There are fewer forces in our own world that carry the same weight as religion. Wars are fought, lands conquered, and entire peoples wiped from the face of the planet in the name of the gods. From the earliest forming of human societies, religion has shaped the way we view ourselves, our fellows, the natural world and the greater forces around us. We give them names and attributes to make them more relatable. We build monuments in their honor and create sacred rites to amuse them. There are as many faiths as there are individuals, and that’s the perfect playing field for the fantasy writer.
No matter what its intent, religion causes strife in the real world. Period. People are tormented, persecuted, polarized and killed over differing perspectives. Even if religion doesn’t play a large part in your fantasy novel, it can bring undertones of conflict that help color the world. It can also serve as a haven or justification for a character’s actions. In cases where faiths do not play any major roles, usually describing a few key difference between two religions and/or deities suffices. But if faith and the valor of the gods has more of an impact on the world or your characters, it’s vital to develop those religions (organized and not) further.
Consider the following:
- What is the focus? Do they direct their love and admiration toward a god or a mortal leader? An ideal or a concept?
- What kind of religion are you dealing with? Is it monotheistic or polytheistic? Do they trace their family lines through the mother or the father? How do they identify themselves?
- Who are the deities? Is there more than one, and if there are multiple, what are their relationships to each other?
- Once you’ve established the gods, determine if they resemble the people in your story or if they have more abstract attributes. What do their worshippers call them?
- How do mortals interact with the gods? Are your characters scrying or actually hearing voices in their heads?
- What’s the policy on the afterlife?
- Regardless of what you the writer write as fact for a story, how far does the culture’s supernatural acknowledgment go? Do they share your same view of ghosts and goblins or are those just myths meant to frightened children?
- What methods of worship do your people employ? Do they build churches or dance skyclad under the full moon? Do they require an intermediary to speak with the gods, or do their own prayers reach the Great One’s ears?
- Establish at least one holiday that is based on the faith, and write a general history of how it came to be. For added variety, make a couple of variations that are both considered real parts of the history.
- What kind of clergy will your religion have? Will they develop a warrior-priest order or be the keepers of al knowledge? Will they be only one gender, a certain age, or from a certain social class?
- To a certain extent, religions usually attempt to dictate certain parts of secular life to its followers. Will this faith merely tell them how to dress and speak, or will it infiltrate their entire lives? Will it control how many children it is acceptable for a couple to have, or determine which animals they may eat on certain days?
- Develop a symbol that will be universally associated with the religion. Possibly consider the symbolism of color as well.
- How are their traditions and teachings passed down? Are they oral tales, or kept in a single, sacred book?
- Creation myths—every religion has one. Does your religion have an Adam and Eve, or twin brothers who ripped their mother’s womb apart to be born?
- Consider too, the other known stories that will come from the religion. Chose tales that could be universally told, or that would further the cause of the religion.
- Does this religion ascribe to the idea of deadly sins and/or heavenly virtues? What are the vices, the qualities of admiration?
- Most religions that try to infiltrate life outside of worship will develop their own coming of age rites. These are fairly straightforward in concept, but are pivotal in-story, especially if your main characters are close to the typical age for these rites.
- Everyone dies. It’s a fact of life, and we all have different takes on the ending (or renewing) of the circle of life. Develop death rites within the context of the religion. They don’t necessarily have to match those of the people.
- When you’re prompting your own way of life, you tend to stigmatize anything outside of your norm. Thus, taboos are born. They’re effective because of their dividing nature.
- Prevalence: How far wide-spread is this religion? More importantly, how widely is it accepted? Is it the religion of the people or the ruler? Look at how this religion might overlap with others.
- How do they treat outsiders? Are non-believers pathetic lost souls waiting to be converted, or devil-tools to be vanquished?
- What do outsiders believe of/think of the religion? Is it a peaceful faith that others would not have a problem with, or is the mere name of the religion a battle cry?