Faith is grounds for solace and conflict, healing and harm, enlightenment and ignorance. It’s an essential element in fantasy, science fiction, and other kinds of speculative writing. Figuring out how to craft your own is a fun way to dig deeper into your world.
Bust Out the Creation Myths
In the beginning… someone or something made a whole lotta stuff, and chances are folks in your fantasy world aren’t all putting it down to science. So, what happened?
Our world has hundreds, if not thousands, of creation myths, some similar, some surprisingly unique.
To create your own, start with two elements: an action and a creature doing the action. Maybe giants playing the region’s ball-and-net sport let their little brother play, and he kicked six balls into the sea before they kicked him off the team. Thus, six islands exist in the vast sea.
Maybe the land was always there, but there was only a little fresh water in the world and no sea. Then a goddess had her heart broken after she helped her lover fashion all the creatures on land, and she cried so much she filled the sea. That’s why it’s so treacherous for human sailors, who she loves and hates in turn.
Who runs things? Is there a trained religious leader for every community? Is there an overarching structure to channel funds, news, and developments? Not every religion is highly organized, and organization looks very different between faiths. A Wiccan coven is organized, but not the same way a Methodist church is.
Are there monasteries, hermits, prophets, wise-women, and wandering priests? How do they get along with each other? Do they come from different branches of the same faith, or do they come from different religions entirely? Ask lots of questions as you work, and don’t ever be afraid to apply some creative answers.
Look for Ritual in Daily Life
Consider how your religion, your family’s religion, and your friends’ religions appear in daily life. Did your parents say a prayer before meals? Were you not allowed to eat specific foods during holy days? Did you receive some kind of blessing at bedtime? Some homes have religious iconography, scriptures, or charms incorporated in the design or as part of the decoration.
You don’t have to rely on your own fail to invent something new, but it’s important to see the little ways it plays into daily routines before you flip into creative mode.
Give your characters’ religion tangible elements. Do they have to stir their tea a specific way? Maybe they greet the dawn with a prayer. Religion affects clothing, hairstyle, and diet, too.
Ritualize the Mundane and/or Extreme
Faith is a matter of extremes. It can be extremely mundane, so innocuous you rarely notice it. But it can also rationalize tremendous spectacle, great sacrifice, and incredible projects. Not everyone experiences the same faith the same way, either. Catholics, for example, who live in Rome have a very different experience than Catholics living on a rural farm in the wilds of Montana. Travel may change how your character perceives their own faith throughout the story.
The more ready money, the bigger religious spectacles will grow. Think of soaring cathedrals in the heart of European cities versus the small, white-washed chapels on remote islands.
Ultimately, faith is an expression of a culture’s deepest values. The way individuals interpret holy passages show what they believe more than what the original author (who has probably been dead for centuries or millennia) originally meant. Your characters may not thank you for religious complications, but your readers will, and your characters should be used to a bit of suffering by now, anyway.
Have you ever invented a religion for a story? How did it change the narrative? What tips do you have for other writers diving into myth and ritual?