At this point in the creation of your world, there’s a lot of different directions you can go. In fact, the whole project is a pretty open one — perhaps the map isn’t nearly as important for you as the people, and a lot of the ideas come all at once, or in no particular order. By this point, you have the basics, you have a general idea of what your world might be like. It’s time to start getting into specifics: history, religion, mythology, technology, specific locations and people, etc.
Since it’s an important part of my story, I’m now going to focus on religion.
Before you can delve into a topic like religion, you need some basic concepts to work with. What kinds of religion are there in the world? Is there a dominant monotheism? A pantheon of gods that has spread across the whole world, like in the Roman Empire (and many fantasy worlds)? Is there more focus on Powers or on spirituality? Does each nation or culture have its own religion, or have they melded together over time?
If you’re writing any kind of fantasy, do the gods physically manifest on the world? Do they walk among the people? Do they have real power, and use it? Or are they distant, unknowable? Do some people believe they don’t exist, because there is no proof? Maybe it’s science fiction, and what people believe to be gods are actually just powerful mortals. Or aliens. Or AIs.
If there are gods, who might they be? Heroes from myth? Family-pantheons, like the Greek deities? Maybe they are the Greek deities, like in Battlestar Galactica. Are they gods from our world, or will you create entirely new pantheons and religions?
These are important questions, even if your story takes place in our world. If it’s an alternate-universe Earth, perhaps different religions became dominant through history. Even if it’s completely our reality, which real-world religions will be important in the story?
Because of my background with D&D, my instinct when creating a fantasy world is to have a pantheon of gods — the god of love, the god of war, the god of nature, the god of death. In the world of Shadow of Death, though, I also knew I wanted to have a lot of different cultures that formed around unique religions. But the world is also one in which there’s a lot of trade and more of a sense of globalization than a typical medieval fantasy world would have, so I figured there would be scholars that would collect all the gods from all the cultures into one big pantheon (and figure out which gods from two different religions are similar enough to be considered the same god, just with a different name), much like in the Roman Empire. Therefore, as long as I kept in mind some of my ideas for the religions of different cultures, I could actually just create one big pantheon of gods that most people in the world would have at least heard of, if not worship.
Along those lines, I determined that while some people might recognize the whole pantheon as deserving worship, rituals, etc., most people in the world would have their family or cultural religion/god, and follow only those rites, without really acknowledging any other gods. Different people, different cultures, would look at the plethora of deities in different ways. This way, I could have some people be very stringent to a particular cultural religion, and others able to discuss all of the gods. I could have a sense of religious freedom in some places, and strict ideology in others.
I like having my cake and eating it, too.
If you’re really into real-world religion like I am, there’s nothing wrong with taking some inspiration from the real world. There is no possible way that you could come up with a religion as complex and historically-rooted as, say, Judaism or Buddhism, all by yourself. It’s just not possible. Not that the religions of your world need to be as complicated as all that — or, more to the point, you don’t need to know every complicated bit of information about the religions of your world.
But you can certainly look to the real world for examples and inspiration. How did the Greek pantheon develop as it did? Why did the Roman pantheon get so big? Why did the Roman Empire switch to Christianity? How and why did Christianity evolve out of Judaism? What brought about the rise of Buddhism, and how is it different in different places? (Hint: Very.)
Furthermore, think about how the religions of our world affect our every day lives. If you live in North America, then Protestant Christianity is like the most prevalent religion around you. How does that affect everything you do? How does it affect the news? How does it affect other religions? And what about those other religions — how do they affect you? How do they affect Christians? Now look beyond even the contemporary religions — how do ancient religions affect us? I mean, everyone can tell you who Zeus is, and almost no one has seriously worshipped him in over 2000 years.
You don’t need to create a religious identity wholesale. Borrow from the real world. Take Buddhism and dress it up a little differently. Plus, if you do that, you have the opportunity to a) use what people already know about those religions to your advantage, so you don’t need to explain every detail in your story; and b) say something about those religions that can be extrapolated to the real world.
Once you have a general idea where you want to go with your religions, it’s time to really start creating.
There are two major things to do now. One is to come up with the basic outline of most of the religions you might ever need to use. Even if they won’t feature strongly in your story, it’s good to have a general sense of what’s going on in your world — it will make the world all the more believable. Sketch out the whole pantheon, decide what kind of religions each culture will have, and create relationships between the different gods or religions.
The other thing is to figure out which religions will be most important to your story, and then to detail them. If they’re going to feature largely, you need to know as much as you can about them. Who is the deity and what do they represent? What are the beliefs of the religion’s followers? Do they differ from place to place? What is the dogma? Is orthodoxy more important, or is orthopraxy?
There’s another important consideration here — what makes people want to be part of this religion? Is there reward promised in the afterlife, or does the god promise reward in the present life? Do priests help the followers? Is the religion forced on them? Do people worship the god because it is a loving god deserving of worship — or because it’s a hateful god who will bring punishment on those who don’t worship?
What are the practices of the religion? The rites? The holy days? Is it a proselytizing religion?
There are three religions in Shadow of Death that will be important. The most prevalent religion on the Thron Sea is the worship of the goddess Dayna, patron of merchants, trade, travel, sailing, and the Lady of Fortune. There are obvious reasons why she’s important — and obvious ramifications of her prevalence and connection to luck.
Since part of the book is dealing with queer themes, I wanted to explore being gay and religion, since it’s an important issue in the real world. But rather than look at a religion that perhaps simply says “It’s wrong,” and evil, I wanted to look at the place of being gay within a Mother Goddess religion, something like where some new feminist movements go. If the female is the holy birthplace of all life, how do you reconcile loving relationships without women? Is that not against the holiness of nature? I want to explore answers to these questions, so I need to develop the religion around the Mother-Goddess Zean’il (which will be followed by one of the main gay characters).
Finally, of course, I need to heavily develop the religion of the shissir. Moreso than the other two, this one will drive much of the plot. Why does this culture worship a merciless shadow god of death, who refuses to give them power over life? Why is there a schism group and how did it evolve? If their argument is that the god is holding the people back — which, indeed, he appears to be — why doesn’t everyone join the schism group? This was really important to me, because I wanted to have a culture that the rest of the world sees as completely evil, but that when you actually look at it from their perspective, it becomes sympathetic — and even something to defend against the schism group. I wanted to take something that seemed completely (and typically fantasy) black and white, and show just how many shades of grey there really were.
Religion has driven many of the major conflicts in our history, and affects all of our lives every single day. So it’s important to know how religion affects your world, as you create it. Even if religious questions are not a main theme in your story, religion will still colour every culture and character.