I’m gonna be honest. My main focus when I created the religion for Of Rust and Gold/The Saints’ Song series was the political side and the hierarchy of positions within the institution. The actual belief system was not something I fleshed out until maybe months into writing the story. It’s actually surprisingly easy to get away with the bare bones of what makes a religion without question. Again, not an expert. But I have a fully realized fictional religion now. More than one if I want to brag, so I can talk about it.
Is It Real?
I mean. Yes. It should be real to the characters who believe in it. I find in most fantasy stories I read their religion is undoubtedly true. Sometimes their gods are actually interacting with the characters or they worship literal magic or something but I write low fantasy so usually in my head the things I care about most is
- Religion as an explanation for the unknown.
- Religion as an institution
- How much power religion holds over people
I read a lot of books about medieval Christianity (wild by the way) and corrupt popes. The amount of demon babies, flagellants, and people going on about the genderless spirits of angels is something we all greatly lack in our daily lives. Basically though, when something happened that people could not explain they often turned to religion or folklore. There’s a storm so god’s angry or Billy’s acting weird so clearly he was replaced by a mystical creature. A lot of the time, since religion in fantasy is real it just explains the things that are known and true about the world but I personally like it still being around to fill in gaps in things a community may not have discovered yet, or just blatantly refuse to believe because they already have an explanation that works for them.
Back to my buzz words of making a world feel full and lived in: Characters can have conflicting beliefs about the same things. Or y’know, why aren’t there more fantasy atheists? Religious branches and sects of the same core also make things feel more realized and for me it makes it easy to start talking about the institution if it’s broken into so many different parts with new belief systems popping up under the same umbrella.
I write political fantasy so religion as a power is what is most interesting to me. How much does it control? Is there a pope-like figure in the fantasy world? Do they crown and uncrown monarchs or play with worldly politicals or cause holy wars? How much significance is religion given? Does more than one nation share the same religion or similar figures? What parts of life does religion control?
Ya know. Things like marriage and wedding ceremonies or education or maybe it’s just the place for local gossip.
If there are different religions within a setting, do they overlap at all? How, if at all, do they interact with each other?
I think it’s also important to ask what role it’s supposed to serve in the story.
Alright. I’ll Talk About Holidays
Yes. I know all holidays aren’t religious but for non-religious holidays we can just jump back to creating a history and deciding what a society/culture prioritizes. Or look at their environment. What gets them to celebrate? The Escana Empire cheers on the end of the hurricane season with festivals and parties. Oskya celebrates the victorious end to the Republic of Abenland.
Now, religious holidays. I often find myself coming up with what a religion celebrates as a gateway to me figuring out what they worship. And what holidays are more widely celebrated vs ones that are considered for the strongly devout? And if more than one country worships the same religion, how do the cultures put a different spin on the same holiday?
I said in my last post that the Escana Empire recently switched religions and as such a lot of their old holidays they just slapped new names on or switched out who or what they were celebrating because they’ll be damned before they lose an excuse to party. The abundance of festivals and drinking is a vast difference than the more stern and subdued celebration of the same holiday in another country.
Really holidays can be anything from celebrating important achievements, birthdays or special dates relating popular figures, times of year, shared religious dates, and then I just decide based on the culture I’ve built a base for how the people within it are most likely to interact with the idea of said holiday.
I was specifically told to mention this. So I will. I usually model my calendars off a religious one where dates are recorded after some significant event in the popular or most powerful religion. In Of Rust of Gold, all months are named after 12 Saints (and one extra month for New Year’s day) and the years are recorded after the date the Saints had a war and left humanity. And of course, any time before that is simply recorded as being before the current age. I don’t think calendars have to be produced from a religious institution, however. I just found this the easiest to adopt for my own world building and for the purposes of my story.