WorldBuilding: How to write a pantheon


How many stories have you written that require a detailed description of a pantheon? I have to admit that in all my fantasy writings, I’ve only brushed over fantasy deities. Not because they weren’t important, but because they weren’t a vital part of the story.

My NaNo novel, The High Priestess’s House, is not like that. My heroine is raised as a priestess, and she’s going to exceed the expectations of her elders and prove her skills beyond her sisters’. She has to know the many names, attributes, myths, superstitions and purposes of all the major and minor gods of her land, and there are a lot of them. Hers is a land with multiple religions, with “religions” being very loosely defined. It’s more like thousands of locally-oriented practices with their own gods, with some overlapping qualities and names.

Just thinking about it makes me feel overwhelmed. My brain defaults to the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons, a couple of the most commonly known. And while I acknowledge that I can use some of them, like renaming a goddess of wisdom and a god of war—even changing up the genders—there’s only so much you can draw from pre-existing material before your work starts to lose its fantasy luster.

But there are ways to approach this god-like task. Think of each deity as a regular person—give them personality quarks, strengths, weaknesses, loves, enemies, goals, ambitions, fears. And once you have the character, make them pompously arrogant or endlessly wise, or another quality that comes with time. Remember that this character is a goddess, and she’s been worshipped for generations; you would be a little larger than life too. And like non-ever-living characters, make sure that they aren’t flat, that they have qualities or goals that don’t all necessarily line up with each other.

Also make sure they each have some ties to each other. Think about the Roman and Greek pantheons. Most of those gods and goddesses are somehow related to each other. Not all of them have to be part of the family, but you don’t want to have a bunch of random all-powerful characters floating around out there. There’s real merit to the idea of a god king or queen. They’re going to have a societal structure just like the human world. After all, they’re a reflection of our world… Or is that the other way around?

Always lay out more than one perspective on the deity. Even if he is a god of one people, other cultures are going to have a different perspective of him. This could be as simple as a different name, or as complex as a completely opposite understanding. One culture’s god of protection can easily be another’s devil.

Once you have a general idea of a handful of gods, you then have to decide how much they’re going to interact with your mortals. If they’re going to play a really active role in the storyline, you’re going to want to write them like actual characters. (I like to think of Ares from Xena). If they’re going to be more passive, then fabricate some myths that weave into the background of the story.

And finally, when in doubt… use a good generator. I’ve found that when the mind draws a complete blank, going to a generator is just the spark that I need to get the ball rolling again. Here’s a good one that I found in my own writing.

4 thoughts on “WorldBuilding: How to write a pantheon

  1. Adam

    As much as I disliked other aspects of the books, Alan Campbell’s Deepgate Codex did have a really unique and original take on the gods in the world. The differences were small enough to where the gods were still recognizable but big enough to where you didn’t feel like they were the same gods that you’ve read about in Greek mythology for years.

    The main difference was in the naming of the gods. Instead of having the God of Death, he had the God of Chains (it tied into the main city from the first novel). Rather than the God of the Sea, it was the God of Brine and Fog.

    I had other problems with the books, but they were first class in their worldbuilding, if you’re looking for original worldbuilding there is a lot in these books that works very well. (Just please look to other books for the characters and plotting, please.)

    1. WhitneyCarter

      I admire your ability to isolate the elements of the novels you read and look at what works and what doesn’t, Adam. I get too wrapped up in the story to evaluate well until after the fact.

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