I’m so happy to be bringing you a fantastic guest post from author ML Wang to celebrate the blog tour for The Sword of Kaigen, an epic fantasy with a martial arts twist! Read on for the author’s thoughts on creating fantasy religions…
First off, thank you so much to Asha for being part of The Sword of Kaigen Blog Tour and having me on for a guest post!
Ryuhon Falleya: Creating a Fantasy Religion
Religion is uniquely difficult to write in fantasy, especially while trying to avoid one-to-one comparisons to real-world religions. A fictional religion has to gel with the beliefs, values, morals, and motivations of the characters who practice it, while also feeling bigger and more ancient than the believers themselves. You can’t have characters with a Christian-like moral compass practicing a religion that doesn’t support that system of ethics. If you want your fantasy characters to hold certain values and worldviews those ideas should be baked into their religion if not accounted for elsewhere in their culture or personality.
There are two approaches to creating this gel. One way is to create the religion first and then adjust your characters’ values to fit into it. The second is to start with the characters and then build a plausible religion around their values. I think that realistically, a writer ends up doing some of both. Certainly, with the Ryuhon Falleya religion of The Sword of Kaigen, I did a lot of both.
The characters, in this case, pre-existed the religion; their personalities and character arcs were established through my previous works, though the finer points of their motivations remained malleable. The religion of Ryuhon Falleya (which we will hereafter call by its shorter name, Ryuhonya) began with the values and motivations of the characters. Then, once the religion had developed enough to take on a life of its own, Ryuhonya, in turn, influenced the characters, the way they experienced the world, thought in metaphor, and rationalized their lives.
I originally planned to have the people of Shirojima practice Nagino Falleya (hereafter referred to as Naginoya), the dominant religion in the Kaigenese Empire. Naginoya is a loose adaptation of the original Yammanka Falleya, a West African-inspired polytheistic religion brought to Kaigen by missionaries from the Empire of Yamma. Practitioners of this original Falleya worship a primary God called Kiye, a primary Goddess called Nyaare, and their sixteen demigod children, from whom all humans descended. Ultimately, Kaigenese Naginoya accepts the gods and narrative of Yammanka Falleya, with the story adjusted to place more importance on the human ancestors, Nami and Nagi (thought to be the ancestors of the Kaigenese), elevating them from the status of demigods to gods in their own right.
I wasn’t far into the first draft of The Sword of Kaigen when Naginoya started to feel wrong on the story. It still made sense as an Empire-standard religion, but it was just that: standard, distant, and very much of the Empire. The people of Shirojima, secluded on their islands, were removed from the heart of the Empire and deeply connected to their mountain home in a way that felt like it should affect their spirituality. Their local identity as warriors, water elementals, and children of the ocean, was so strong that I felt like the half-imported Naginoya, with its foreign gods, was insufficient to express it.
My own father grew up in a tiny village in rural China, which practiced a local religion centered on ancestors, spirits, the community, and the land that had supported the village’s existence since the Ming Dynasty. Western scholars would describe this religion as ‘animism’ with a helping of ‘ancestor worship,’ but I prefer the way Africans refer to it, as ‘traditional religion.’ In Cameroon, when people asked about my father’s religion (a thing Cameroonians will ask about a lot), I learned that all I had to say was “my dad grew up with traditional religion.” Everyone immediately understood what this meant: a locally specific religion, rooted in oral tradition, with its own system of magic and medicine, in which the most powerful forces were nature and the ancestral spirits. It might seem strange for sub-Saharan African religions to have so much in common with a rural Chinese religion that the same blanket term covers both, but it’s not that strange when you consider that traditionally—that is to say, before the spread of institutionalized religion—this was the type of religion all humans practiced. There are still communities like my father’s in many countries, where traditional religion has persisted through waves of communism, capitalism, colonialism, Christianity, Islam, state-sponsored Buddhism or whatever the city folk have got up to this decade.
When we look at the commonalities between these havens of traditional religion, the village of Takayubi from The Sword of Kaigen fits the profile perfectly: insulated from the wider world, with a deeply-rooted indigenous population, so secluded as to feel removed from the march of time. They needed a religion that was grounded in lifeblood, soil, water, and a connection to the land going back many generations, not an imported myth from a desert kingdom far away—at least not unless they extensively transformed it to fit their world.
So, Ryuhonya took the changes that Naginoya had already made to the Yammanka myth and pushed further, scrapping the idea of the parent sun God, Kiye, and earth mother Goddess, Nyaare, along with all their children except the water deities, Nami and Nagi. As far as Ryuonya is concerned, life began with the ocean, Nagi and Nami are paramount, and no other gods matter.
Ryuhonya is also defined by a belief that the most powerful humans in the area are the direct descendants of Nagi and Nami, linked by blood to the land and surrounding ocean. This notion of the natural world as a traceable ancestral line allowed me to tie in the Confucian sense of filial piety that serves as a central motivator for all the main characters of The Sword of Kaigen. Though they have different ways of expressing it, every major character is deeply concerned with their family, their legacy, and their responsibility in upholding the male line. In this case, I adjusted the religion to lend weight to pre-existing character motivations.
Another thing I got to do in conflating the gods with the natural world was turn the characters’ water-based powers into an expression of their spirituality. Where before water was important as a plot point, it is now a direct expression of a character’s connection to the gods and their own family members.
Aside from this basic structure, I wanted to give Ryuhonya a distinctly Japanese feel that would differentiate it from the other religions of Duna. This mostly came into play in the details. Like the elements of Confucianism (imported to Japan from China in antiquity) many of the aesthetic facets of Ryuhonya are nods to ancient Japan. The existence of a fiery Hell (the West African-based Yammanka Falleya has a single, neutral afterlife) is borrowed from Buddhism. The symbolic significance of water, blood, swords, gems, mirrors, and celestial bodies are all rooted in the myths of the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki.
In the end, there was a lot of back-and-forth between the religion and the characters who practiced it. A messy way to create a religion, yes, but the best one I’ve found.
Thanks so much to ML Wang for such a fascinating post – I hope this inspires you to pick up The Sword of Kaigen! You can grab it on Amazon (and it’s even in Kindle Unlimited!). And don’t forget to check out the rest of the stops on the tour!