NaNo Prep: A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Building a Fantasy Religion

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We’re deep into NaNo Prep Season, and this week, we’ve asked participants to share their thoughts on how to craft great plots and build immersive worlds. Today, columnist and ten-time participant Dianna Gunn offers three tips for creating an authentic religion in your speculative fiction:

So
you’ve decided to write your NaNoWriMo novel in a fantasy world. This
is a great idea! Fantasy is only limited by your imagination, and
there’s always a sensible way to work in ninjas when you get stuck.

But
creating your own world isn’t as easy as it seems, which is probably
why you’ve come here seeking aid. After all, it’s almost halfway to November and your planning… well, let’s not talk about the state it’s
in, shall we?

I’ve spent an entire decade building worlds at record pace for NaNoWriMo,
and I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. Today, I’ll show you three of
the most powerful tricks I’ve learned for quickly building a
believable fantasy religion, since religion is a driving force in
most fantasy worlds.

Follow
these three steps to create a fantasy religion on the fly:

1. Choose
between monotheistic and pantheistic.

Monotheistic
religions feature only one god or goddess; there is usually also an
opposing devil-type force, though not always. Pantheistic religions
follow many deities, often both gods and goddesses.

Choosing
a monotheistic religion is usually easier, and allows you to easily
draw parallels with Judeo-Christian religions. Developing a
pantheistic religion requires more work, but there are several ways
to speed up the process, and you can draw parallels with many
different mythologies.

2. Draw
on familiar archetypes.

The
easiest way to make a religion’s gods and goddesses believable is to
take familiar mythological archetypes and modify or expand on them.
This allows you to give a clear image of your fantasy religion with a
few well-placed images.

Using
familiar archetypes can also save you a lot of time up front, since
you already know what you like—and hate—about those archetypes.
For example, I like the common association of fire and war, but I’m
tired of hyper-masculine fire gods. So I created Taelanna, a fire
goddess closely associated with the phoenix, for my book Keeper
of the Dawn.

What
religious archetypes do you love? What archetypes drive you crazy?
Start with these and fine tune them to fit your world.

3. Write
a creation myth.

At
the root of every great religion there lies a creation myth: a story
that attempts to explain not only human origins but also human
nature.

The
nature of these myths has a huge ripple effect on your religion, and the rest of the world you build. For example, if
your religion believes a goddess created the world on her own,
they’ll likely respect women more than if they believe humanity was
created by a male entity. If your characters believe in a creation myth that casts women
in a purely supporting and reproductive role, their world will most likely be plagued by systematic
misogyny.

If
you only write one myth before starting your novel, make it the
creation myth. You can find plenty of inspiration for mythology—and
its impact on your society—in Crash
Course World Mythology: Social Orders and Creation Myths
. Once
you’ve got an idea, give yourself a solid half hour and free write
the myth—you can refine the details after NaNoWriMo!


Bonus: Use
an element of this creation myth as the basis of a common prayer or
curse. A few of these little details sprinkled throughout your story
can make it look like you’ve done more world-building than you
actually have, bringing your setting to life.

These
three steps will help you create a solid background religion, but if
religion is going to be a major part of your story you’ll want to
develop it more. If you want to build a detailed religion, I’ve
compiled a special world-building
resource list for fantasy science fiction writers
with many
resources dedicated to building fantasy religions.


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Dianna Gunn is a ten year NaNoWriMo participant with a lifetime word count of over 1.3 million (and that’s just during Nanowrimo!). Her debut YA fantasy novella, Keeper of the Dawn, came out in spring 2017 through The Book Smugglers Publishing. She blogs about mental health and writing on her blog, The Dabbler, and runs two writing advice columns at Write Plan Editing. Between columns you can find her ranting about anything and everything on Twitter @DiannaLGunn.

Top image licensed under Creative Commons from chiaralily on Flickr.