Creating a fantasy world from scratch is an arduous, daunting enough undertaking, what with having to decide what it looks like, how its people act, how far this city is from this mountain, if the world has magic, or dragons, or sea monsters. You need a history, a timeline, a sense of logical consistency. And, unless your fantasy world is steeped in science and Atheism (which, now that I think about it, sounds awesome) you’re probably going to need a religion.
Religion has, from the times of men looking up at lightning and surmising a god must be up there throwing down electric bolts, stemmed from a need to explain the inexplicable. And, in a fantasy world, there’s probably a lot that’s inexplicable. A fantasy world might fear sea monsters as demons, might revere dragons as gods, might think magic comes from people touched by the heavens — or by hell.
So, most fantasy worlds are going to have some kind of religion. People fear the unknown and seek to explain it — the question is, how do you decide what kind of religion your fantasy world will have? Amy Rose-Davis’s article Creating God In Fantasy says a fantasy religion should, at the very least, answer three questions: where did we come from, where do we go after we die, and what should we do while we’re here.
That’s a good, simple rule of thumb. Your fantasy religion should be there to give people hope, a moral code, an explanation for your world’s creation, and some sense of what’s going to happen after death. (Though, a fantasy religion doesn’t have to be all scripture and sunshine. Feel free to let it subjugate people, oppress them, exploit them, and corrupt them.) If you’d like to go deeper, here’s a list of some common myths a lot of religions share — like the creation myth, or a theory on the end of the world. These are some things your religious fanatics might be worrying about!
Your religion can also give your fantasy world holidays, rituals, superstitions. Do they throw a coin into the fire to honor their dragon gods? Throw blasphemers into the sea to feed the sea monsters? For inspiration, you might try researching existing folklore; The Writing Cafe has a comprehensive resource list for this.
For people wishing to get really detailed, Worldbuilding Considerations: Creation Myth is part a whole series, with links at the top to other posts about creating religious hierarchies, deities, ceremonies, and more. Joe Wetzel’s post Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide also goes into detail on breaking down the structure of your religion, and gives a lot of examples (for instance, your gods could be a family, could represent natural elements like fire and air, or they could all be constellations, stars in the sky.)
Deciding whether or not characters are religious, either passively or in an active way that affects the plot, can be huge for characterization. Do they cower at the sea monster demons, or balk at and openly defy them? Giving your fantasy world a history that involves religion makes sense. I would encourage writers to be creative, though. Don’t make a carbon-copy of an existing religion — and, if you are going to take cues from existing religions, keep in mind there’s more out there than just Greek and Roman mythology. (In the same way there are more time periods than just medieval. What do you people have against giving your characters indoor plumbing??)
And, finally, while it’s important to think about creating your fantasy world, deciding on a hierarchy of gods, inventing sacrificial rituals, and deciding the dates of holidays, I think it’s more interesting, and more important to think about how religion affects your fantasy world. Does it control it? Does it let it thrive, or smother it? Do people use religion to excuse poor behavior? There’s lots of directions to go in — the religious could be persecuted, or the persecutors. People who worship dragons in a world where dragons gift fire and gold might be seen as being thankful and appreciative. Whereas, if the dragons are dangerous terrors burning down villages and setting people on fire, a cult that worships them might be seen as naive or blind to what’s really going on. SWFA has a great list of questions worth answering about your religion, (scroll down to the Religion section, though this whole page is gold) from how the religious view non-believers to what ethical and moral decisions are left up to the religious to decide.
So — what do you guys think? Have you incorporated a religion into your fantasy world? How does it mesh with the magical or fantastical qualities of your world? For me, I have a religion that mostly revolves around a creation myth, giving people assurance they’re being looked after, and doesn’t so much affect the world’s day-to-day. I wish it were something as interesting as demonic sea monsters, though. Maybe next time…