Religion, or the worshipping of a single deity or multiple deities, has been a feature of mankind since Creation. If writers want to make their fantasy novel have resemblance to our world, it is important that religion is a component of the plot (however big or small), even if the main character is not devout. Therefore, this blog post will discuss how to make religion impact the plot.
Two Crucial Tips
It is not enough just to have the central protagonist get on his knees and say some words. That is a quarter-baked version of religion (particularly when considering how rich, detailed and complex religions in our world are). Moreover, that does nothing but bloat the story.
No, to make your religion(s) impact the plot, the writer must make sure:
- That the religion tells us something about the society from whence it comes from; and
- That the religious practices/worship contribute to the narrative and push the plot forwards.
About The Society From Whence It Came – The Seven
In Westeros, six of the seven kingdoms follow the New Gods (also known as The Seven). The Seven Gods are as follows: the Father, the Mother, the Maiden, the Crone, the Warrior, the Smith, and the Stranger.
They appear as a Seven-Pointed Star in imagery, and represent the seven fundamental tenets of life in Westeros:
- The Father is stern, strong and a judge;
- The Mother brings children into the world and nurtures them;
- The Maiden is the beauty who men fall in love with and marry;
- The Crone is the wise village elder (who forewarns those younger than her not to do stupid things);
- The Warrior puts his body on the line and guards the realm, so that its inhabitants can live safely;
- The Smith forges the sword for the Warrior, and builds homes for the people; and
- The Stranger is death, personified (and no-one dares speak his name, lest he come for them or their loved ones).
It is also articulated nicely in this song, which the singer Karliene has done a beautiful version of.
How To Make Religion Impact The Plot
There are many ways in which religion or religious practices can push the narrative forwards. Below are just a few examples.
Use Religion For War
When writers consider how to make religion impact the plot, one way is to make the main character go on a crusade to destroy God or to stop the spread of heresy and false deities.
Example 1 – Lord Asriel Takes On The Almighty
In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, one of the secondary characters (and possible villains) Lord Asriel has his sights on destroying God and the Church. He builds a fortress in another world. Then, he gathers armies of people and creatures from anywhere he can to create his Republic of Heaven.
It impacts our main character, Lyra, as Lord Asriel does everything he can to stop the Almighty from getting His hands on her Dæmon. The net effect of Lord Asriel’s efforts is to have a showdown with Metatron, an angel who made himself more powerful than God.
Example 2 – Sparhawk v The Heretics
In The Sapphire Rose, the last volume in David Eddings’ The Elenium Trilogy, the knight Sparhawk is charged with defending the Faith against the evil god, Azash.
Sparhawk is devoted to the Faith and an honourable man. So, goes on an adventure to stop Azash. The reason for this is because Azash gives His followers great powers at the cost of their soul. (Usually, this drives His followers mad and they undertake torture and cannibalism in His name.) As it happens, the renegade knight Martel, Sparhawk’s friend-cum-nemesis, has now started worshipping Azash. This makes the task personal for Sparhawk.
Use Religion As A Pretext For Other Intentions – King Janus
Religion can be a brilliant ploy to fulfil a ruler’s ulterior motives. This is because he can hide behind the veil of devotion and altruism, whilst really pursuing his own ambitions. This is what happens in Anthony Ryan’s A Raven Shadow series.
In the first volume, Blood Song, the two-faced King Janus (yes, that’s really his name) invades the Alpiron Empire, across the sea. He asserts that the Alpirons are spreading their heresy into his United Realm. But this is not even true, as he privately tells our main character, Vaelin Al Sorna. In fact, King Janus has declared war on the Alpirons to seize their key ports to make his kingdom richer.
Like Sparhawk, Vaelin is an honourable man and part of a Faith-based order that is obliged to do as his divinely-ordained monarch tells him. So, he leads the invasion, which comes at a personal price for him.
Use Religion To Punish Sinners – The Faith Militant
A feature of fundamentalists is that they impose their beliefs upon others. In a narrative, fanatics must impose their ways on a POV Character. This happens to Cersei Lannister in the fourth and fifth instalments of A Song of Ice & Fire.
After being stupid enough to arm the Faith Militant to deal with her supposed enemies, Cersei is herself imprisoned by the High Sparrow on multiple charges. For her sins, she is not allowed to sleep more than an hour at a time (for sinners should not rest easily) until she confesses to her crimes.
But a confession is not enough. The Faith Militant make her undertake a Walk of Atonement through the streets of the capital, shaven and naked, to humiliate her. (The idea is to shame her into complying with the Faith’s ways. But it remains to be seen how she will respond in the books.)
Use Religion For Sacrifices
In the ancient world, many pagan rituals involved animals sacrificed either to thank the gods or in prayer to them (usually to beg to save their people from unspeakable horrors). It is this latter one that writers can use to their advantage in stories if/when an army is heading towards their protagonist.
However, for a story, the writer can up the ante by making the main character not sacrifice an animal, but a person, even his child. Indeed, this could make for a brilliant internal conflict for the main character, as he would have to decide what he values more – his country and his people, or his child.
Possible Example – When The Dothraki Came To Qohor
In the Season 5 History & Lore for Game of Thrones, one of the short-animated films discusses how, in the free city of Qohor, the people pray to the Black Goat. In prayer, they offer up animal sacrifices, but when the city is under serious attack the nobility sacrifices a child. (As the city still stands, it is hinted that these human sacrifices appease the Black Goat.)
Perhaps, when the Dothraki came to Qohor and routed the men before the walls, the nobility sacrificed a child (or many) in the hope of saving their city. Their prayers may have been answered as during the night the Unsullied arrived and held off the Dothraki assault the next day.
Use Religion To Bring Characters Back From The Dead – A Song of Ice & Fire
How to make religion impact the plot? Well, one answer to that question is to use it to bring characters back from the dead. In A Song of Ice & Fire, Khal Drogo, Beric Dondarrion and Catelyn Stark are all brought back from the dead, using either blood magic or the Lord of Light.
Crucially, when these characters have been brought back, they are not who they once were. When Khal Drogo is revived, he is just a breathing shell of his former self; and when Catelyn is resurrected, she comes back as the vengeful Lady Stoneheart, and nothing like her former self. (It is less definitive how coming back changes Beric, but he claims that he loses a bit of himself every time.)
In addition, in Season 6 of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow is brought back to life after Melisandre says a few words. But he comes back pretty much as the same brooding person he was before he was murdered. This begs the question – what was the point in killing him in the first place? Death is the ultimate consequence. Yet, if authors wish to go back on it, then they must have the character return as a different version of his former self. Or else there is no point to killing him.
It remains to be seen if Jon Snow will be brought back in the books, and how death will change him if he is brought back.
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post on how to make religion impact the plot. There are some other examples that I am aware of but have not discussed. These include Dave Duncan’s A Handful of Men series, and Neil Gaimon’s American Gods. The reason I have not included them in this blog post is because I have not read these books.
By all means, check them out and see how the authors use religion in these stories to push their narratives forward.
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