Sunday, January 20, 2013

Guest Post: Using Religion in Fantasy World Building

by Robert Courtland

There are many approaches for weaving religion into a fantasy setting. The one I’ve noticed in many of the books I’ve read is to largely ignore religion. Even though J.R.R. Tolkien essentially created a bible for the residents of Middle Earth to go by with the Silmarillion, there are only casual references to it in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Terry Brooks completely ignored religion in the early Shannara books. On the other hand, in the Dragonlance Chronicles, the gods are crucial players in the story. It goes from one extreme to the other and everything in the middle.

The first thing you need to decide is the role religion should play in your story and your world. Are you going focus on a secular culture, or the other extreme and have one or more religions dominate. Good historical examples of the latter are the Catholic Church in the middle ages, or the Orthodox church in the Byzantine Empire. In the middle you have cultures such as Japan and China with the constant presence of religion in the background. You also have different levels of religion from a simple tribal religion to the very structured Catholic Church. Even when fantasy authors include religion, it is very simplified, usually one religion per culture. In the real world you have multiple religions existing side by side (or at war) throughout history. You have major and minor religions and different levels of acceptance. Most fantasy authors keep it simple, but a more complex structure could work even better in some cases.

And there are two aspects of religion you want to think about; both how it works in the culture and how it works in the story. You might choose to create a powerful structured religion, but it exists in the background. Or you might have a local shaman set a quest in motion and have religion play a major part in the story. There are no end to the combinations.

When it comes to creating a fictional religion, there are many things to consider. From the perspective of time and energy, do you want to create a religion from scratch or pattern it of an existing religions. The Catholic Church has been copied on more than one occasion, as have the native American spiritual beliefs. I don’t recommend getting too close unless you are working on a fantasy with a real historical setting. The next thing to consider is how detailed you are going to get. Sometimes, even if you don’t have a member of the religion among your characters, you still need to flesh it out for story or setting reasons.

Every author handles this differently and their work usually speaks for them. I have two separate fantasy worlds that I’ve created and written novels in and a third that I’m developing and religion plays a different role in each. In my current published novel, Counterpoint to Chaos, I have an Asian inspired world and religion is in the background. In fact so much so that I never even developed it. On the other hand, Nazia Jahangir, my Pakistani Muslim female protagonist has issues with the magical world she has been yanked into and her religious beliefs play a part in the story. Her doubts, worries, and concern are shaped in part by her religious beliefs.

In the world of Ryuu, setting for the five books of my Crystal Deck Saga, there are many divisions in religion among the people. None of the current kingdoms go back more than a thousand years and different regions have different religions. I have not finished creating the different religions. I have completed the first draft of the first two books and created what religion I needed, and that has shown me that I need more depth and a richer religious underpinning to the world. There are no major religions except for what the current king follows and that has changed far to often in the past century for any one religion to truly dominate. So there are many, often with local gods and a few shared gods. None of my characters are particularly religious. I’ve concentrated more on the politics which is driven by outsiders and the danger of a coming invasion. But the gods that do exists lean more to the Greek and Roman models, with each village looking to a particular god popular in that region or related to their economy. Such as a fishing village looking to the regional god of the sea while only a valley or two over it might be the god of the harvest.

In development I have a world based on the Roman Empire at its height so the religion will be very Roman. What was true of Rome was also that it tolerated or even absorbed other religions, so in addition to a pantheon of Roman inspired gods, I need to create the religion of the surrounding regions and show that diversity (if my story takes me to such places). Where in the world of Ryuu I have been winging it, mainly because I wanted the story to dictate how I would use religion, in this Romanesque setting, it is the setting that will dictate the religion.

That about covers it. I could potentially delve deeper and get more specific, but I think this general overview should be sufficient to get an idea of what you need to consider when adding a religion to your fantasy setting and some examples of what I have done.

Robert Courtland writes epic fantasy tales from his home in Colorado at the foot of the majestic Rocky Mountains. His main goal in writing is to bring something new to epic fantasy. In his first novel, Counterpoint to Chaos, he created an Asian inspired setting and inserted a young woman from Pakistan as the heroine. Look for Counterpoint to Chaos at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashwords. Visit Robert’s website for the latest updates on what he is writing.


Michelle 4 Laughs said...

Thanks for this post. It is cause for thought as religion can go far beyond a mere piece of world building.

I use religion as a big part of all my epic fantasy novels. In some ways, the character's religious beliefs turn the story. Religion is a well known cause for war, and I believe it should be no different in fictional settings.

I also enjoy letting the gods be real people with faults and having them occasionally interfere in the plot.

Now with my manuscripts set in the real world I tend to leave religion out of the picture. I guess I find it more fun to set up my own than work with what I've been given.

city said...

thanks for share.