Theology in Fiction

Humans have believed in a higher power for millennia. Much of mythology involves gods. These are entities that are beyond understanding and natural law. They can do things that mortals cannot.

When we, as writers, incorporate gods into a story—done right, it can add to the worldbuilding. Add to the character arcs and strengthen the plot. Done wrong, and it can ruin the whole manuscript.

What is a God?

To define what a god is can be a confusing and humbling experience. It may be easier to describe what a god is not. A god lacks limitations. They can, so to speak, cheat-code life. They aren’t mortal, and aren’t affected by time and space like mortals are.

Of course, this paints gods with a broad brush. Taken from a worldbuilding perspective, a god depends on how authors define it.

Most gods are plot devices that do several things:

  • Enhance worldbuilding
  • Strengthen plot & move the protagonist’s arc along
  • Provide conflict
  • Provide humor

In fact, a magical system can be comparable to a pantheon. Both are divine agencies in their own right. I’ll discuss each point below.

Enhancing Worldbuilding

A pantheon can add to the lore that the protagonist explores. Gods could explain why something happens, or how the world functions. Deities are the scaffold upon which the hero builds a journey.

This can pull a reader deeper into a story. Immerse them in a whimsical, intriguing dimension.

Strengthening Plot

When heroes are discouraged, lost, or even lazy, gods can give them a kick in the rear. Gods help move the plot along when it stagnates or lacks conflict. They should not directly intervene to save a hero, as with a deus ex machina. This is sloppy writing, looked upon ill-favorably by readers.

Instead, have the hero solve their own problems. The gods only provide the groundwork for the hero to act and grow, not act for them.

Providing Conflict

As mentioned above, gods are ideal for conflict. Antagonist gods make excellent villains. They can kill a hero’s sidekick on a whim. Or maybe the hero’s love interest is captured.

With such omnipotent forces of evil, the hero must struggle to overcome them. If a god is immortal, then a hero must rely on other divine resources to conquer it.

This Seizing of the Sword, as seen in Act III of the Hero’s Journey, prepares the hero to face the villain. The journey to obtain the Sword—the weapon to slay the god—has been difficult, and the enemy will retaliate. Conflict rises, setting the stakes high for the final battle.

Providing Humor

Although less common, gods can produce comedy relief at opportune times. This can give the audience a breather from the rising stakes and deep worldbuilding. We often see this in high fantasy, high stake stories or movies like Marvel.

Theological Systems

When designing gods, first consider the system your deities fall under. Monotheism involves a single god; ditheism involves two in a duality system. Polytheism involves a pantheon of several gods. Atheism lacks any gods, or perhaps said deities were killed ages ago.

Here’s more questions to consider:

  • Are the gods absent from the story?
  • Do they interact through visions or dreams? In what way?
  • Do they materialize before the hero and interact physically? How?
  • Will the hero receive a prophecy, boon, or curse from the gods? Why or why not?

In summary, god are a strong plot device for a story. Authors should tailor the theology to the story’s needs. Done correctly, gods will enhance the plot and character arcs, provide worldbuilding, maybe add comedy relief, and round out anything else the author requires.

In fact, authors themselves could be the gods of their own story. An interesting perspective, yes? But that’s a topic for another time. 🙂

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