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A Lesson by M.R. Smith

Gods, goddesses, religions, and the questions one needs to ask in order to get situated nicely. Well, uh, in the vein of fantasy, anyway. =P


So, fantasy has, for quite some time, been drowned in the battles of deities.  Creation theories all around, but where do you fit?

Where do you want to fit?

Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself, upon trying to build upon the more mystical ideas of a fictional world:

1.  Are there gods? 
Consider the pantheons of Antiquity.  The Romans had their gods, but saw the Greek pantheon as being much the same, simply under different names.
2.  Is there a single God?  Consider the monotheistic natures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--or even Zoroastrianism.  In the fantasy genre, one needs to look no further for such an idea than J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was a devout Catholic and his belief seeped into his world--refer to the Silmarillion, which many die-hard fans consider an "Old Testament" to Lord of the Ring's "New Testament".
3.  How many are there?  Is there a god for several things?  Think of war, justice, hunting, revelry.  One could look at the gods of virtually any ancient culture and draw the idea of godhoods-by-theme.  This is also extremely common in fantasy.  Are there deities of nature?
4.  Are these gods present in the struggles of your world?  Do they have an impact?  Are they the source of magic?  Consider the mythological take of the Battle at Troy, the gods casting their lot with either the Greeks or the Trojans.
5.  Are they culturally specific?  Does one culture, kingdom, venerate the same gods as another?  Do they believe in others?  Are there wars because of this?
6.  Do these gods actually exist, or are they long-held traditions?  Are they more realistic in nature?  If so, do your characters believe in these gods?  Are the people of your world superstitious?  Are people in specific kingdoms more religious than others?

For the less generalized, more tedious work:

7.  Does more than one culture worship the same set of gods?

8.  If so, do they worship because they are of the same culture?  If not, why do they believe in those gods?
9.  Is there a structured religion built around the worship of these deities?
10.  If so, is there a single leader of this "church"?  Think of the Pope.
11.  Are the people under these/this gods/God happy with their belief?  Are there heretics?  Are heretics punished?  Look at the Inquisition.  Think, people, think!
12.  Is there a set of religious/moral law?  Consider the Ten Commandments. 
13.  Is there honor, chivalry?  Does the idea of a knight exist?  To what god/or gods would a knight make vows to?

And then the big one!

14.  How was your world created?  I have never personally answered this question.  Even in fantasy, some things are best left unsaid.

Even fleshing out only a few of these questions would greatly increase the depth of your story.  Be sure not to take a big infodump on a reader, though!  No one likes that.

Always, always avoid revealing to the reader the answer to any of these questions.  It would more than likely ruin it for them.  Always try to make the reader question the plausibility of some of these topics, but never, ever reveal the answer. 

If anything (in my personal opinion), the idea of gods in fantasy should be an alien notion.  They should have little to do with anything in the long run--of course, unless you're aiming for the opposite.

The key is a perfect balance of realism and unrealism.  Let's say your character has been in a battle.  He's tired, wounded, and very possibly near death.  An arrow flies, but out of no where, some god (or the god of his people--whatever) somehow causes the arrow to miss!  That's s**t.  That's total crud.  However, if he, oh, fainted from blood loss and had a vision of said deity encouraging him to be strong, well, that's far more acceptable.  Always hold back.  Never say that there may/may not be gods/a god.  Continuously let the reader wonder.  It won't hurt them.

If there are any other questions you, dear reader, can think of adding to this list, please let me know in the form of a comment below.  If you have any questions about the questions listed here (or about anything, really), please don't hesitate to ask.  I'd be more than happy to answer and help.

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Posted 1 Year Ago

This really helped,

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Posted 3 Years Ago

KillxThexCowboy - I don't think it's necessarily vital. However, religion is part of society and often influences people's perceptions and interactions. The story will seem very bland and one-note without any detailed cultures for your characters to come from.

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Posted 7 Years Ago

Do well-written fantasy stories have to incorporate religion? Is the story considered lacking without it?

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Posted 7 Years Ago

Really good questions, in the lesson and the commets. Gives me more to think about for my novel. Thanks.

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Posted 7 Years Ago

RR is right - too much just slapping a religion on a story with no thought for how it affects the setting and characters. And too much "borrowing" from the best-known mythologies (like we're not gonna recognize Greek gods with new names - or worse yet, D&D gods with new names!) instead of inventing something different.

(And no, kids - it is NOT "cliche" to have a religion with a feminine deity. *rolls eyes* No one ever says that if the deity is male...)

In the backstory for one of my novels (not the one you've seen), there are some religious fanatics who believe that their ancestors having been spared from genocide long ago is proof that their species is favored by the deity... But most people in that setting are fairly laid-back about their religious beliefs.

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Posted 7 Years Ago

I think that what is often missed in amateur fantasy writing is the influence of religion on culture. Religion has, historically, been one of the major factors of the shaping of cultures and societies and too often the religions around fantastical gods just seems to be squeezed into a temple somewhere on the city street. If religious devout are not common, then perhaps the religion has had minimal influence to the culture, however when the entire culture is devoted to this pantheon I find myself irritated when the religion seems so secular from society.

Also, when creating pantheons, have fun with it. I find myself, as a reader, bored with the stereotypical pantheon of fantasy. Be creative, be original.

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Posted 7 Years Ago

My evil twin is taking anthropology classes at university this semester - it kinda soaks into my half of the brain, too. :)

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Posted 7 Years Ago

Great stuff, Weaver. o__O

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Posted 7 Years Ago

More questions:
How does the religion relate to the political structure of the setting? Do the religious leaders have political power as well? (For example, Do they have any say in who runs the country, and how?)
Has the religion changed from what it once was, and if so, why? In response to specific events (an empire falls and its state religion declines, the gods tell their worshippers to take a hike 'cause they're tired of all these whiners expecting them to solve everything), or as a result of changing social structures over time?

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Posted 7 Years Ago

Oo. Good ones.

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M.R. Smith
M.R. Smith

Thereabouts, OH

Hello, I'm Matthew. I write. I read. I work. I eat. My main-stay genres are fantasy, science fiction, horror. I enjoy a good existential crisis every now and then, and, true to myself, I prese..