The power of religious beliefs cannot be underestimated. Near enough all humans, now and throughout history, have some kind of faith or belief system. If they feature in your stories, it’s so important that when worldbuilding, religion features in your creation process.
As we’ll see in the guide below, the religions of your world will likely play a massive part in your characters’ lives. We’ll explore the origins of faith systems before looking at the process of creating religions in fantasy worlds.
We’ll consider a worldbuilding religion template, some questions you can use as prompts, and the relationship between characters and faith.
The Origin Of Religions
Understanding the origin of religious beliefs is vital to the worldbuilding process. Early forms of human religion and belief systems placed great weight on the world around them, things of significance that they didn’t have the ability to understand.
The sun, therefore, played a huge role in people’s beliefs. It was the giver of life, the force that makes food grow, that keeps you warm and banishes the darkness each morning.
It’s therefore unsurprising that many religions placed the sun, or god, as the focal point, often depicted as sitting high in the sky.
Other religions sought to include the likes of constellations and stars. The idea of the twelve disciples, for instance, comes from the twelve constellations, which were important tools for navigation.
Therefore, step back and ask yourself what are the most important factors in your characters’ lives and how could religion evolve from them?
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How To Create A Religion When Worldbuilding
The worldbuilding and religion creation process should go hand in hand, especially when you’re considering the cultural aspects of your world.
As an example, if we look at medieval Europe and the role of the church, they held sway over monarchs, which wars were fought, which laws were passed, and how people lived, such as devoting their lives to the service of the church.
Priests and bishops also held a lot of influence over kings and queens and some even served as advisers.
In addition, there are also huge resources invested in the building of the likes of churches and monasteries and other places of worship.
The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that, depending on your religion, they have the power to influence all areas of life.
Below, we’ll take a look at different methods you can take to create a religion for your fantasy world.
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Key Considerations When Creating A Belief System
There are some key considerations to keep in mind when creating a religion. First up, and most significantly of all, is the psychological impact that believing in religion gives.
For some people, it may be a private, individual experience, one that’s completely subjective. Therefore, what relationship do the people of your world have with religion? Does it give them hope, comfort or encouragement? Does it offer moral guidance or answers?
For some academics, like William James, it’s these individual religious experiences that are the backbone of the world’s religious beliefs.
Another key consideration is the impact on a wider group of people or the collective. Does that religion unite people together? And do they gain something psychologically out of being part of a group or belief system?
If placing greater weight on this type, a closer examination should be given to the religious body’s main organisers, such as a pope-like figure. Are they trying to shape human behaviour? Is it trying to influence politics in some way? For more on this approach, check out the work of Emile Durkheim.
Ask Questions About Your Religion
As a prompt, it can be useful to answer a series of questions on what your religion and belief system are about. Here are a few examples:
- Is the religion monotheistic or polytheistic? In other words is there just one god, like in Catholicism, or are there multiple deities, such as in the Ancient Greek era?
- What does religion and faith mean to your people and characters?
- Is your religion real or is it one based on faith and belief?
- How is your religion organised? Does it have a pope-like figure or is it more communal?
- How do people worship their god or gods? Are there any traditions? Where did they come from?
- Is it okay if people do not believe or are they scorned as a result?
- What punishments are in place for non-believers, if any? Is there a movement to convert them to believers?
- Are there any competing religious beliefs that may oppose each other?
- Do any movements exist that are in opposition to the religion, such as a movement of magic-wielding wizards?
- What kind of an origin or creation story does your religion have?
- Are there any premonitions that your religion espouses? An example could be the second coming.
These are just a handful of questions that could help you flesh out your religion. They’ll serve as a useful prompt for you to build a foundation and branch out and create further.
Try A Worldbuilding Template
If you’d like to try using a worldbuilding religion template, then you may be interested in downloading my free document.
It provides you with a wide range of prompts that you can use for defining the cultural aspects of your fantasy world, as well as the physical aspects too. Some religions, particularly in Ancient Greece, built temples on the top of mountains and hills so that they were closer to the gods. Such considerations may be relevant for you too.
Click Here To Download A Free Worldbuilding Template
Worldbuilding, Religion And Characters
We’ve discussed already the impact that religion can have on a character. Someone who would be described as a fundamental believer may devote their lives to their god(s). Like the missionaries of old, they may wander the land, preaching and converting people.
On the other end of the spectrum, you may have characters who are trying to break free of what they feel is an institution that’s trying to control and shape their lives.
Either way, the religion that you’ve created will impact your characters on some level.
I have lots of guides on creating characters that you may find useful, the links to which you can find below:
Click Here To Learn More About Character Development
Or Head Here To Learn More About Characterization And Creating Characters
Do Fantasy Religions Need To Be Real?
Fantasy writers often ask whether or not their religions need to be real in their worlds. The answer is—it all depends on your story and worldbuilding.
There is a trend in fantasy for gods and goddesses to truly exist. They may make appearances in the human realm, for good or ill. Gods may exist within the realm already and people worship and honor them.
Or the religion could all be based on faith and beliefs, just like the ones we’re familiar with.
The important thing to remember is that at least on a character’s level, it all depends on their mindset and what they believe. This ties in with William James’s theory of religion being an individual experience rather than a collective one.
Some Final Tips On Worldbuilding And Religion
Remember, religion can play a significant role in shaping a culture and society in a fictional world, so it’s important to put thought and consideration into its creation. Here are a few final tips to help you design a religion for your world:
- Start with a concept – Before you start creating details about your religion, consider what purpose it serves in your story or setting. Is it to reflect real-world religions or to create a completely new one? What are the main beliefs and values of this religion?
- Research real-world religions – While you don’t want to copy real-world religions, studying them can give you a good understanding of how different religious beliefs and practices can shape a society.
- Create a pantheon of gods and goddesses – If your religion is polytheistic, consider creating a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Each deity should have a unique personality and portfolio of responsibilities.
- Develop religious practices and rituals – Consider what rituals and practices are important to your religion. Are there any specific holidays or ceremonies? How do people show their devotion?
- Consider the role of religious leaders – Think about who leads your religion and how they are chosen or trained. Are there any religious orders or sects?
- Think about how religion interacts with society – How does religion affect the political and social structure of society? Are there any laws or customs that are influenced by religion?
- Decide on the level of influence – Decide on how much religion will influence the culture, society, and everyday lives of the people. This can help you decide on how much detail to include in your worldbuilding.
- Be consistent – Keep in mind that religion is an important part of a culture, so it should be consistent and make sense within the context of your world.
- Don’t be afraid to make it unique – A religion that is unique to your world can make it stand out and be more memorable.
Remember that creating a religion is a complex task and it’s fine to take your time. You can always revise and improve it as you go along with your worldbuilding process, or even as you write the story.
Learn More About Worldbuilding And Religion
To learn more about worldbuilding and religion, I’ve included a few extra resources below.
- I highly recommend checking out Reddit and in particular the r/worldbuilding subreddit. It has a huge archive of questions and answers on every aspect of creating fantasy worlds, with religion being a big focus.
- Click here for a complete guide to building a fantasy world
- Or head here to see my own method of building a world – natural worldbuilding
- Head here to learn about the writing community, r/worldbuilding
- A list of the best world building classes
- Head here to learn about worldbuilding culture
- Check out this page on the best books on worldbuilding
- And lastly, this page has a tonne of useful worldbuilding resources, including questionnaires and writing classes
- Download a free worldbuilding checklist here
- Learn more about worldbuilding in writing here