Religion in Fantasy


 Another blog prompted by the raptor (he should start writing them). Here’s a link to a video of a panel on religion in fantasy writing at a fantasy convention. It’s an hour long, so I’ve summarized what I think are the interesting points below:

  1. Writing religion in a fantasy setting has a significant road-bump to get over, which is that readers will naturally bring their own prejudices to bear. These prejudices are not informed by your fantasy world, and the necessities of life there, so you somehow need to address this clearly.
  2. How does magic impact your religion, and particularly your characters’ view of miracles?
  3. How does your religion help the characters interpret their world?
  4. Unlike real life, religion in stories generally has to make sense and be consistent. It also needs to be fully integrated with your world-building.
  5. Less visible deities are more scary and majestic (like Jaws or Dracula, who are scarier in their absence). Fear of the invisible is more potent than fear of something you can see.
  6. If your deity is visible in the book, you need some other element to build uncertainty and tension on. e.g. motivations, morals, predictability, etc. N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was recommended as an excellent example of writing religion with highly visible deities.
  7. Religious fanatics make great bad guys because they really believe they’re doing the right thing. Your antagonist should always believe he’s the protagonist (whether religion’s involved or not).
  8. Most religions spawn from some great social upheaval, and then grow organically according to what the new social order requires.
  9. People all think about their religions and beliefs in slightly different ways. Your characters should too.
  10. Be aware of your own baggage when you’re religion-building. Make sure that it isn’t impacting in a negative or preachy way.
  11. Understand how the rest of society operates and build this into the religious approach. What are the social morals, and why did these evolve? Are they generated by religion, or vice versa? What does the culture enjoy or focus on? The example given is the Chinese religion, which has a Celestial Bureaucracy and can remove gods from office.
  12. If it’s empirically proven and understandable, then there’s no need/room for faith.
  13. Faith and belief are different. Faith is mystery; belief can co-exist with fact. I don’t have faith in this table, but I believe it exists.

I find religion-building as fascinating – if not more so – as world-building. It informs so much about your society, your characters’ actions, and is intimately bound up in the history of the country/world. I also have quite strong views on religion as a person, and Corpus is in fact deliberately addressing some of these, including the impact of fanaticism and what people will do in the name of faith, and the dangerous importance of a national Church. I’m aware that this potentially goes against point 10, but I’m hoping it’s in a positive way and besides, one of the reasons we write is to explore things that drive our thinking.


2 responses »

  1. I think Number 7 is the most important thing to remember for nearly any time you run afoul of the “So why is someone doing this?” problem.

    While it often relies on belief, Religion always needs a reason for people to do it. If that’s fear of persecution, need for comfort or answers, a sense of tradition or even tangible magical benefits.

    Any time I read a character who’s following a religion for no reason I can discern I always feel that they’re a bit off. Yes Crazed Cultists are no longer reasonable, but they had a good reason for getting into that cult at the time. Similarly any fanatic should have a deeper reason for their fanaticism beyond just ‘Being Right’, whether it’s a need to feel superior or a ceremony that let them ‘touch hands with god’ that washed away all doubts.

  2. I find interesting that sci-fi, even more than fantasy, tends not to engage with religion. One of the reasons I find Julian May’s Galactic Milieu books so fascinating is that one of the ideas she extrapolates on is a particular theology. This unusual approach makes the characters’ religion directly relevant, and means that challenges to their faith and beliefs become part of their character arcs. To me, this stands out as much for its rarity as for the way it’s done. But if we can use fiction to explore particular technological and philosophical ideas, why not religious ones too?

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