First, when it comes to fantasy, religion is going to exist. Many writers create actual gods which walk among men and say “This is right, this is wrong, I do exist, and these are the curses and blessings you may expect.” If there isn’t that, there will be ancestral worship, animism, or a number of other simple religions at the least. You can even make it complex with a number of rituals, gods, and other facets.
Religion should be reflected by something which exists. These provide the best foundation, and from there it’s pretty easy to manipulate to the needs of the story. There are some obvious differences, though. Sometimes in fantasy the gods can actually exist. It’s possible in science fiction to reveal those gods as not real. Perhaps they were even killed. There are a lot of variations you can use. Just make sure it matters to your story. This could be a main plot line, a foil or parallel, or setting for what is to come.
If religion will add nothing to your story, mention it briefly from time to time, but then move on. Song of Ice and Fire had set up the the religion of R’hllor as early as the tournament when they talk about Thoros running out into the tournament with his flaming sword. We can’t even tell that this was a sign of the religion until season three. I’m only on the second book.
Why wouldn’t Martin tell us about R’hllor in the first book? It didn’t matter. Until we see Melisandre and Stanis, the religion would only detract. He simply left us enough hints so we could see that it existed already on the peripheral. The same as the Drowned God. Until we reach the second book, he really doesn’t matter. So even if you have a religion, unless it means something, hint at it lightly and otherwise ignore it. Just like R’hllor.
In my own story I called upon Judaism and Islam, with a point of origin and a point of extremism. The point of origin is a peaceful religion that believes in true tolerance. From there, one faith believed in the purification of blood. Only man could live (there are other races), and the soul and body must be put through fire. If one does not believe, fire will consume their doubts.
From this, another religion is created. When the Purifiers start taking land through war, some of those who were peaceful take to violence, creating the Followers. They believe they are right and pure, but in time motives are corrupted. Mimicking the Crusades, they become blood thirsty, while alienating the peaceful origin of the religion.
Religion is used to show the nature of man overall and to show the corruption of ambition. It’s also used to move along the story in ways I do not want to tell you quite yet. So use religion in your own to further the story, to show generalizations, and to give information overall. Next week I’ll talk magic.
How have you used religion and what have you come up with for your own stories?