So you’re thinking of creating a fantasy race for your novel? As discussed in part one of this series, you choose the physical aspects of your race—you know what the creature looks like 24/7 or what it turns into on certain nights. Besides knowing the breeds of your fantasy race, one important aspect you should consider when creating a fantasy culture is the beliefs of the people. Who or what do they believe in? When creating a fantasy religion, there are a few things to consider.
What’s the core societal structure of your fantasy race? Before you begin to think about how the beliefs are structured, you should know the ins and outs of your culture.
First of all, how is the society organized? Are they a race that’s primarily patriarchal or matriarchal? Look within your fantasy culture’s myths and legends; see how the hierarchal structure is. Do the males inherit or do the females? Is there a reason—such as a god or a mythological prophecy—deeming which gender is meant to rule?
Or perhaps, there’s something physical that only males or females can do—such as, in Piers Anthony and Mercedes Lackey’s If I Pay Thee Not In Gold, only females can use the powers of conjuration—and thus allows them to have great power and influence in the culture. Find out if your own fantasy race has a gender-specific power and see if you can use that within the beliefs to enrich the culture, make it seem unique.
As with any real world religion, each culture has different views on sin and what is considered a sin. In your fantasy race’s culture, what is considered improper or vulgar? Depending on how your fantasy race is set up (hierarchy, the sources of power or income, and the line dividing the different class systems) take a look at the laws and limitations that you put on your race, and try to find something that would mock their systems or be different/odd to them. For example, in a fantasy race that prides itself on honesty and modesty; they may find telling lies, or showing too much skin in public, to be offensive.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what are your race’s opinions on virtue? Again, depending on how your fantasy race is set up, take a look at the laws and limitations that you put on your race, and try to find something that they would find acceptable or good. Things such as kindness or honesty or a physical feature/attribute, for example.
Greek mythology had many gods for many different purposes—Artemis was the virgin goddess of the hunt and of women, Aphrodite was goddess of love, and Hades, the god of death. Likewise, in your fantasy race’s beliefs, a god or gods must serve a purpose.
A few things to find out regarding the purpose of the god or gods in your pantheon are:
Myths. Who are your mythological creatures or people? Did they cause an event to happen— such as when Persephone was bound to the Underworld for six months creating winter, or where they the basis of a creature—like Arachne, a weaver who boasted her skill, was turned into a spider.
What are you fantasy race’s views on creation and destruction? Which force or god is connected with each? Within a pantheon, there always seems to be that dividing line between good and evil, heroes and villains. In your pantheon is there a clear distinction between the heroic gods and the villainous ones or is there a gray area? It’s always good to have a mixture, to add depth and potential tension to the culture.
Speaking about creation and destruction, the powers of the gods should fulfill some key role in explaining how the world works, and how world incidents came to be. Which god or gods control life and death? Love or magic? How do the gods affect each other or connect in your pantheon to explain world events—such as the change of seasons, natural disasters, or the lunar cycle? Give each god a power (or multiple powers) and a reason for controlling that force. Consult your fantasy culture’s myths and legends and try to interweave the culture of the race deeply within this created pantheon.
In your world, your races beliefs can also be shown by the rituals they preform, the holidays and rites of passage they celebrate or things that are shown in your world such as signs and statues. A few things to consider when creating rituals in your fantasy religion are:
Color: The symbolism of color can play a key role in the culture and thus also in the rituals they perform. Different colors also have cultural significance to the reader, such as red for blood and death or purple for royalty. This chart lists different colors and the common associations with each.
Fruit/Vegetables: Fruits eaten or shown during rituals also have cultural/religious significance. Depending on your myths and legends, certain fruits and veggies might symbolize certain gods or invoke certain things such as pomegranates (in Greek myths) symbolizing long life and rebirth.
Symbols: Think of certain symbols such as a sword or a crown and apply them to your culture. Depending on the ritual and the god(s) being called upon, there may be many different symbols attributed to them, such as a loom or a hammer for a god of trade or a shield or arrow attributed to a god of war. If there are many symbols, be specific in the way they are used, and choose one universal symbol for each god to avoid confusion for the reader.
The next topic in our 4-part Fantasy Culture Creation series is “Powers”. Besides creating the physical appearance and beliefs of your fantasy race, it’s important to look over the powers of your race—the magical and physical abilities that can make your race stand out from all the standard races of fantasy and make the creatures your own.