World Building Tips: Religion

The stoic, pious monk, the drunken priest, the hypocritical, wealth-grabbing clergyman, the tortured templar trying to keep his vow. These and other religious tropes are rampant in fantasy fiction it seems, with a relatively common theme; these are all side characters, whose religiosity is either mocked by the author or relegated to the sidelines. When was the last time you read a fantasy story in which religion played a large role, not only for the story as a whole, but for the main character’s personal journey? John and I are not the most well-read of individuals, but it certainly does seem that most main characters are of the “enlightened” variety, above the mundane, backwards, stubborn, rigid, and foolish laymen who believe in “the gods.” If there is any faith element, it is mere background noise most of the time, even if “the gods” end up being undeniably real, or even if there is literal magic in the world.

Doesn’t this seem odd? The character is in a pre-renaissance society, where literal magic exists in an undeniable and clearly visible way, and they’re all like “religion is the opiate of the masses, man” (takes a hit from his medieval e-cig).

Now of course we don’t all have to have pious main characters who take the prominent religion of their culture super seriously. But blending religion intelligently into your story can go a long way toward adding flavor to your world and depth to your characters, even if the story doesn’t revolve around a religious order as such.

How can one do this? Well, here are a few tips:

  1. Think about origins - How did your religion start? If magic is involved, was it an attempt to explain this magic? Remember too that even the natural can seem supernatural to early societies. How much more so would magic (and those who can use it) be deified, demonized, worshipped, etc.? What structures would rise up around these primitive religions, and how might they change over time as other societal structures arise? How would the rise of agriculture, city life, centralized states, rival interpretations of magic, and other factors affect the development of the religion’s interpretation of the world up until the point at which your character is interacting with it?

  2. Morality - Most religions have a moral element to them, and yet this may be the least explored aspect of religion, particularly in fantasy. Moral codes have existed for all of human history, and for very good reason. If people are running around killing and robbing one another, it’s going to be difficult for society to function. But it’s not just the big stuff like killing and stealing; things like taboos against sexual activity outside marriage also had an important purpose (and we’d argue still do). Such taboos aren’t simply about ruining peoples’ fun; instead, they can be treated as societal wards against the destitution of single motherhood in a pre-industrial society or perhaps a denial of one’s own corporeal urges for the eventual payoff of experiencing sexual activity solely with one’s lifelong parter. Keeping, or striving to keep, moral codes such as this can be very fulfilling to a character who takes them seriously, or very soul crushing to a character who strives but fails to follow them. Even if you as the author view such moral codes as antiquated and backwards, remember that such taboos and moral codes were common in societies throughout history. Perhaps your characters would take such things seriously, even if you don’t. Really explore this possibility without judgement, or else this will definitely come through as shallow straw-manning in the final product. I use sexual taboos as only one example of many potential examples because that’s one element I’m incorporating into my story at the moment. Consider not only your own attitude toward the moral teachings of your religion; consider the character’s attitude first and foremost. Even though it’s not real to you (you’re making it up after all), it has to be real to them.

  3. More Than Karma - Binary morality systems are boring. You know what I’m talking about: X action is good, and gets you closer to “heaven” while Y action is bad and gets you closer to “hell.” This is not only inaccurate when it comes to most major religions of our world, but makes for extremely shallow moral messages in a story. Let me give an example of how you can make the morality of your religion more interesting. John and I are Christian, and so we’ll use that as an example since it’s what we know best. In Christianity (PCA) your actions do not “color” your soul as it were, adding to some divine tally of “goodness” or “badness.” Instead, the causation actually goes the other way. Actions don’t make us bad, we are inherently sinful and therefore perform sinful actions as a default. However, because of the redemption offered to us by Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, those who have accepted this free gift are “covered” by this sacrifice. It is not so much that our sinful actions are forgiven, but that our sinful nature, the source of the problem, is replaced with a new, clean nature. Also, because we are all created in the image of God, even though we are fallen and inherently sinful, performing actions colloquially considered “good” is still possible for anyone, obviously. This dualistic nature of inherent sinfulness combined with divinity is the central conflict of the soul in Christianity, not some struggle to keep all the commandments perfectly all the time so that we can save ourselves. “Saving” ourselves through our actions is impossible; it is only through the free gift of Grace from God that we can be saved, and it is out of love and appreciation for this gift that we strive to be “good” even if we fail at times because of our fallen nature. Again, just an example of how your can avoid the simple binary morality of basic karma.

  4. Magic Melding - Take full advantage of incorporating religion with fantasy by melding it with your magic system! Sure, there may be magic users who worship themselves as it were, or perhaps they see it as an inherent property of the world like gravity. But again, in fantasy we’re often dealing with pre-industrial societies that have always tended to be highly religious. Don’t you think that literal magic would be considered a divine gift, or a sign from the gods? Religious orders could rise up in parallel across different nations and continents that have alternate explanations about why magic came about, different rules about who can use it and how, different ways of accessing their powers, whether through prayer, concentration, meditation, incantation, etc. Vary it up. Even if the magic is the same everywhere, make the religious connotations of that magic different between different cultures. Or maybe the magic has been colored or shaped by the religious practices of the different sects, different abilities emphasized. Don’t gloss over the moral and faith elements of religion in doing this, but if you’re going to have magic, it’s going to be pretty hard to ignore the connection between the divine and the arcane.

These are just a few thoughts, not an exhaustive examination. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and I’m sure we’ll be exploring this topic much more in the future, as it’s a big part of our personal lives, and a big part of what we find interesting in stories. As always, don’t let your religion world building distract you from the story and your first draft. Keep writing! You can always come back later to decide what varietal of wine is used in the cleansing ceremony practiced by your monastic order.