When I first started writing, I loved fantasy and fully intended to write fantasy of my own. But I encountered a problem. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t just skip mentioning religion in my stories, even if Christianity by such a name was limited to the real world. My characters needed a faith or a creed to base their actions on, yet inventing a religion of my own seemed almost sacrilegious.
Does Fantasy Need Religion?
At first I tried to ignore the need for religion in my stories. But that didn’t make the issue go away. As a Christian, what I believe is a foundation for how I act. I’m not referring to mere traditions and rituals (which may or may not have a place in a story), but convictions that are the bedrock of life.
Everything a person does, consciously or unconsciously, is affected by worldview. Do characters believe that life exists after death, or do they live to the fullest in the here and now because soon they will be gone? Do they believe they owe allegiance to a Creator, or does every man do what is right in his own eyes? Are morals and truth unchangeable, or subject to the wishes of the majority? If I didn’t give my characters anything greater than themselves, what would they have? For what purpose would they fight or love or die? Writing inspiring Christian fantasy isn’t possible without creating a Christian-based religion to accompany it. After all, Christian fantasy is fantasy written from a Christian worldview, and how can one write it without the God who shapes that worldview?
How Do You Create a Fantasy Religion?
Here I hesitated. God is holy. The Bible is absolute truth. The prospect of contriving my own version of a serious matter made me reluctant until finally I realized that I wasn’t inventing my own religion at all. Rather, as allegory, the truth would be copied from the Scriptures. Yes, I would be giving Christian truths new names and a unique view, but Christian truths they would remain nonetheless.
Creating a religion based solely on one’s mind is one thing, but forming an allegorical religion closely based on the Bible is another. There is the King who created all, and the Prince who died to save His people. The Holy Ghost is more difficult to represent, and many writers exclude the third aspect of the Trinity altogether. Others portray Him as a Comforter, a Voice, or a Wind. Events and names may change, but truth is still truth. The King is still holy, yet merciful. Loving, yet just. The Prince still sacrifices His life, and good will always triumph over evil in the end—in the spiritual realm if not the physical. The truth of the Scriptures ought to be mirrored in the religion of our fantasy.
A wide range of concepts can be used to fabricate an allegorical religion. A writer ought to ensure that themes are derived from Scripture, but beyond that is open to the imagination. Aslan is a lion. In other stories, a King and a Prince are featured. In one book I read, God is portrayed in a griffin type of form. His name will change too, from King, to Creator, to the First, to specific names.
There isn’t a hard and fast line of what is appropriate for a fantasy religion and what is not. Carefully balance your ideas with the truth of Scripture and confirm that nothing obstructs or hinders your presentation of the light. For instance, borrowing symbols or elements from false religions or using figures regarded as dark or evil (such as a vampire) would not be a wise or respectful choice.
The depth of religion varies from book to book as well. In some stories, you might have extensive descriptions of priesthoods and sanctuaries and rituals, while in others a Creator is only occasionally mentioned. In Lord of the Rings, religion is not mentioned at all, but something larger than the characters is definitely at work. How in-depth you go depends largely on your story and themes. Some stories will require a more detailed depiction of religion than others. This is as much a matter of personal preference as anything else, but whether religion is a prominent part of your story, or in the background as a foundation for your characters’ behavior, faith should be included in your novel.
Should You Create False Religions?
Darkness offsets the light, whether it be an actual religion or the undercurrent of rebellion against the King. To convey a point or to brighten the light, writers will sometimes create a religion that opposes the truth.
This can be a powerful tactic, but keep in mind the reason for developing a false religion as you plan and write. Whether you replicate a false religion/cult in the real world or invent one of your own, I don’t believe it is wise to elaborate heavily on chants, rituals, and sacrifices. Evil is not written about for evil’s sake, but to contrast truth with lie and show the power of the Creator more fully. Fixating on such darkness is not mentally healthy for either the writer or reader. A general overview and perhaps a few close details are enough for the reader to get the picture. The point of darkness in this setting is to make the light shine brighter, not to dwell in the shadow.
Religion is Integral to World-Building
Each world you create and book you write must have a creed and faith upon which your characters rely. A creed which mirrors the light of Scripture and provides hope and a reason for living. A creed of light to contrast the shadows of darkness. Whether deep below the surface or part of the everyday life of a character, religion ought to be integral to world building in any fantasy universe.