Creating a fantasy world from scratch is a daunting enough undertaking, what with having to decide what it looks like, how its culture works, if the world has magic, or dragons, or sea monsters. You need a history, a timeline, a sense of logical consistency. And, unless your fantasy world is steeped in science and Atheism (which, now that I think about it, might be awesome) you’re probably going to need a religion.
Religion has, from the times of men looking up at lightning and surmising a god must be up there throwing down electric bolts, stemmed from a need to explain the inexplicable. And, in a fantasy world, there’s probably a lot that’s inexplicable. A fantasy world might fear sea monsters as demons, might revere dragons as gods, might think magic comes from people touched by the heavens — or by those sprouted from hell.
The Three Basic Questions Your Religion Should Answer
So, most fantasy worlds are going to have some kind of religion. The question is, how do you decide what kind of religion your fantasy world will have? Amy Rose-Davis’s article Creating God In Fantasy says a fantasy religion should, at the very least, answer three questions:
- Where did we come from?
- Where do we go after we die?
- What should we do while we’re here?
That’s a good, simple rule of thumb. Your fantasy religion should be there to give people hope, comfort, a moral code, an explanation for their creation, and some sense of what’s going to happen after death. (Though, a fantasy religion doesn’t have to be all scripture and sunshine. Feel free to let it subjugate people, oppress them, exploit them, and corrupt them.)
Myths and Legends
If you’d like to go deeper, here’s a list of some common myths a lot of religions share — like a creation myth, or a theory on the end of the world. These are some things your religious fanatics might be worrying about!
For people wishing to get really detailed, Worldbuilding Considerations: Creation Myth is part a whole series, with links to other posts about creating religious hierarchies, deities, ceremonies, and more. Joe Wetzel’s post Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide also goes into detail on breaking down the structure of your religion, and gives a lot of examples (for instance, your gods could be a family with a hierarchy, could represent natural elements like fire and air, or they could all be constellations, stars in the sky.)
Holidays and Superstitions
Your religion can also give your fantasy world holidays, rituals, superstitions. Do they throw a coin into the fire to honor their dragon gods? Throw blasphemers into the sea to feed the sea monsters? For inspiration, you might try researching existing folklore. The Writing Cafe has a comprehensive resource list for this.
Deciding whether or not characters are religious, either passively or in an active way that affects the plot, can be huge for characterization. Do they cower at the very thought of the sea monster demons, or balk at and openly defy them?
Worldbuilding with Religion
Giving your fantasy world a history that involves religion makes sense. I would encourage writers to be creative, though. Don’t make a carbon-copy of an existing religion — and, if you are going to take cues from existing religions, be respectful, and do keep in mind there’s more out there than just Greek and Roman mythology. (In the same way there are more time periods than just medieval. What do fantasy authors have against giving their characters indoor plumbing, seriously??)
Consider how this religion affects your fantasy world. Does it control it? Does it let it thrive, or smother it? Do people use religion to excuse poor behavior? There’s lots of directions to go in — the religious could be persecuted, or the persecutors.
If, in your fantasy world, dragons are the Prometheus figures who brought people fire, those who worship their dragon overlords might be seen as thankful and appreciative. Alternatively, if the dragons are reptilian terrors burning down villages and setting people on fire, a cult that worships them might be seen as … less than reputable.
SWFA has a great list of questions worth answering about your religion, (scroll down to the Religion section, though this whole page is gold) from how the religious view non-believers, to what ethical and moral decisions are left up to the religious to decide.
So — what do you guys think? Have you incorporated a religion into your fantasy world? How does it mesh with the magical or fantastical qualities of your world? For me, I have a religion that mostly revolves around a creation myth, giving people assurance they’re being looked after, and doesn’t so much affect the world’s day-to-day. I wish it were something as interesting as demonic sea monsters, though. Maybe next time…
An earlier version of this post was originally shared on my old blog, Christina Writes.