Writing Religion into Fiction

Why hello there and welcome to my first (second?) post of many where I talk about high fantasy. Since I’m going to be spending the remainder of this year rewriting my high fantasy novel, grumbling at my computer screen, and brewing countless cups of coffee to fuel my typing fingers, I thought I’d share with you my discoveries.

I believe in my last post concerning high fantasy I talked about world building (it was a long time ago). I’m going to group everything involving fantasy into one category from now on to keep things organized.

This particular post came to me by way of stubbing my toe–it was the fastest brainstorm session I’ve ever had. I’m one of those strange folk who, instead of swearing, hiss through my teeth and stomp around a lot when hurt. But the idea of religion in writing came to me anyway.

You know what one of my biggest pet peeves is? Let’s say I have an amazing book. It’s the best. It has its own fictional world with an intricate magic system and everyone believes in this afterlife and the all-powerful god who rules it. Then along comes this one character who trips over a root and shouts, “Bloody Hell!” Right. Listen up: your whole world is completely fictional and yet you pull a word from the real world to use? Nope. I close the book.

This has actually happened in the past. I was reading a great book–published by one of the Big 5, no less–and then a character shouts out a curse word from the real world and suddenly my focus is lost. It was disappointing, to say the least.

Rule #1: Don’t use real world curse words if the real world religions don’t exist in your story. It’s not cool.

In order to write an engaging story with a realistic fantasy world that fully incorporates a fictional religion, you need to really sell it. No getting sloppy and pulling words from this land. The last thing a reader wants is to be pulled out of the story because of a small error that could have been avoided if only you’d been a bit more creative.

Swear words are easy to think up once you have your religion created. Don’t know how to go about it? There are a few ways to get started.

Firstly, ask yourself: are there gods? If you’ve built your story around a world without religion, there are countless scenarios to implement. The story could be split between the characters who care little about what’s out there in the universe and the characters who constantly wonder why they exist. Cults could be formed, groups of people who many believe to be heretics. Wars would be fought without faith. Prayers would no longer exist. A godless world forces people to place trust in rulers, and those rulers would become like gods to the people.

If there are gods, the next step would be to define them. Choosing which gods are good or evil is a great way to start. Are they in conflict with one another? Do certain gods live in harmony? All of this is important. It might not make it to the page, but it’s important for you–as the writer–to know these facts, and while writing your choices will eventually work their way into the story.

I like to tie my gods/goddesses to certain races and customs. For example, I have a god who symbolizes death, and another who symbolizes life.

You must also decide if certain groups of people or certain countries worship just one god or multiple gods. In my main province, the people worship several gods, though only two temples are built, as one of those mentioned gods is frowned upon and considered unholy to praise. That’s where the pagans come in. I love the idea of those who oppose normal practices and branch off to their own beliefs. It creates diversity within the story and makes for good history.

Once you’ve decided upon which gods to create, you can move on into implementing them within your story.

Rule #2: Don’t hit the reader with hordes of back story concerning your gods. Weaving religion into your high fantasy should be subtle

If a character is injured, angry, or upset, have them shout the god/goddess’s name in rage. If the character is devoted to their religion, drop a mention of them praying or chanting their god’s name under their breath before doing something dangerous. Have a character leave church in a scene or feel guilty for doing something that goes against their beliefs. They should rely upon faith more often than luck or skill.

A nonreligious character should write differently than a religious one. Someone without faith could speak out against the temple/god whenever religion is mentioned, slander priests, curse more often, rely on luck/skill rather than faith, and/or avoid temples.

It’s also good to remember that gods are–for the most part–mysterious beings.

Rule #3: Don’t be obvious about where the gods live, what they look like, or how they think. If your story is from the perspective of a god living in another realm, then fine, but otherwise keep it simple.

Having a bit of spiritual mystery in your high fantasy is a good thing. It adds to the story. If everyone knew everything about the gods, then faith wouldn’t be such a big deal, now would it?

Let’s talk about religion as an organization. There are temples devoted to the gods and outlying cults devoted to unholy beings, but how do they function?

Rule #4: Don’t explain the inner workings of your religion unless it’s vital to the plot. Let’s not go all Oscar Wilde and take up three pages describing a tree–err, I mean, the sacrificial ceremonies of a temple.

Sure, you can ramble on about how this and that happens inside the temple, but readers will lose interest fast. Unless it’s important, don’t include it. Again, you should use subtlety. If the church collects money, have a character pass by a priest in the street with a cup for collecting coins. If sacrifices are made, have the temple steps stained red or an eerie alter positioned inside. No need for an explanation. Remember: Show, don’t tell.

Now that you’ve acquired some gods and temples, let’s talk afterlives. Where do people go when they die? The people of the church believe they go to an after-world where their god reigns supreme, but what is that world called and how do they qualify? Simply believing in the god could work, or the worshipers could have a set of rules to follow to make it there. Is there fear amongst nonbelievers when they face death? Are characters who have faith at peace when they die?

Most importantly: is there more than one afterlife/world? I have several in my novel, and the worlds exist separately. That means most characters do in fact believe there are several worlds in which to go after death, but the world they end up in will depend upon which god they follow.

Rule #5: Don’t make things confusing. If you’re going for multiple religions, keep things in order.

Make an appendix if you’re creating a high fantasy world. List your gods and religions and customs. This will make everything infinitely better in the long run, and it’s great to check up on something you may have forgotten.

I’ll leave this post the way it is for now. If I think up more to add to it, I’ll come back at a later time. Basically, to summarize: No using real world curse words in a fictional universe if real world religions don’t exist there, no using overwhelming amounts of back story to explain your gods, keep your gods mysterious and otherworldly, don’t explain everything to death, and keep things organized.

Happy writing!

~ Sandra

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