Religion and belief systems feature a great deal in the fantasy genre, and it’s unsurprising why. Religion, faiths and beliefs shape our lives in a multitude of ways, providing purpose, meaning and structure. That’s not to say everyone’s lives, but a good number.
It’s a very broad topic which I’ve tried to condense into this sole article. It first looks at how religion can shape fantasy worlds, how it can affect characters, how you can create your own religions, and finishing with the opinions of readers.
Before we march on, I wish to make it clear that this is just an examination of religion within the fantasy genre. Everybody is free to hold their own beliefs and the last thing I wish is to cause any offence. I was raised a Roman Catholic, went to church every week until the age of fifteen, even served as an altar boy. I’m a non-believer now, but that doesn’t mean I look at religion with scorn like so many do. My aim here is to be as objective as possible.
Religion can be construed in different ways; it doesn’t help there are three different definitions:
- The belief and worship of an ‘all-powerful’ figure, such as a god or goddess (monotheism). There can be more than one central figure too (polytheism).
- A system of faith and worship.
- A pursuit or interest followed with devotion.[i]
When we think of our own religions, one thing which features heavily is faith. It’s faith in a belief or religion which makes it real in minds and hearts. What gives us faith? Teachings which we agree with, answers to questions, miracles, religious texts, or prayers, masses and sermons which imbue us with purpose.
How religion can shape fantasy worlds
Let’s begin by looking at our own world. We’ve seen the Crusades, the rise and fall of Islamic State. Religion has been used as the justification for these conquests, which saw hundreds of thousands die and more displaced. Borders changed, cities levelled and new ones built, groups of people snuffed from history. I’m straying more into the implications of conquest generally here, but it shows the influential reach a belief can have.
On a less violent level, how can religion shape societies? Canon law and the beliefs of the church in Medieval England dictated the lives of many, women in particular. For instance, canon law defined a woman as ‘a sort of infant’ and gave husbands permission to beat their wives if he thought them lazy or disobedient. (You can read my post about the lives of women in the Middle Ages by clicking here.)
All of these things apply to your secondary worlds. How has time before your story shaped your world? What role, if any, did religion play? Things like weddings, funerals, baptisms are all religious customs. How does your religion impact these aspects of your character’s lives?
What’s the relationship between magic and religion? How do different characters view religion and how does magic influence religion? Are they separate or interlinked? Do they conflict with each other? All things for you to consider.
A pretty common feature of fantasy religions is that they tend to be true. Gods and goddesses do exist, manifesting themselves in different ways, such as forces or energies or demi-gods, as well as ancient prophecies which come true. If religion is true, what role does faith play?
But they could be non-existent. It’s the discussions of gods and goddesses which help create what they are. Look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dracula hardly features in the story, yet we learn much about him. In keeping the distance between humanity and gods and goddesses you help to create that mysterious, all-powerful air.
How religion can affect characters
Characters who hold conflicting beliefs is a great way to explore religions in a fantasy world. You have your fundamentalists, for example, sceptics, atheists, people who believe some parts but not all. Some of these groups actively oppose each other, such as zealots and atheists.
Just as we have the believers, we also have the manipulators. People who take advantage of religion and people’s need to find purpose, answers, structure, warping their minds for their own gain. Looking into real-world cults is a great way to get to the heart of this. It’s important to keep in mind that an antagonist inspired by what we would deem an evil religion must believe wholeheartedly that they are right and justified in their actions; they must think they’re the good guy. It’s what god wants after all.
It’s important to be mindful of how you portray religious characters. Quite a common occurrence is the religious ‘knuckleheads’. Brandon Sanderson discusses this in the video below with reference to writer Dan Brown. Sanderson argues that Brown views religious character as fools who should be proven wrong. Sanderson recommends avoiding this trope. It’s reductionist and offensive.
Another aspect of religion which creates conflict is contradictions. People interpret religious texts in different ways. Christianity, for instance, has numerous branches, the Westboro Baptist Church just one example. It’s important to remember that as a writer if you introduce contradictions, you’re creating conflict which in turn creates a plot point. Readers expect something to develop out of it, so if you go to the trouble, be sure it’s going somewhere.
Religion can provide context for character’s actions too. They can take messages from forces which shape how they live. How does religion help characters interpret your world? This is a point we’ll come to in more detail below.
Think about the religious roles your characters could play? Are there shamans, priests or priestesses, a Pope-like figure? Just look at how influential the High Sparrow became in Game of Thrones.
If you’re to feature religion in detail in your stories it needs to form part of your world-building process. The swell folks over at Fantasy Faction published an excellent article on this very topic, and in it suggested a few questions to ask yourself when thinking about your own religion:
“1) Where did we come from? Your religion should have some explanation for how the world came to be. You might say, “well, science explains that.” That’s fine, but we’re talking religion here. Look at the world around us. There’s a constant tug of war between religion and science. Perhaps science does explain everything in your world, but unless science is also the religion of the day (which is fine, by the way), you need to have some explanation for creation in your religion.
2) What happens when we die? You have to answer questions about the afterlife with your new religion. Heaven, Hades, Valhalla, Nirvana, Maya, whatever it is, you need to have some explanation, tradition, story, or theory within your religion about what happens when people die.
3) How should we act while we’re here? Your religion should provide some kind of moral code. What that moral code says is pretty much wide open, but most religions provide some kind of list, law, code, ethics, what have you for its followers. Within this moral code will be some aspect of discipline as well, which will probably tie into what happens when someone dies.”
These are just a handful of the key questions to ask yourself. Writer Orson Scott Card provides a great list too which you can read by clicking here.
What I’d add to this list of questions is: what do we regard as important in life? When a lot of religions and beliefs were first formed, the things which people revered most in their lives were in the skies, i.e. the sun and stars. The sun, in particular, was seen as the giver of life, the banisher of darkness. It can be argued that the heart of every religion boils down to the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, and the essence of that battle stems from day and night, how the sun falls each day, giving way to evil darkness, only then to rise again and save humanity.
Astronomy played a significant role in people’s lives too. It was used for navigation, gauging the passage of time, and as a guide for when to plant crops.
Remember, for religions to spread and catch on, you need to think logistics. The rise of catholicism, for example, was partly down to preachers prepared to travel countless miles. My Great Uncle Paddy was a Catholic missionary in Sierra Leone who tried to establish a church there. Every time he built one it was torn down by other religious groups. Again, another example of conflict.
The opinions of readers
I found an insightful thread on r/fantasy to do with religion. There was a wide range of opinions, some of which I thought would be quite helpful. Here are just a few. You read the full thread by clicking here.
rake_the_great: I’m not against people who are religious being evil – it definitely happens in the real world – but it bugs me when the author uses it because they don’t have the motivation to come up with something interesting on their own. It was annoying when Dan Brown and Assassin’s Creed did it, and so when this formula comes up again, it feels degrading to something that’s very important to me personally.
Petros-Tr – Fantasy books with Gods that actually make an appearance (not just mentioned) are my favourite. Powder Mage, Lightbringer, The Chronicle of the Exile etc.
Theloftytransient – If an author doesn’t think about religion intelligently or has studied it from an anthropology perspective, it’s pretty obvious and painful. Hate the “Christianity applies to everything even fantasy” trope. I also don’t like the “all religions are cults or evil” and “atheists are the wisest” trope.
Archprimus – I don’t like being overwhelmed with religion in books in all honesty. When I was reading Mistborn I remember Sazed used to take a few pages to inform Vin of different religions in the past. And I liked it too, learning about it because it was fun.
Enasor – While I do not usually mind the inclusion of religion within works of fantasy, I would like to see more books where it isn’t such a prominent theme.
Schmii – I love religion in fantasy especially if an author can create a religion that feels rather complex. I just think religion is so interesting because it can bring people together and tear people apart.
What are your views on religion in fantasy? Have you read any books which deal with religion well or poorly? Comment below!