One thing we fantasy authors must occasionally deal with is developing religions within the context of the tale.
Most of what we will discuss here won’t actually make it into the written pages of your tale, but if you don’t have a good understanding of what you are writing about, you will inadvertently introduce discrepancies into your tale.
First, ask yourself “why does this religion matter?” If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong in your tale.
However, when you have a heavenly power-struggle, you have some intriguing opportunities for mayhem.
Are there many gods and goddesses? What is their relationship with each other and how does it play into your story?
If you choose to create a religion as a key plot point, here are some questions to ask:
- How central to the life of the protagonist or antagonist is religion? Is the protagonist a member of the priestly class, perhaps a priestess or priest of a particular god or goddess?
- What does the protagonist gain from following this deity?
- How jealous is this deity?
- What is the protagonist/antagonist willing to do for their faith? Will they die for their deity or is it a more abstract religion?
- The priesthood—who can join?
- Can only the nobility rise in the priesthood, or can anyone with the ability to learn gain power within the organization?
- How do the nobility and the priestly class get along? Do they have a good accord or are they jostling for power?
- And within that religious organization, who has the most power?
- What does that person do with their power?
How important is your religion politically? In Rome, the church was central to their government, in some cases having more power than the ruling nobility. During the Middle Ages, Rome slowly fell under the political control of the Papacy, which had settled in the city since the 1st century AD. In the 8th century, Rome became the capital of the Papal States, which lasted until 1870.
You don’t have to re-invent the wheel here–history is full of great ideas to draw upon.
Consider the Borgias–Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says this about them: Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Savonarola, among others. They were also patrons of the arts who contributed to the Renaissance.
See? Even George R.R. Martin knows that the renaissance offers great opportunity for good plot twists in your fantasy project.
Now let’s examine the political environments of the medieval city-states of Venice, Milan, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, and Cremona. Rodney Stark, an American sociologist of religion, proposes that the city-state was a ‘marriage of responsive government, Christianity, and the birth of capitalism’ as we know it. He argues that these states were mostly republics, unlike the great European monarchies of France and Spain, where absolute power was vested in rulers who could and did stifle commerce.
It has been suggested (in Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge) that by keeping both direct Church control and imperial power at arm’s length, the independent city republics of medieval Italy prospered because their commerce was based on early capitalist principles. The church was still involved in their daily lives, but this slight, deliberate separation of church and state ultimately created the societal conditions that brought about the artistic and intellectual flowering of the renaissance.
And for you, the author, understanding the commerce and economics of your fantasy society is extremely important, so that inconsistencies don’t get introduced. The reader won’t care, and doesn’t want the background info, but you need to know it.
If your protagonists are poor, why are they poor? Is poverty widespread, or is it only the one family? Where is all the money–is it in the hands of the church or is it in the hands of the middle-class? If it’s in the hands of the church–you’ve a good plot-point to work with.
Thus if religion of some sort is an integral part of your work, you as the author must have a good knowledge of what the influence of that institution is, the structure of the priesthood, the power they wield in society at large, how (or if) they control the economy, and how this organization is viewed by the ordinary citizen.
Many authors avoid this altogether, by having only a vague mention of religion, simply mentioning a connection with a particular deity as the reason for the ability to use and control magic.
Others make religion and opposing religions the foundation of their works. How you handle religion in your manuscript is up to you, but if you make it a central part of your tale, I suggest you create a document in which you establish the basics of your religion(s) clearly. Update it as the rules evolve, which they certainly will do over the first two drafts of your novel. During your writing process, refer back to this document regularly.
The reader doesn’t care about those details, and will put the book down if they are included. But if you don’t know what you are writing about, can’t remember what you wrote three chapter ago, and contradict yourself too often, your reader will lose the ability to suspend his disbelief.
Keeping the reader immersed in the tale, forgetting that it is only a fiction is the primary goal every author wants to achieve.