve created and how do they affect that world? Fantasy is usually not a godless place; in fact, it’s rift with religious ideas.
Fantasy books traditionally have polytheistic leanings because… well, it’s easiest. The pantheon of gods and goddesses is often very active in the world, and special priests or priestesses known as “clerics” or holy warriors called “paladins” can call directly on their patron god/goddess for help in battle or healing. It’s often indistinguishable from magic… but the source is divine. Krynn from Dragonlance and Faerûn from The Forgotten Realms are two massive fantasy worlds with hundreds of books that have very active and localized pantheons. In these worlds, there is no question about the existence of gods and goddesses because the effects of their power can be very clearly seen. The afterlife of heaven and hell or somewhere in between is very, very real.
Sometimes monotheistic religions are present in fantasy, but these often end up in conflict with other pantheons. Or, there will be a pantheon of beings, but they have one divine Overseer that reserves ultimate judgement and power. Others don’t specify a pantheon or head god/goddess per se, but there is belief in a Creator, or a pervasive Force that gives life to everything and gives a purpose to that life… as well as providing a power battery for magic. Most often these are medieval-based societies, so magic takes the place of science, or the science is very rudimentary. There is often a great deal of conflict between the trifecta of science, magic, and religion, an ever-shifting web of agendas and alliances. (If you want to read a great mash-up between magic, science, and a form of neo-Catholicism, read C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy.)
Take a look around and you’ll see that the world is filled with all kinds of conflicting religions, beliefs, and ideologies. I’ve been thinking about religion and its place in the world more often lately, especially since I’ve finally adopted the mantle of “atheist.” That train of thought brought me back to my writing, because systems of faith are ubiquitous, regardless of their coherency or rationality. So, as a writer, you need to ask yourself some questions about religion with regards to your story:
- Does your fantasy realm/nation/world have a religion?
- Is it monotheistic or polytheistic?
- How many different religions are present?
- Are some of these religions monotheistic vs. polytheistic or different versions of mono vs. mono or poly vs. poly?
- Are these religions all in the same area or are there divisions between continents or countries?
- Are there religious wars? Who is attacking and who is defending?
- How much control over the average citizen does religion have? (Is it secular or is the nation run by an oligarchy of religious leaders?)
- How much impact does religion have on the lives of average citizens?
- Are there temples? If so, where, how many, how well funded are they, and how often are people expected to pray there?
- How much does religion affect your characters?
- How much does religious thinking impact or guide their decisions? (A paladin or cleric might have a very different view than a witch or a mercenary.)
- How many gods and/or goddesses are there and what are their roles?
- How active are the god(s)/goddess(es) in the lives of the people? Do they rarely or never make an appearance like the Judeo-Christian mythos or do they interfere regularly like in the Greek mythos?
- Do the people/your characters believe in predestination? Fate? Luck? Random chance? Free will? And how does that impact how they live their lives?
- Do they believe in an afterlife or reincarnation? Is there any evidence of that afterlife?
- How are people who are not religious treated?
- How are people who adhere to a different religion treated?
- What is the role of priests/priestesses/clerics?
- Does magic or any other power derive from the god(s)/goddess(es)?
- What is the role of science or logical thinking?
- How are questions about the religion handled? With thoughtful discourse or suspicion and condemnation?
- Does faith give meaning and purpose to your character’s life?
- What would happen to your character if they rejected their faith? Or came to it? How would they react? Would they find a new purpose or meaning?
- How are secular/atheist/humanist people and societies portrayed? Positively or negatively?
- Is there any question about the existence of god(s)/goddess(es)/the supernatural? And how does your character feel about it all?
As you can see, some of these questions can also be great plot-fodder, especially when you start looking on the micro level with your characters and their own ethics. It’s a great source of conflict. And maybe play around with the expectations of your readers. Try out a new mythic combo and see how it works out.
If you’d like to read more about creating religion in fantasy, check out the series of articles entitled “Creating God: Religion in Fantasy” by Amy Rose Davis on Fantasy Faction.