religion in fantasy novels

Since no one burned my house down after the Tolkien post, I’m going out on a limb here and talk to you about using religion in your fantasy novels.

Generally speaking, when building worlds in fantasy novels, the religions of your world will be a reflection of the religions here on good old planet earth. So I’m going to offer a few suggestions – take them or leave them:

Know thy religion. If you’re basing your world’s religion on an existing faith thoroughly understand those beliefs. If all you have is superficial knowledge of a religion, it will show in your writing; at best you will look inexperienced, at worst, like an idiot.

Understand the core beliefs. If you are going to create a religion for your world that is based on Islam, I heartedly suggest you familiarize yourself with the Koran. Understand the meaning of the rituals in addition to the spiritual principles of the faith. There is a wealth of material written about different religions, avail yourself of it and do your research. If you are using folklore, understand the culture that produced the folklore.

Avoid stereotypes. Seriously. Muslims are not fanatical terrorists hell-bent on the subjugation of women; Jews aren’t moneylenders; Christians aren’t intolerant Bible thumpers; Wiccans aren’t green tea drinking vegans, etc. Even if you rename the religion in your novel, stereotypes will stand out and detract from your writing. Seriously.

Religions don’t kill. Adherents, who misinterpret and abuse sacred texts, manipulate events for money, power, or prestige, but the actual religion doesn’t go out and kill. Before you start flinging charges about any religion, make sure you understand the historical basis of these conflicts. Otherwise, (you guessed it) at best you will look inexperienced, at worst, like an idiot.

Treat all religions with respect. Whether you agree with a religion or not, respect it. This doesn’t mean you can’t poke fun or have a sense of humor about religion or certain beliefs, but don’t be snarky. You know the difference.

Don’t be malicious. Actually, this is a good rule of thumb for any type of writing, but especially with religion. Don’t write antagonistic stories; your point will become lost beneath your diatribe. Have someone with more moderate beliefs read your story and weed the rage out of your words. I worked for an attorney whose philosophy is: the most reasonable person in the room will win the argument. He is right.

World building is a difficult process; as a fantasy writer you are creating a whole social order, and you want it to be believable. You don’t have to be an expert in any religion, but do have a sound basis for your world’s religions. You want your characters to have depth and be a reflection of their society, then so should their religions.

A few articles to see:

If you’re looking for a checklist of questions to ask when world building, go to the SFWA blog where Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions by Patricia C. Wrede gives you a list of things to consider when worldbuilding. Religion and the Gods can be found under the heading Peoples and Customs.

Joe Wetzel at Inkwell Ideas has a great article with Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide, and a subsequent post, Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Example. These are really handy if your world works with a pantheon. These articles are about creating a gaming world, but the guidelines Wetzel sets out will work beautifully for the writer.

Alex Bledsoe shows you how to put it all together and make it work with his post At the Fiery Altar: Dragon Cult of Burn Me Deadly where he talks about his research for the dragon cult in Burn Me Deadly.

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13 Responses to religion in fantasy novels

  1. Liza Wiemer says:

    Thank you for addressing the issue of religious beliefs on your blog. It’s easy for writers to fall into stereotyping characters based on religion, but as everyone is an individual – complex, diverse – so too is one’s personal beliefs. People have a tendency to bring out the negative – but it’s much more interesting to see complexity with characters. Well done. Thank you.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re quite welcome, Liza. Believe it or not, two things prompted it.
      The first was when I read in the submission quidelines of a publication a statement (loosely paraphrased here) by the editor pleading for writers to stop sending “Christianity is evil” short-stories. The editor said these types of stories would not be accepted, not because of the editor’s religious beliefs, but because there was an abundance of these stories in his slush pile.

      The other was Alex Bledsoe’s thoughtful discussion on how he researched his dragon cult for his latest novel. It really made me think about easy it is to allow our own prejudices to override our stories sometimes. When I was in my early twenties, I had a lot of the same views as some of these young writers, so I understand how easy it is to become side-tracked by our personal beliefs.

      Thanks for stopping by, Liza, I hope you’ll come again!

  2. Michael Kizzia says:

    I think it is more than just religion. The writer must know their character’s belief system, (worldview) even if they are athiests. This is what propells conversation, behavior, how they think of others, really, everything, just as it does with us. If it was in print I would refer you to The Winds of Time where the author had to construct an entire religious worldview from scratch for the Harappan Civilization based on scant archeological evidence, yet it would not have been much of a story without it.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s an excellent point, Michael, and I’m glad you brought it up. I don’t believe a lot of people understand the amount of work that goes into writing speculative fiction, especially in terms of ethical and religious worldviews.

      Thanks for bringing that up!

  3. lawrenceez says:

    Thanks for the post. Two religions play significant roles in my first novel. The protagonist, in fact, is technically an Anglican but has Jewish ancestry through her father. Due to her father’s marrying out his religion and subsequent shunning, the protaganist has never met her wider Jewish family.

    I tried also to capture the ethos of Catholicism, but my limited knowledge of the religion came across in the writing.

  4. Kelly Bryson says:

    Interesting. I’ve noticed how difficult it is to write religion without making it either preachy or condescending. Religious practices and their affect on the characters/plot/interactions, not dogma.
    If you read ‘The Celestine Prophecy’, you know what I mean. Or anything by Ayn Rand.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Kelly, I’ve found myself walking a tight-rope at times, but I’ve also seen some really silly statements made about religions in some of the younger writer’s works that reflect neither the religion nor the characters. Even in fantasy settings.

  5. jenniferneri says:

    In my first novel some of my characters were Jewish and some radical Christians. At one point I realized my priest was a carbon copy. I think that in every way, we have to make certain our characters are unique. Religion can be touchy, so you are correct to stress how important it is not to stereotype.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re absolutely right, Jennifer. It’s easy to slip into stereotypes, especially when dealing with fundamentalists of any religion.

      One thing I try to do when I’m writing a character is to think about the things that are important to that character. Why do they feel as strongly as they do about a given situation? Often, strangely enough, it’s out of some form of love, however misguided. Love can lead to damaging behavior just as easily as hate or lust. That doesn’t make the behavior acceptable, but I believe that once we understand the character’s motivation, we can portray our characters more realistically as human beings.

  6. Christina says:

    Thanks for this post! These are great points to keep in mind as writing.

    • Teresa says:

      Hello Christina, how nice of you to stop by and visit. I appreciate anyone who take a moment to comment. I hope to visit your blog this week too!


  7. So glad you addressed this issue head on. It is a simple, straightforward look at how we should handle religions in our daily lives, not just in our fiction.

    That said, I am at work on a series in which the spiritual beliefs become ever more critical to the plot. I’d begun to wonder how others approached such things in their work. Having read some nifty novels that incorporate such ideals, I knew I wasn’t too off the mark. Your article helped me put the concerns to rest.

    Understanding a person or character’s belief system is necessary to understanding that person’s motivations. It’s simple as that to me.

    • Teresa says:

      The hardest thing I’m finding, Jessica, is how to present the spirituality without sounding preachy or like I’m pushing one religion over another. That’s not the point of the novel, and as a side note: I hope to explore the series through the perspectives of other religions on Woerld later. But in this novel, the loss of belief and re-discovery for Lucian is a very big part of the novel. I just have to work harder at presenting that re-discovery so that it is relevant to anyone no matter what their religion.

      You’re absolutely right in that any well-rounded character will have some kind of belief system, but I’ve seen so much religion-bashing of all kinds lately in some work. Writers with great stories end up with clichéd characters, because they give their minor characters stereotyped behaviors.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!


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