When building a fantasy world, one necessary element is a belief system. Do characters believe in divine beings? Is there a formal religion? Do leaders such as priests hold special powers? Is the belief system part of the governing hierarchy? Is the belief system based on superstition? If so, how did the superstition start?
In medieval times the church collected taxes and received gifts from citizens seeking special favors. Many people believed donations procured a better place for them in the hereafter. Donated land, crops, livestock and more built wealth and holdings for the church making it an ever-increasing powerful entity. What does the belief system do for the characters in your fantasy world?
Relics, Amulets and Sacred Artifacts
Relics, amulets, sacred artifacts and other such charms add an element of magic in fantasy. These special objects are both coveted and trusted. In many a belief system, the religious or superstitious teach that divine power is attached to remains of dead bodies, as well as sacred artifacts or amulets once used in everyday living.
Think of quests for the cup of Christ or the Ark of the Covenant. Those who sought these articles coveted the power they believed it would bring them. In fantasy, the power becomes real as characters wear relics to ward off evil, harm, illness or on the positive side bring good fortune or power. Consider the ring in the Lord of the Rings, or the Ark of the Covenant in the Adventures of Indiana Jones. Fantasy often centers around a quest or a battle for control or ownership of such an article and the power it provides.
Pilgrimages, Quests and Adventure
Entire fantasy novels are written around quests and pilgrimages that set out to locate long-lost sacred articles. The quest itself is an act of faith that supports the importance of the belief system within the fantasy world. What is the motive for the belief? Is it based on what the character will receive (money, power, etc.) or to better the world? Such scenarios lead to epic quests. If the power sought falls into evil hands....
In the fantasy novel Windwalker, relics and artifacts stored within the Fortress of Stone open the door to free an entire civilization from captivity. However, the protagonist not only has to find the secret location of the mythic structure, but must also have enough faith to use the power and battle the influence of the mage. Finding the artifacts is only part of the story.
History Of The Belief System
Fantasy writers develop a bit of history and backstory even for a belief system. Why do characters believe what they believe? Over time, rituals like religious pilgrimages can degenerate to a pale rendition of the original. Consider H. G. Wells' novel The Time Machine. The simple Eloi population blindly paraded into the underground caverns when sirens blasted. Without question, it's what they believed they were to do. Underground shelters originally designed to protect, and sirens meant to warn although no longer needed became part of a distorted belief system.
Fantasy writers can develop plots based on an individual or group of individuals returning to the belief system in its purest form, or seeing it for what it really is. It's another form of good versus evil. What effect does the adulterated religious activity have on the population? What happens when people return to the true belief system? Is there a middle ground?
Whether fantasy characters are based on ancient druids, diviners, fortunetellers, oracles, monastic priests, or stargazers, mystical orders must have a base of rules to live by. Whether it's divine law or man-made is up to the writer.
Do your mystical or religious characters take vows? Are they required to take part in an annual pilgrimage? Are they obligated to serve the King or government? As an example, consider the Knights Templar (a religious military order) founded in Jerusalem in 1118. The Templars protected pilgrims from the Turks on the trip from the coast inland to Jerusalem. They served king and the church, took vows and were part of the military. History provides great resources and fantasy knows no bounds.
Creating a Unique Fantasy Belief System That Works
To make a unique fantasy belief system work requires:
1) characters who believe
2) those who don't
3) those who will come to understand or reject the belief system
Fantasy writers decide whether or not characters who hold to the belief system are serving good or evil. It doesn't have to be upfront information, but just like any aspect of fantasy writing, the belief system needs to make sense to engage the reader, because readers determine what they believe based on the provided information.
Adding an element of surprise like having the character step outside preconceived bounds adds entertaining value to keep the reader reading.
Small doses of detail added to the plot throughout the story guide readers to understand the hows and whys of the story line. It's the fantasy writer's job to make a believer out of the reader.