On Cultures: Religion and Holidays in Fantasy Fiction

Creating a fantasy world is challenging. In urban fantasy and other fantasy and science fiction genres, authors can rely on real religions, cultures, and holidays to add depth to a world. For those of us who choose to build a society from scratch, holidays and religions are often overlooked, cutting out a very important dynamic in the relationships between people of the same culture, as well as the relationships of people from differing cultures.

When I created the world hosting my Requiem for the Rift King series and The Fall of Erelith series, I had a lot of ideas relating to who my characters were and the society they lived in. In The Fall of Erelith, religion plays a huge role in the world and how people act and behave. Holidays, however, were something I didn’t pursue, not until later. When I thought about this, I came to one frightening conclusion:  I was apprehensive about including holidays in my fantasy world because I was afraid of offending people. Holidays are important to people and can bring out extreme opinions. It’s polarizing, and sometimes in a bad way. By including religion and holidays in my cultures, I had to be willing to face the potential fallout from fans and readers.

People care about their beliefs.

And it was for that reason I made a point to be very careful to include religion as an actual part of my fantasy world–not as a backdrop for extremist groups in the story or as an antagonist, but as something that impacts many characters on a daily basis. If real people care about their beliefs, fictional ones do as well.

Religion and its role in a society plays a huge part in how people think and grow. Holidays are a direct manifestation of people’s beliefs.

Sometimes, the lack of religion in a culture is the defining element of that culture. There are so many possibilities. Ignoring the impact of religion and holidays on a culture, I feel, is a mistake. I can’t tell you how to create a realistic culture that fits your world; culture, religion, and society is something that must be balanced. However, I’ll share how I approach creating a society and culture, complete with religions and the holidays birthed by the beliefs of people.

I begin the process by choosing a government type. Society and government are often closely tied together. For example, those who live within a junta will have beliefs surrounding the art of war. They may also have a religion relating to what happens to their souls after death. Consider the vikings; their belief system is closely tied to their war-like culture. The concept of Valhalla is a perfect example of how the culture of a people and its beliefs closely tie in with religion.

More peaceful regions and governments often have more benevolent beliefs. Theologies form their governments completely around their religions. By choosing the government type first, I can often look at a culture and figure out why that type of government works for them.

Then I consider what sort of religion matches with the culture. Piece by piece, a society is born.

Defining a religion is difficult; being honest, I do a great deal of research into real religions and I apply the theories and tenants of these religions to my fantasy creations. I don’t copy a religion from Earth, but I do look at the history of the religions of Earth and apply their development to my worlds.

It’s a very difficult line to walk. I want to create viable religions, but I want to respect the very real religions on Earth. This is part of why creating a fully-rounded culture is sometimes frightening for me. Have I delved too close to a real religion? I don’t want to offend people, but I want to tell stories with well-rounded societies. Once I began adding religions, holidays followed in its wake. People have holidays for many reasons. Some celebrate an event, such as a birthday. Christmas is the obvious example. While it’s a Christian holiday, other cultures have embraced some of the secular elements of the holiday. I considered that too. How would these holidays I’m creating impact those who don’t believe in the religion associated with the holiday? (And here is a key point: many holidays are associated with religious belief.)

When I create a culture, I determine the holidays based on the nature of the worshipers and people living there. A society heavily reliant on farming, for example, will have harvest holidays and planting holidays. These are causes for celebration–not necessarily religious in nature, but tied to their ethics, beliefs, and lifestyles.

When I’m creating a culture and functional society, I’m weaving a tapestry rather than identifying a single thread. Because of this, it’s one of the hardest pieces of worldbuilding for me to implement, as the beliefs of the people are truly what shape who my characters are. I’m not really creating a religion or a holiday, but rather a lifestyle.

And that, I feel, is why it’s worth the effort to create a culture complete with religion and holidays.

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6 thoughts on “On Cultures: Religion and Holidays in Fantasy Fiction

  1. Religion and holidays are rooted deep in human history. I’m writing a story based 850,000 years ago–even then, I find hints of these celebrations.

    Good article.

  2. I actually think this is the biggest problem I have had with a novel I’ve been working on (sort of) for a couple of years now. I have the general plot line and the characters and the world defined, but I specifically avoided going so far as to define their religions. I tried to make all of the issues political and that’s where things ran out of steam. We certainly get worked up about politics… but when you question someone’s belief systems, or put two really, really similar yet somehow vastly different belief systems next to each other, that’s where you get the biggest conflicts and best areas for growth within a story. I’ll be going back to it now with a brand new focus. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome!! If you think about it, politics is nothing more than personal beliefs turned into methods of governance. Something drives the politics… >.>

  3. Outstanding post – you’ve written a great deal to consider. Your research is commendable, and the respect you pay to religion is an ideal we can wish all people would observe, not just in stories, but in real life as well.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I always try to be respectful of other cultures; I find the different ways people live to be exceptionally fascinating, and that interest does really show in my writing, especially my traditional and epic fantasy–I have a lot less leeway in my urban fantasy, unfortunately.

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