Just as with world building in general, there are two ways to approach designing a fantasy religion.
The first method is the ground-up method, which we’ll call the Organic or Improvisational Method, because the details emerge only after you start writing, and only as the story demands them.
For example, when someone in the story gets married, it means you have to invent a wedding ritual, some kind of officiant to perform the ceremony, and a location for it to take place. These might be briefly mentioned or elaborate in their depiction, depending on the needs of the story, but each detail — what the bride wears, who the vows are spoken to, the religious icon hanging over altar — suggests something to the reader about the religious culture of your setting without requiring a comprehensive doctrine of beliefs or hierarchal breakdown.
As someone who gets impatient with the pre-work of novel writing, this is how I usually approach most aspects of world building. To be frank, it’s just more fun! There is a great freedom in the organic method, because I’m caught up in the flow of creativity and ideas spring from one another without effort. My “on the fly” inventions are typically much more creative than anything I can come up when I’m focused on designing a whole system. It’s a left brain vs. right brain issue, I suppose — the right-brained storyteller is poetic and imaginative, while the left-brained designer is organized and systematic.
There are plenty of drawbacks to improvising, though. You might skip over something essential, find yourself facing contradictions when your spontaneously generated ideas don’t agree with one another, or simply forget what you wrote fifty pages ago (especially if you’re not good about keeping notes, and face it — no one using this method is great at note-taking as they go).
Without forethought, your spontaneous ideas might suggest a religious framework that is at odds with the core beliefs of your characters, with your story or with your own beliefs. It’s important to remember that religion isn’t just set dressing. Religion (or the lack of it) is a fundamental piece of how people interpret and engage with the world, and it’s an often overlooked aspect of character design. Depending on the scope of your story, it may not be important…or it may be crucial to resolving the plot and character arcs you have devised.
That’s why most epic and mythic fantasy — stories with gods and god-like figures and that challenge the nature of the fictional world, for example — demand a more organized approach to building a religion. But even stories that aren’t mythic or epic in nature can benefit from a little planning ahead when it comes to religion. This is our second method, the top-down method, which we’ll call the Structured method.
I know, it sounds pretty dry. I can feel my attention wandering already. But just because it’s systematic doesn’t mean it has to be exhaustive (or exhausting). It just means taking some time before you start writing to define the basic religious framework for your world, just like you probably define the basic geography, economy, history and magic systems for your world. You can still fill in the details as the story unfolds, but those details will all be consistent with the larger picture and you don’t have to include things that won’t impact your story. If there’s no wedding in the story, there’s no reason to invent a wedding ritual. If the origin on the world isn’t relevant to the story, then you don’t have to write a cosmogonic myth. Sure, you can absolutely invent those things if you want; it depends on how much time you want to spend, and I’ll be delving into those more specific topics later in the series.
But at the very top of the of the Structured method of designing a fantasy religion is a fundamental, not-so-philosophical question: What is the nature of god?
I’ll dig into that question from a practical standpoint in the next entry in this series!