RSS Feed Print
Fantasy Religions!
Rachel Russell
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 7:29 PM
Joined: 4/29/2011
Posts: 27

Do you enjoy reading about complex cultural practices and religious beliefs? What turns you on and off to a fantasy religion?

For those including a religion in their book, how do you go about creating said religion? How complex is it, and how do you try and introduce the reader to your fantastical religion?

Joe Selby
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 8:02 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 30

I love me some fantasy religion. I have yet to craft a fantasy setting where religion isn't a major pillar of said creation. Religion has so much impact on the development of a culture that whether I'm focusing on that faith or not, I like to see how it's permeated the society.

I don't like reading about the complex practices and beliefs, though, any more than I like reading dictation about any other cultural facet. I want to read the story. The story may involve the religion and if so, I'll learn about the religion over the course of the story. I don't want to stop and read a handbook on how the faith works so I can understand the story once I get to it.

I steer away from absolute good or absolute evil faiths. That might work for a cult, but "absolute" international organizations are a harder pill to swallow. I begin with a central premise (poly/monotheistic and what tenets it promotes) and then blur that to account for the centuries of miscommunications and intentional distortions made by followers.

Easiest way to introduce religion, I think, is through profanity. You can tell a some fundamental stuff just by hearing "god dammit" vs "gods dammit" vs "saints alive" vs etc.
Michelle L Ross
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 8:37 PM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 9

My Elysium series is Christian Fantasy so that wasn't too difficult as the religion is based on a real one. If I were inclined to create my own religion for a story or book, however, I would likely begin with researching the different religions, both present and past. I would try to decide if I wanted a male God or gods, or if there would be a female Goddess or goddesses. Or a mix of male and female. Then I would have to decide, if there are multiple deities, what each god/goddess is going to represent.

If you read "Fly By Night" by Frances Hardinge you will see a plethora of gods and goddesses. In fact, religion is one of the big parts of the story, though not the major plot (great read by the way).

You can look at how religion impacts society as well. I think I may make a religion that is forbidden in one of my future books. It is always interesting to me to read stories where people are trying to hide practices, whether it be religion or something else, that would normally, at least in the U.S. not have to be hidden. Or if your character is part of a religion but suddenly finds him/herself running from the leaders of said religion.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 8:41 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

My process when forming a religion is about the same as Selby's. I actually prefer to have a character who may not be completely enamored with their faith. Since I myself float pretty close to agnosticism, I like to have characters who have problems with dogmatic practices even if they don't dislike the message. A popular theme I use is if the representation of the god/gods by the institution is what the character/characters believe. This theme is pretty explicit in my work "Principium," so I have no problems with fantasy and religion. In essence, I have characters introduce the religion or lack there of.
Rik Roots
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 8:53 PM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 14

I most enjoy books that handle 'fantasy' religions obliquely. Off the top of my head I would cite Douglas Adams's Watership Down as a good example of this. I've also been impressed by the way George R R Martin describes/uses religion in his A Song of Ice and Fire series - especially as he's chosen to introduce a lot of overlapping/competing beliefs and dogmas into his constructed world.

While my first book centres on religious (and cultural) misunderstandings, I shied away from giving the religion itself a more formal shape. The only religious activity I described in any depth was a cremation scene. I also had one of my characters relate some fables linked to one of the religions - it seemed to be the easiest way to give the reader a taste of the religion without risking too much in the way of info-dumping.

I did build a more complex 'mythology' as part of a promotional app for the book - which didn't take off. But I keep it as a demonstration of what happens when I allow my world-building to get out of hand:
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 10:26 PM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

I tend to shy away from having religion play a big part in my story, so any religions I create for my cultures exist mostly for the sake of naming months and days or coming up with some symbolism - I don't get much into having characters who are religious, though, so it mostly stays at that point. Mostly because I'm an atheist, myself, and though I enjoy studying religion, I don't really understand what it feels like to be religious. And I ain't keen on finding out, truth be told.

When reading a story, it depends on two major factors. One, are the god/s undeniable? In many fantasy settings, gods exist undeniably - they communicate with man, perhaps gifted magic to the elves, etc., etc. And two, how close does this religion come to that of the author's? The first I say because I think it could be better explored than it tends to be. Most use the fact that gods exist undeniably as a way of creating the polarization between good and evil (followers and non-followers, generally), or else simply makes everyone religious. I would like to see more about people who question the gods, deny the gods, or otherwise are simply ambivalent to the gods. And not necessarily just because the gods are unquestionably evil, either. For the second, I just say that because I've read more than a couple of stories where 'Hasus' or some similar W/J/H, vowel, S, vowel, S chap comes about and is preached as the ultimate force of divine good in the world, and yeah, a preachy yawn-fest ensues.
Rachel Russell
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 10:59 PM
Joined: 4/29/2011
Posts: 27

@Alex: That's a good point. I haven't read very many books where the presence of gods was questionable. It's always presented as an undeniable fact that the gods exist, either because there's solid proof in history of them doing some great deed or because they still actively communicate with their followers. It'd be nice to see more books where there were a wider range of people, with zealots, atheists, and those that fall in between and just don't care.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 5:20 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

@Alex - it is a good point about most works not saying that god/gods are questionable. I play with it in my work, but I prefer introduce such sentiments through the characters. I agree with most people who don't like religion as a forefront of the story unless it entirely influences the society and the characters that stem from it in action or otherwise. I guess what I'm trying to say is that religion in any fiction should be relevant if present.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Thursday, May 12, 2011 11:23 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I was about to say I stay away from religion per se, but... I don't. I just haven't created any fantasy religions yet. Instead I've used gods both mythological and presently worshipped as bit part characters. Human shaped terrain, if you will.

The one thing I really dislike are books where there are religions where the gods exist and interact with mortals, but there are clergy of the deity who aren't really promoting that god's cause. The only time I've seen that work is in Discworld, and he has openly stated that some of his gods couldn't beat their own clergy in a nice game of chess two times out of three.

Every other time, I wind up thinking 'man, this so called 'benevolent' deity is a real dick. He's around, he's got limited omniscience, he's able to intervene, but he's letting his own front man go off the rails in his own holy ground. Seriously, dude, that's messed up'.

Maybe that's why I don't write 'hands on' deities, unless they're bad guys?
Jack Whitsel
Posted: Thursday, May 19, 2011 3:22 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 35

Like many aspects of writing...sometimes less is better. Unless the plot is solely in the said faith, you generally want to have a little ambiguity to give you some creative "wiggle room." If you prefer loads of detail, just be certain your character(s) are embroiled with the bureaucracy and dogma of the belief system. Otherwise, your religion will morph into extraneous details that could stifle the flow of your story. It's all about balance in the end.
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 1:12 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 18

Religion is just like any other cultural aspect of world building..

To create a fuller, richer world, all aspects of a culture or cultures should be shown. The devil though is in how much detail do we show?

I follow the need to know aspects on anything I show.

If the reader needs to know about something, then I build the details within the story line as needed. But if its not relevant to the storyline, then I will gloss over the deeper detail and just hint at what is what and allow the reader to build their own views.

For me, anything that slows the story clock from progressing forward is too much. I don't need to read 10 pages of how a Priestess weaves a certain fabric for their robes.
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:20 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

If it's something absolutely essential to the story I include it. But I don't spend chapters moralizing on it. (I'm looking at you, Victor Hugo and Herman Melville.)

Religion is there as part of the background. It informs the characters and their actions. But you don't need to spend endless eons on the subject unless you're writing a character who is studying to be a priest in that religion. (Or some similar circumstance.)

One example that I thought handled the issue pretty well, even if the books weren't his greatest, were David Eddings' Elenium and Tamuli. The Elenium dealt with it more directly but one of the central features of the plot and conflict for the hero's internal struggle was the meeting of two cultures: one monotheistic and the other polytheistic. I never felt like there was excessive moralizing or philosophizing on the subject of religion but it was there, and in the forefront on many occasions.

Most of the other fantasy I read leaves religion as a strut upon which the story structure rests, but is not overt.
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 4:02 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

It's funny--in my straight-up historical fiction there are some Quakers, but they are mostly just Quakers to kind of pin them in a certain historical and social framework. Being Quaker isn't a big piece of the plot. And that's the only religious thing I really mention. The rest of the characters' lives aren't really touched much by religion directly.

But in the SF short story I'm working on, difference in religious perspective is one of the main causes of conflict between the two main characters--that or a misunderstanding of each others' religious perspectives.

I'm writing two prequel short stories about each of these main characters and one of them is called "Schism" and is in fact all about how a quite devout character (the "religious" one in the first story) actually leaves the institution of her faith when she faces conflicts between what it taught her is right and what it is actually up to.

I didn't set out to write about religion, it just popped up as important in the story kind of by accident. (Actually, the whole story popped up by accident, for that matter.)

If anyone is curious, it's a Gaia-cult that worships the Earth itself as a living organism/Goddess. It's the realistic human future, so there are remnants of the religions common to our world now. (In fact the Gaia idea is actually something I learned about when studying feminist, Christian theology not so many years ago.) But my fictional Earth-Goddess cult came about kind of post-near-ecological-apocalypse and is the big thing in the world of my story.
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 11:52 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 18


Funny you mention Gaea, as I have a fantasy series where Gaea is worshipped. The issue is, this is not earth or even an alternate earth, Its a planet in the Gliese system...

How can Gaea be on this world if its not earth, my beta's asked.

Simple, the world is a seeded planet and not a planet of natural selection. The old gods of earth, are among the gods of this world as well, and many others as the readers learn.

So yes, I brought some of earths religions to my non earth world, but that gives the readers a familiar point of reference and thus I don't need to spend chapters and chapters weaving something that is not a major factor in the story...
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 11:58 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

Ha! That's really interesting. Because one major question for my characters is "does Gaia still live even if the Earth has been destroyed?" It's a classic moment of a religion shifting (or not--and dying out) due to geographical concerns. like the move from Hinduism in India to Buddhism in China or from Jerusalem-centered Jesus-cult Judaism to Roman Empire Christianity.

I'll have to check your work out.
L R Waterbury
Posted: Saturday, June 11, 2011 6:36 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

No society exists now or has ever existed without some sort of belief-system, whether organized or unorganized. Thus, any world-building requires the inclusion of some sort of belief-system or various ones. If religion doesn't play a central role in the plot, then it's not necessary to go into detail in the text, but it does benefit the author to have an idea of what that belief-system is because it WILL influence how the characters interpret the world and their actions in it. And this pertains to atheist or agnostic characters as well. Even if they don't believe themselves, they will still have been raised surrounded by it and other characters will still be believers.

That being said, religion is central to the plot of my WIP here. I've created something that is recognizably Judeo-Christian but differs on some very key points (it's alternate history). However, not all my characters are believers and not even all the believers are equally believing. There is a lot of room for doubt and doubters in my world.

Moreover, in trying to make the religion of this alternate earth as credible as possible, I have tried to include a lot of contradiction in it, a lot of room for criticism, a sense of a deep history behind its present incarnation, and a palpable understanding that its tenets are as much the result of man's interpretation of divine inspiration as they are the result of divine inspiration itself.

Having a belief-system that is Judeo-Christian in nature gives me certain advantages. Because it is at least vaguely recognizable to almost all of my readers, there are a lot of things I can just assume they know. I only have to explain what's different.

I hope I have kept my own biases--if not my beliefs--out of my work, but I highly doubt I succeeded. Those darn things tend to sneak in when you're not looking and set up camp in the most unexpected places.
Lisa Hoekstra
Posted: Sunday, June 19, 2011 6:55 AM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 89

I've only just started writing a fantasy WIP, so I haven't formed any religions... but I find it fascinating to discover how authors incorporate, create and form religions within their worlds.

Two authors stick out in my mind... the first is Mercedes Lackey, who I favoured when I was younger and still pick up her novels from time to time. Looking back, I think it was her Valdemar series that taught me about accepting other religions and that there is no real right answer. Ok, maybe it didn't teach me that, but the novels definitely influenced me. The "moral" to her series was that of acceptance...

the second author that stands out is Jacqueline Carey - she has the Kuishel series where the religion of the main world is based on different forms of sexual relationships - the main character is actually ... what's the word... means: finds pleasure in yielding...? Which made the story line that much more interesting - how can someone who consistantly yields (and enjoys it) be strong and heroic? Oh and the fact that she is that way because her god chose her makes it that much more compelling.

I think that, if used correctly and developed well, a story's religion can pull the reader in and connect them to the characters... maybe even make the world you're building that much more real.

If (maybe when?) I create a religion, I would try to emulate these two authors - make more than one main religion, have those that are fanatical and those that don't really care, ensure that the codes and etc. are all planned out ahead of time (and maybe even plan in some intentional contradictions just to throw the characters) and I would make sure that the religion had a key role to play in the plot...

As for introducing it... well, in theory, it would be part of the MC's daily life, so I probably wouldn't throw it in the readers face.. just add little observances gradually throughout the beginning, building up the key facts & etc. Then go from there...
Katie Kerr
Posted: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 7:16 AM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 5

@Lisa: in-context, you're looking for "anguisette." Or you can just go with "masochist." Or, you know, "prostitute." Teehee. I was actually planning on dropping Carey's name in my post before I saw you did, because she did an absolutely splendid job of creating an alternate morality springing up out of a well-crafted fictional religion.

And I'm firmly in Joe's camp on this matter: religion is a huge huge huge part of "life in the world," even if it's not a big part of the protagonists' lives -- as I'm sure even the atheists and agnostics among us can admit, living in a predominantly Judeo-Christian hemisphere. Religion and its tenets inform everything from public opinion and communal morality to personal decisions.

You don't need to drop heavy-handed exposition into the narrative to describe every god, every creation myth and every holiday, but knowing how your religion works, both internally (the separate roles and doctrines of the gods) and externally (how the religion, and different degrees of devotion, affect the community) is extremely important -- whether you're writing a Regency-era intrigue (a single line is all you need: "I didn't see you in Church" can be suggestive, scornful, and extremely illuminating of both the speaker and the subject) or a high-fantasy with a broad pantheon (how would gender roles be differently-informed in a society where the "elder" god was female, and all the masculine deities subordinate to Her?).

But, honestly, this doesn't take a lot of thinking to figure out. The only real problem is with "lazy" writers -- I'm looking at you, everyone who was ever involved in Forgotten Realms. I mean, come on: "[Generic Adventurer] touches the coin on [his/her] necklace and says a silent prayer to Tymora," but otherwise acts exactly like any modern, Westernized, Christian-bred human being in the real world? Really?

And having a solid religion -- even a simple one -- can save a helluva lot of time in the long run. If you know your religion, you know your culture, and if you know your culture, you know your characters. To go back to Jacqueline Carey: political scheming aside, any time any character is faced with a truly deep, disturbing moral dilemma, we already know that there's only one thing running through that character's mind: "Love as thou wilt." And now we know what he'll choose.
Karrie Zai
Posted: Saturday, July 23, 2011 4:12 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 13

I have to say thank you to Alex for bringing up the questioning religion thing, because it really brought together a couple pieces for me that weren't clicking in my own plot.

I agree with several people here: I enjoy learning about religion, but not through exposition. I like it when the little details are woven in throughout the plot, and I try to do the same in my own writing.

As common as it is to see gods as undeniable features of fantasy, it's strange to me that often this goes hand-in-hand with never seeing any evidence of godly activity. If the gods are out and about all the time, I kind of understand people not questioning them. But in stories where they're spoken of but never around, it seems a little weird to me.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 18, 2012 3:31 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping up for new members. =)

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 6:53 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

i havent created a religion for a book before, but one of my novels does have a sort of psuedo scientific cult, largely because try as they might, science is failing to explain certain things. I built it by imagining the steps through which it would occur to people, and the ideas passed on.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, June 29, 2012 10:14 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

N.K. Jemisin just posted a terrific article on designing a religion for a fantasy world.   She wrote it as a recipe, but it's not the kind of simple recipe on the back of a cake mix box. 

http://www.rtbookreviews.com/rt-daily-blog/nk-jemisins-recipe-how-make-religion-fantasy-universe#comment-43086 or short form: http://tinyurl.com/7tm8w3p

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 12:08 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

Culture is mostly the product of belief system, history and physical environment.

It influences what people say, what they wear, what they do and don't do. And for a belief system to contribute to a story in an entertaining way, the author must show the unfolding of the relationship between deity and believer. What does the deity offer the believer? Usually a role model. Usually laws and order. Usually favor. But always an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable - especially what happens after death. 

Conversely, what does the worshiper offer the deity? In Old Norse, certain followers of Odin become the Einherjar, warriors who will fight by Odin's side during Ragnarok. In Ancient Greek, worshipers were to please the gods if they desired a comfy place in Hades, and NEVER anger them. In Judeo-Christian religions, the worshiper must (in general) obey and attest to the glory of God if they are to earn a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But all religions encapsulate a philosophy rooted in one or more pivotal principles. In my story, everything hinges on the idea that love transcends divinity. Even gods are subject to love. They are born of love, they need to love and they need to be loved. Hence, they create worshipers to love and to love them back, people who also need to love and to be loved. So in a story about hate, jealousy, rivalry and intolerance; it's easy to see how both deity and worshiper might suffer when this fundamental need is left unmet for punitive purposes. 

Of course, the more you involve the gods in the plot, the more you risk deus ex machina. And readers coming from a Judeo-Christian background usually expect your gods to resemble "The Almighty" to some degree. The answer is strict limitations on the gods' divinity. Immortal? No. Omnipotent? No. Omniscient? No. Thor isn't. He dies during Ragnarok. He's stupid. And he relies on a magic belt for his strength, and a hammer for his power. He can't even swim. But damn he makes an awesome character!

One of Brandon Sanderson's Laws of Magic (though he's not the first person to come up with this idea) is that what makes magic interesting isn't its abilities but its limitations. The same can be said of gods. The less a god can do, the more he or she relies upon, or is subject to, the actions of worshipers - and heroes. 

In my story, the gods are dead. They had sacrificed themselves to kill a demon (of sorts) by releasing most of their divinity in an act resulting in mile high mushrooms sprouting from their corpses, the roots of which wrap around this demon and suck him underground where they keep him imprisoned. (Yes, mushrooms have roots.) Spores fall from these shrooms and grow into cocoons from which emerge the people of this world. The weakened spirits of the gods now only experience the love they need by living through the lives of their worshipers. Upon death, the worshipers are thrown to the roots of the mushrooms and their souls recycled - reincarnation. They must please the gods, or the roots won't take them.

It makes a rich and entertaining scenario (when shown and not dumped, like I did in the last paragraph). The problem is the tighter and more elaborate the relationship between god and worshiper, the more you risk inconsistencies and stinkin' deus ex. I've danced around those pitfalls as best I can, and will soon find out how well when agents start scoffing at my manuscript and throwing it back in my face.

"Deus ex machina, chapter 62 - rejected."
"But, but, but, but...."
"Too bad, call it God's will."

Anyway, you can either 'go there' with religion in hopes of crafting a unique and remarkable story, or you skirt around its many perils to produce an okay story with a flavor of religion, but one that risks little and is more likely to find representation. I've certainly gone there with religion and can only hope I'm wrong about agents being so quick to reject.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2012 11:05 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

For writers who don't have a good grasp of this-world religions and how they differ and how the cultures they're associated with express them, a good book to start with is Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One.  (His Religious Literacy is also good, but less useful to a writer, IMO)  Besides the excellent overview of eight religions now extant in the world, Prothero's big gift to fantasy writers is a simplified analysis of religions--what each articulates:

A problem,
a solution to this problem,
a technique for moving from this problem to this solution, and an exemplar who charts this path from problem to solution. 

So a writer wishing to create a viable fantasy religion could check to see if his/her religion met those four criteria, and come closer to something that "made sense" to readers than randomly throwing ideas about gods or demons into the story. 

I hadn't read Prothero when I began writing my first fantasy novels, but I had read a lot of comparative religion (in a more casual and less analytical way--trying to get a feel for what it would be like to think/feel/believe that way.)   My senior English teacher in high school had us read about six major world religions, and that got me started, really, that and having grown up in an area with Roman Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, many different types of Protestants, both mainstream and not, Conservative Jews,  and a half-hidden but very obvious to kids survival of old north-Mexican pagan beliefs and practices.

I have taken the route, for the Paksworld books, that every culture has a set of religious beliefs and practices--and there are both overlaps and conflicts.  For those whose ideas include one supreme god...there are still disagreements.  Is that god the Lawgiver?   The Creator?   How powerful is that god?  Can that god's purpose be subverted?  Has it been?  Some people are very serious about their religious beliefs; others are half-hearted except in a crisis; others are certain that religion has nothing to do with them.  There's one theocracy...one realm nearby in which that cult has considerable power...the next realm over has a completely different set of beliefs, and so on.  Conflict among states (or city-states, or factions within a state or city) always involves some reference to beliefs.  

One example:  followers of one hero-saint, Falk, derive their beliefs from Falk's life as a prince who accepted captivity to free his brothers, and when finally freed chose to leave his former luxury and found a group working for justice.  Falkians believe that "blood tells" and that the well-born are natural leaders of the poor and "base-born." Falkians value justice, courtesy to all, and their local organizations are always headed by someone of good birth (as they define it.)   They take their responsibility to care for their people seriously, but it's definitely a class system.

Followers of another hero-saint, Gird, derive their beliefs from Gird's life as a downtrodden peasant who led a peasant revolt against magic-using aristocrats who oppressed the natives they'd conquered.  Girdish have no respect for high birth and distrust it; they have periodic outbreaks of "purifying" the Fellowship of Gird from those tolerant of magic or excessive wealth and power. Those in charge of local organizations are usually of "low" birth, with farmers and craft workers preferred over merchants. 

But most of the time, these two cults live side by side peacefully, because they have almost exactly the same rules about fair dealing, honest weights in the market, honesty overall,  fair trials, control of bullying, thieving, vandalism, etc.  They believe in the same "high gods"--some form of a creator,  a sky god, an earth goddess,  some cyclical festivals, some standard rituals.  A Falkian village and a Girdish village will have the same outward appearance, and in the 500 years since Gird's time, influences have spread both ways.   Yet they aren't alike, and under stress the differences become more obvious.  Falkians look to a leader; Girdish look to each other. 

That's a mild one.  More severe is the difference between the gnomes' fundamental belief and that of the dwarves.  Gnomes believe the ruler of the universe gave the Law--the only Law that counts--and their entire culture is built on that assumption.  We have Law.  Nobody else has Law.  Therefore no one else is trustworthy, everyone else is in some way, to some degree, Lawless.  Their Law is mathematical: tit for tat.  No extras, no free gifts, no argument.  There's no margin for error.  Strict honesty, strict exchange, strict following of all rules--or a gnome may be cast out...the worst fate they can think of.  They are rockfolk--with power over rock--but they do not get along well with the other rockfolk race.

Dwarves believe the ruler of the universe is a Creator--that he hammered out the world on his anvil, and gave dwarves their skills with rock and metal (only another kind of rock, they insist) and  the rules of rock and metal--its nature, how to work it--are the only rules they recognize.  Their allegiance is to their dwarf king/commander and to rock itself.  Dross rock that is--strong, "brave" rock.  Evil is what contaminates rock...makes dross rock nedross, or weak, unreliable.  Gnomes?  Stuck-up prigs, ridiculous in their assumption of absolute rightness.  Dwarves take a mischievous delight in finding exiled gnomes and introducing them to the brighter sides of life. 

There's more (including the cult of another hero-saint, Camwyn, the very different religion of the Seafolk now settled in Pargun and Kostandan, the beliefs of the horse nomads far to the north, etc.) and it's all a way of enriching the cultures and giving characters more depth.  And--for me anyway--fun.  Bits come out here and there in different stories ("Gifts" is about, among other things, a Falkian former-paladin who renounced his position and has been sliding into a miserable poverty and alcoholism.)  Sometimes the religion drives the plot; sometimes it doesn't.

Philip Tucker
Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 12:31 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77

In Shortfall, the chimps tell a story about how Dust and Light, the cosmic godparents, put Darzn and Jane, the first humen, into the Great Rift.  Darzn and Jane meet a talking homin, and Darzn kills him for his apple.

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2012 1:22 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I have opted not to include a religion in the manuscript(s) I have written so far.  There are a couple of reasons for this:

(1) I have never actively practiced any religion.  I see people around me fast for Ramadan, or give something up for Lent, or eat only kosher food, and all are freely willing to discuss the details and reasons as laid out in their respective holy books.  But that's the level at which I've experienced religion, by hearing details from others.  I have no firsthand knowledge of being part of a religious group, I don't know what it's like to experience religion "from the inside," so to speak.  I know it's more than uttering whatever deity name I choose and more than quoting scripture and more than attending services.  Or at least, it seems that it ought to be, if it is to have real meaning.  (Leaving aside the issue of devotion in everyday life, among real, living, breathing people, and whether all people who claim to be religious truly are.)  But because of this, I am not at all convinced of my ability to write about religion.

(2) I'm never quite satisfied with religion in most published fantasy novels.  Frequently, it's just thinly-veiled Christianity or Islam or some other actual human religion with a few names being changed.  It's treated as an accessory but it's superficial and it doesn't permeate everyday life the way it really ought to, at least in a society with the feudal system and/or pseudo-medieval levels of technology we've come to associate with fantasy.  Alternatively, the religion becomes the driving force of the story; the story becomes a "battle of the gods," with our heroes lining up on the side of the good gods and our one-dimensional villains lining up on the side of the gods (or demons) who demand noxious practices like human sacrifice.  It's hard for me to care about a story where invisible beings are the movers and shakers of the universe and the people are just along for the ride.  I'd rather have actual multidimensional human (or elf or whatever) characters I can identify with being the ones who make a difference, who move the plot forward.  (I suppose I'll allow a conditional pass for human characters who think they're doing a god's will, whether or not that god actually exists in the universe of the story.)

(3) As for complex cultural practices, I don't really like reading descriptions of them on the pages of a book when something else could be happening to move the story along.  It reeks of infodumping.  (Side note: I like what Elizabeth Moon has done in this forum; I've gained some insight into the religious worldviews of her characters that I didn't have before.  But it was my choice to read her post and absorb this information, and it wasn't forced on me in a long sermon or lecture or lengthy explanation in one of her books.  So I appreciate that.  Published authors have websites, blogs, and online presences that may be more appropriate forums to delving into the details not only of religion, but of the histories of places and peoples and so forth, as opposed to long paragraphs of exposition in the novels themselves.  Then the fans who want to know more can seek it out, and those who don't care as much aren't burdened by it.  That's not to say that so many details should be left out that the story doesn't make sense any longer...)

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2012 8:54 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

@ Sneaky Burrito

Sometimes it's comes down to comfort zone.

I'm not very religious; I mean, I have my beliefs, but they're not encapsulated in any specific religion. And like you, I have no experience with worship, and never will. But despite my misgivings about organized religion, I spent hours and hours talking shop with an ex-army chaplain. The experience was beyond uncomfortable, but my story's better off because of it. Forced me to think, forced me to acknowledge the other side of the equation. And though it may be to his chagrin, it contributed greatly to the depth of the antagonist. 

There are subjects I'm uncomfortable with and shouldn't be (sex for one), so by no means am I claiming mastery when it comes to "leaving the zone."

Maybe I should have more sex...
Robert C Roman
Posted: Friday, August 3, 2012 11:48 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Burrito / Piper - you might try looking for a beta reader with real-world religious experience. Believe it or not, there are religious folks who can look at a religion not their own and critique it from a usefully objective stanpoint; I've got a beta reader who does just that.

Now, she occasionally wonders about the signifigance of the Catholic symbology in my books where it's incidental, but even that shows me where I may have thrown in a distraction that shouldn't be there.

I've actually worked out the details of a pantheon for a roleplaying game, but I've never written any Fantasy that required one. I'm presently working on a YA Space Opera that is going to have a pair of odd 'religions' added to time-changed versions of present ones. One of the two new ones is a casual cult of an immortal Empress who guarantees her military forces serial immortality. The other is an atheist 'religion', codified as such by a bureaucracy, which has become an established cultural force since its cofidfication.

It's interesting that I was putting those together before I ever read the 'four things' above, but I think I've got all but the 'exemplar' for the second one.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Saturday, August 4, 2012 5:42 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Sneaky-Burrito:  Long paragraphs of infodump in a book are just plain bad writing, no matter what they're about.  The background is background and should enter the story only when it's plot-relevant to that character.  Then it's not "explained"--it's revealed in the same way it's revealed that your character is an expert shot with small-arms, or can fly a helicopter, or the planet they just landed on has carnivorous plants that can attract, trap, and digest human-sized prey.  "Where's George?"  "That thing with the purple strap-like leaves over there--snagged him, dragged him in and we heard him scream, then a splash, and...Karin shot it to bits, but he was already mush by the time the thing quit writhing."

I have a website for the Paks books that gives readers who want more (and keep asking me) the information they want.  Some people like it.  (Some people want still more.  Every single details.  GAH!)   Others never go there and never will--all they want is in the story.  So I do think websites are the place for the background as background, if a writer chooses to share it.  Otherwise it's part of the notebooks or files of background stuff.  It helps to write it out, to be sure it's internally consistent.

Using background in the story so that it enhances the story is part of the craft of writing--that's true for any background including religion.  I agree that religion in fantasy is often badly done (whether it's the evil monotheists invading the wonderful, kind, older pagan earth-mother-worshippers or the wonderful monotheists being invaded by the evil demon-worshipping whoevers) and if someone has no feel for religion they shouldn't do it.  It's like someone who has no knowledge or, or feel for, horses trying to use horses in a fantasy...all the real horse-owners/trainers/enthusiasts gag and snarl.

What interests me--as person and writer--is the way that beliefs, whether consciously religious or not, influence both cultural and individual behavior...and behavior is always plot-relevant.  Beliefs as motivators--either primary or secondary--offer another layer of complexity.  Yes, your sister is a gorgeous, sexy, attractive, alluring person...but do you have sex with her?  Do you even let yourself admit you'd like to if she weren't your sister?   Are you attracted to, or repelled by, people who are like your sister, because of your attraction for her?   Yes, your boss will be pleased and you'll have points toward promotion if you spout the same political and religious opinions the boss does--but does it bother you to lie and pretend to think like the boss when you don't really believe it?  

Olga Godim
Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 10:23 PM
Joined: 8/15/2012
Posts: 2

I’m new to this site, and this discussion caught my eye, as I browsed. I’m not a religious person, but I respect people who believe. I think that faith is a very personal thing. That’s why I dislike organized religions of any kind. And I definitely hate fanatics. They’ve brought so much pain into the world.

Most organized religions are prone to proselytize, to solicit followers, and whenever I’m faced with such a situation (like when meeting a Jehovah Witness, for example) I want to explode. I never do, I’m a polite woman, but inside, I seethe.

My best friend joined Jehovah Witnesses recently, and I see how it narrows her mind. She can’t see logic anymore. She can’t react adequately, whenever anyone (not me) offers a different opinion on gods and magic than those supported by her sect. I’m really starting to hate those guys, and I think it colors my writing.

In my WIP, a traditional fantasy novel, my heroine, a young mage, stands up against the organized religion of the place. She has a reason for her position: that particular religion doesn’t accept female magicians, only male ones. According to their religious doctrine, the females gifted with magic are unclean, an abomination. They should be all collected in one place and their magic drained, to be used by male monks of the god. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Unfortunately so. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so negative about my fictional religion after all.    

Robert C Roman
Posted: Monday, September 10, 2012 1:02 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Olga - often painful things can produce powerful stories, powerful writing. However, in order for the writing to be the best it can be, you as a writer need to take a step back and see everything from all sides.

In this case, *why* do the monks drain female mages? If there's no reason but a lust for power, why does anyone else allow it? The Wheel Of Time novels have a similar situation, but reversed gender roles, where male mages are killed, because they go insane. Even if nothing bad happens, if the monks have made people believe it does, they'll get popular support.

So... feel free to be negative, but be *realistically* negati8ve. Your story will be all the better for both.
Ed Ireland
Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 7:42 PM
Joined: 11/10/2012
Posts: 11

My opinion is this....after more than 5000 years of mankind I'm pretty sure every possible kind of religion has already been thought up. I think the best we can do is take ann established religion and just tweak the particulars. For instance, I'm Wiccan. In one of my books I've just taken that and brought it to the next step evolutionarily speaking. There's really not much else...a new religion is a bit hard to come up with.
Cassandra Farrin
Posted: Saturday, January 12, 2013 8:18 PM
I've got a Masters in religious studies, god(s) help me, and my fantasy novel is a retelling of Babylonian myths--but I DO NOT SAY THAT explicitly. Brandon Sanderson has it right when he leaves hints to the convoluted relationships among his magical/religious systems but doesn't create a graph. Uber-fans can, and do, map it all out for themselves and have a great time doing it.

As many people know, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia are all the Christ-myth retold. Somebody dies and is reborn, saving all mankind. Sometimes the death is metaphorical; other times it is literal. This myth plays out in a mind-boggling number of stories in Western culture. It can only help to learn the basic models of reality espoused by world religions so that you can recognize when you are retelling one (odds are, you are), and play up the elements that readers will instinctively grasp without you ever having to tell them what you're doing.

My novel draws from the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Descent of Inanna. You don't have to know those stories to enjoy mine, but I feel very strongly that drawing from these archetypes has helped me to tell a more compelling story.

Philip Tucker
Posted: Friday, February 8, 2013 12:50 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77

Chimpanzee myths from the universe of Django Boldt.

Once upon a time, there was no time.  Then ten thousand things began.

Dust and Light began as one, and with time and space, they made everywhere. Everywhere brought forth every thing, and Dust and Light made it so.

Ten thousand things began, and ten thousand times ten thousand, begat by Dust and Light, as Dust and Light were begat by time, and time by infinitesimal chance.

What will is found in order?  Dust and Light know  none.  They are what they do.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Everywhere the worlds grew, and Dust and Light were there.  Dust made Earth from water and fire, and Light brought sunshine to the fields, and time grew ever deeper.  Dust and Light began to live and die and grow and change.

What hand steers life and death and change?  Dust and Light need none.  They do what they can.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

At Earth ten thousand things began to live and die and change, until time brought forth plants and animals alike.  And Dust and Light saw that all life was of one flesh, grown from the blood and bones of the ancestors.  And the first humen were called Darzn and Jane, for Darzn means flesh, and Jane, blood.

One day Jane said, "I thirst.  I shall go down unto the watering hole.  Can I get you anything?"  And Darzn answered her, saying, "I could eat an apple."  But when Jane had slaked her thirst, she found an ape sitting in the apple tree, talking to himself.

Yes, it is true: an ape with speech.

Jane said to the ape, "What is your name?" and the ape answered her, saying, "Call me Whisper."

Jane and Whisper spoke of ten thousand things, and when the ape spoke, his mouth made licking sounds like running water, and his tongue went in and out between his lips like a little serpent, and his teeth flashed like fires.  And Jane liked this very much. Because when Darzn spoke, his lips did not move, nor did his tongue go in and out like a serpent, nor did he speak of many things.  He spoke mostly of meat.

"Give me your apple, Whisper," said Darzn, and Whisper the Ape said "Sure." He threw the apple to Darzn, but Darzn could not catch it, neither with hand nor foot.  The apple struck his forehead, and Jane laughed, and so did Whisper.

Now Darzn was wroth with Whisper.  He said, "I will take all your apples," and he killed Whisper with his spear.

Darzn said, "We have to go now."  But Jane did not want to go, because she was bored with the man.  She knew Whisper's tribe would speak to her of ten thousand things, and she was tired of the man who spoke only of meat.

Darzn and Jane left the watering hole and roamed the Earth, but Whisper's tribe would never speak to Jane again.  No ape would speak again to men, until they should speak with new tongues.


Once Darzn, the first man, walked alone through the jungle.  There came a great rush of wind, and a curtain of dust rose in front of him. Darzn felt the presence of his god.

The god spoke to Darzn from the curtain of dust, saying, I am the Hidden God.  I am that which binds men.

Yes, God, said Darzn, keeping his eyes down, for he dared not look upon the face of a god.

In a voice like the storm, the god said, I gave a child to your barren marriage.

Yes God, said Darzn, trembling in awe.  We call him Laughter.

The hidden god spoke to Darzn, saying, Human, I bind you to my word.  You will sacrifice that child to me!

When Darzn heard the god speak those words, he grew angry, and he lifted his eyes to the dust and wind.

"You will kill that child!" said the god, in a voice like thunder.  "I bind you to it!"  But when Darzn stared at the curtain of wind which did hide the god,
the wind began to wane, and the dust began to clear, and Darzn found he could see through it.

"I will not," said Darzn, looking hard for the god's face, but the curtain had disappeared, and the god with it.  Darzn never again felt the presence of a god.

From that time forth, humen looked for hidden gods behind every curtain, but they never found one.  Like drops of dew on a summer's morning, first gods were here, then they were gone.

Nothing can bind a man now.

C M Rosens
Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 11:34 PM
Joined: 5/8/2013
Posts: 25

My fantasy world has a sort of tiered pantheon system, which is technically monotheistic (one creator being) with - cliché alert *hangs head* - seven anthropomorphic celestial beings - Mother Fate, Father Time, the conjoined twins Lord Chance and Lady Luck, androgynous 'Mother' Nature, Father Chaos (currently chained up in another dimension somewhere), and Mother Death, who loves toffee apples. Each one has their own personal angelic legion, although angels do their own thing pretty much.The world itself has fallen angels in it, known as Donwights, who are generally distrusted and in some cultures violently persecuted for various reasons. In other cultures they are prized (or bits of them are...) but that doesn't mean that yet other cultures even believe they exist.

There's quite a bit of challenging the accepted myths and histories of the world, and one of my MCs is a fallen angel who has to rediscover her faith (she's largely irreligious, I would say) in order to come to terms with her identity and powers (she has an unwanted connection with the shades of the dead). That doesn't mean that she then makes all the right choices and so on... She's one of the greyest characters I've written, and never really crosses into black/white territory. I'm not a fan of that. I think if you're going to write about faith, you also have to explore moral vacuums and doubt and loss of faith, and so on.

There's no orgnaised religion - there are cults, and various groups of people who go off and dedicate themselves to Death or Fate or Time etc, and some villages have their own hermit they can go to for spiritual advice, but that's about it.

The Underworld is based on Mayan and Greek mythology with nine levels, each level testing the souls in some way. They have to get down to the purifying fires of the ninth level, walk through (easier said than done) and go back up the other side to paradise. The problem is that very few people actually understand the Book of the Dead and the Book of the Five-Fold Way (all about the paths you can take to get you through the tests etc - - all very Egyptian...) so very few people actually make it to paradise at all. Which is sad.

So I guess mine is a wierd conglomeration of all sorts! It's central and peripheral at the same time. Fate, Time, Chance/Luck and Death actually narrate the books in the series, and they're always a bit amused when people don't believe in them....!

Posted: Thursday, May 9, 2013 11:23 PM
how do you go about creating said religion? How complex is it, and how
do you try and introduce the reader to your fantastical religion?

I write paranormal fantasy / southern gothic. There's religion in my books; all of the main characters and most of the peripheral ones are old-world Pagan. So am I. The main faith in my stories is based on the one I follow; it leans more toward how I shape my own private practice than anything else. If you're reading paranormal fantasy, then (at least to me and others I've discussed this with) it's assumed that the majority of your audience is going to have some background in the various parts of the paranormal ~ and there are many ~ so explanation isn't often necessary. Honestly, the only time I've ever been asked to provide more detail is from people with no knowledge of the paranormal.

Allen Curtis Meissner
Posted: Tuesday, October 20, 2015 11:46 PM
Joined: 9/2/2014
Posts: 20

In my series The Terasrael Chronicles their are several religions addressed Each one of the members of the religions have the option of committing to federal service or serve as missionary/temple workers in the religion to whom they belong . Though the story is not on earth , the most common religions are patterned on some level after various earth faiths such as the Kirk Wodan which is loosely Norse based . Or the Kirk Totanka which is largely based on North American Indian belief systems . In all I do this that the culture may be as fleshed out as possible . I can not address them all at once but can give a few subtle hints here and there !
Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2015 7:42 PM
Joined: 8/23/2015
Posts: 11

My current wip is space opera. Not as involved as fantasy I admit but it has its own issues. One of my characters brought a holy relic into the story (they have a habit of doing stuff I'm not aware of, do my characters) so I had to create a religion based around a sentient plant. I mean, what sort of a religion would a plant's beliefs be based on?


 Was fun dreaming it up though.

Posted: Thursday, November 19, 2015 4:11 PM
Joined: 10/23/2015
Posts: 1

I think that it's cool to introduce religion into the fantasy mix simply because you can go so many directions with it, and if skilled enough, teach people about it through the narrative without forcing it down their throats. My goal is to accomplish this by about the sixth book into the series, and instead of flat out explaining the religion I wanted to create a backstory based on the pantheon of sub-gods that actually involves them all in the story arc. So far I'm having fun trying to think it all through, and while it's a lot of work it is also a lot of fun. I'd welcome any suggestions or tips from the pros though.
Posted: Wednesday, February 24, 2016 8:53 AM
Joined: 1/31/2016
Posts: 30

Whatch out for a person with a agenda.

Gaia a Hypothsis by James Lovelock. Would make a solid religion involving a Earth Mother Godess type sconerio.



Ritual and religion ; religion and ritual.


Currently working on a story with portals even to another planet.

Their conduct is very structured and strict. Worship the process that is the portal God.


I think to be consistant is vital. If one knows in one's mind's eye. Go for it.


Dravid Mills


Posted: Saturday, March 5, 2016 4:36 AM
Joined: 1/31/2016
Posts: 30

Rachel Russell wrote:
Do you enjoy reading about complex cultural practices and religious beliefs? What turns you on and off to a fantasy religion?

For those including a religion in their book, how do you go about creating said religion? How complex is it, and how do you try and introduce the reader to your fantastical religion?

Do love the way of the Warrior - Miamto Mushashi works for me. Even tried a visit using time travel.

The Gaia hypothsis is my favorite - James Lovelock - Wikapedia has a paper or two.


P.S. buy a deck of the golden dawn tarot cards, The Rider Waite deck with artist Coleman. Scary!


Jump to different Forum...