Creating a believable religion for a fantasy novel is hard. Not everyone wants to do it, which I understand! But some of us are crazy enough we want to make a religion for the people of our world to follow. Unfortunately to do that, you need to know a lot about religion. Lucky for you, I went to a private school where religious education was a must and I know more about religion than I ever care to! I’ve comprised a small list of common themes throughout religions to help you get started. Seeing these common occurrences could spark your brain into creating a beautiful (or deadly) new religion for your characters to follow. These are only suggestions and by no means does your religion have to contain them, they are just similarities across the board most religions seem to hit upon.
1.) Creation Story: From God creating the world in seven days to Uranus forcing himself upon Gaea and getting his manly bits chopped off, there is always a story behind the way the world was created. Why the sky is up above and the Earth is down below and why humans walk on Earth instead of up in the heavens? When thinking about your Creation Story, pay close attention to why the world is the way it is. Why are there mountains in one area instead of another? Did a baby God decide to go nuclear and dig a hole, depositing rocks in one location? In the Shinto religion of Japan, the islands were created when the Gods stuck a spear into the ocean and stirred. Your creation can be anything you want it to be.
2.) The Flood: From the Epic of Gilgamesh where the world was flooded because of his stupidity to the story of Noah, nearly every religion has a story about a flood. Scholars believe this is because there was an actual flood humans lived through, most likely relating to glacial melt after the last Ice Age. In your story, it doesn’t have to be a flood, it can be anything you want it to be, perhaps a giant battle between good and evil which leaves a particular part of the country changed forever. In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar world, there is a place where all the trees and grass have been burnt away because Lavan, a man Gifted with Fire, made fire rain from the heavens and it destroyed that part of the country. This is more along the lines of explaining some of the quirks of your landscapes in a more supernatural light. It also provides a good opportunity for a cautionary tale.
3.) The Trickster God: While this person isn’t seen in more recent religions such as Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, s/he is seen in almost every ancient religion. From Loki in Norse mythology (the most well known trickster) to Veles in Slovic mythology to Iktomi (the spider god) in Lakota mythology, the trickster is the main god you can count on to mess stuff up. They are often neither good, nor evil, more of just neutral, the “I am going to do what I want” kind of gods. Loki is blamed for Ragnarok when he releases Fenrir, Veles is responsible for killing the Earth Tree in Slavic mythology which causes the season to turn into winter. However, each god has their good points, Veles protected cattle and held off vicious thunderstorms, Iktomi was responsible for creating language and stories, and even Loki occasionally assists the other Norse Gods in protecting Midgard.
4.) The Prophecy: As trite and cliche as it might sound to add prophecy to my list of religious needs for a FANTASY novel, it is nearly a universal thing in religions around the world. Christianity predicts the second coming of Jesus, Sakyamuni Buddha predicted twelve years after his perinivana he would be reborn and spread his teachings, and even in the legend of Arthur, he is suppose to return to save the world . Prophecies are often part of religions as they often lend hope to people, promising a better day will come. While I may stay clear away from your main character being the prophecy’s hero, it is an interesting idea to consider for your novel.
5.) Doomsday: Almost every single religion I have ever studied has a doomsday where basically the entire world is going to go to shit for one reason or another. In Norse mythology, it’s mostly Loki’s fault, in Christianity, it’s our fault. Either way, doomsday will come and only the faithful will be saved. There are so many ways for the world to end (Fenrir ate the moon in Norse mythology), so don’t limit yourself to any one way in particular. It’s your world, destroy it as you see fit.
There is nothing saying you have to even mention any of this in your novel. This is more for you to create so you know what your characters are worshiping and why. Having such an in depth understanding of your religion helps to understand the structure of your world. By knowing what your characters believe about their world, you will understand their motives better.
Hope this little breakdown has helped you in creating your religion!
Have fun destroying your world!