Wednesday, March 18, 2015

8 Tips for Creating a Pantheon for Your Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

On my last book, I spent a lot of time working on the pantheon for my world. A pantheon is the collective sum of deities in a specific mythology. Some examples from our own world are the Norse, Celtic, and Greek pantheons.

Since King's Folly takes place on the same planet as the Blood of Kings books, I had already created some of my pantheon. This left me with the unique challenge of going back in time and trying to write the origins of these gods and goddesses and the myths that went along with them. I thought you might find my methods helpful, so here are 8 Tips for Creating a Pantheon for Your Novel.

1. Don't over-think it!
It helps to think of fictional gods and goddesses as characters in your story, whether or not you ever allow them to show up on the page and speak. If you can think of these deities as characters who once existed in your fantasy storyworld, then you can follow the same practice you would when creating any major or minor character, whether they be historical figures or still living when the story takes place.

2. Write an origin story/creation myth.
What does this particular culture believe about the beginning of the world? If you study the various cultures on earth that existed throughout history, you'll find that each has a story on how earth and people came to be. Study some of these to get ideas. Or work from scratch and invent your own origin story based on the people you've created.

3. Know your culture.
Mythological gods were created by humans to answer questions that were, at the time, unanswerable. These deities brought purpose to life. Faith was influenced by the culture of the people who believed. List needs, questions, fears, values, customs, and superstitions of your culture. This will help you know what it's like to live there. Having a well-developed culture will make creating a pantheon easier. Shallee McArthur wrote a wonderful guest post on developing your culture.

Make a list of what matters to your people, then incorporate that list into your pantheon. If your culture is made up of hunter/gatherers, they would value plants and animals. They might also revere the weather, since rain and snow could change the availability of those plants and animals. In King's Folly, I had several different cultures that, centuries ago, were the same culture. This enabled me to use the same pantheon in different ways. One culture valued men above all things. Another valued women. Yet another valued magic and the plant that made magic possible. They all feared earthquakes. And most of my cultures revered the number five to the point of superstition. All these things helped me choose which gods and goddesses each culture worshiped.

4. Decide how many you want.
Since the number five was sacred to most cultures in King's Folly, I started with five gods. But I figured that since my land was ancient, beliefs might have changed over the years for many people. So I came up with different belief systems for the same pantheon. Some people only worship the Five Gods, who they believe to be superior to all others. Then there are people who follow the practice of choosing their own five gods to follow, who aren't necessarily the official Five Gods. Then there are people who worship one of the gods almost exclusively. This might not mean they don't believe the other gods exist. It's just that they've sworn allegiance to one god in particular. And some do only believe in one god.

You might want to do things differently. Maybe you like the idea of having a fixed number of deities. Or maybe your number comes from something else, like the four seasons, the elements, emotions, or colors. Whatever you choose, choose it for a reason that fits your culture. It doesn't have to be terribly logical. But if it meets a felt need of the culture, it will make sense to the reader. This helps your storyworld feel more authentic.

5. Name them.
Naming your deities might be the hardest thing you do. I've received countless emails from authors, asking how to come up with names for characters and places. I wrote a blog post on the topic of choosing names, and I think it applies to naming deities as well. Click here to read that post. Stephanie also wrote a post on naming characters that you can read here.

6. Know how the gods interact with each other and the humans.
Is there a hierarchy in your pantheon? Does everyone get along? Or are some enemies? Has there been a war? If so, is it still going on? Do the gods speak to humans in your story? Do they have powers? How do they treat humans? If they appear to humans, what do they look like? Do they have corporeal form? Is it humanoid or something else? Can they be killed? If so, do they regenerate, are they stuck somewhere until rescued, or something else?

7. Other supernatural beings? 
Decide whether or not you will have other supernatural beings in your story, like demigods, angels, demons, etc. If so, you need to know how these beings interact with the gods. What's the hierarchy here? Do they only serve certain gods or must they answer to all gods? If you don't want to have other types of supernatural beings, don't create any. It's your world. Do what works best for your story.

8. Design symbols for each.
Symbols can help a storyworld feel more realistic. A culture might use a god's symbol on their flag, uniforms, shields, or jewelry. Think of Zeus's lightning bolt or Poseidon's trident.

Can you think of anything else that might be helpful in creating a pantheon? Also, for historical pantheons (Greek, Norse, etc), name something about one of them that has always stuck with you. For me, I've always liked the titans, who were the parents of the Greek gods. I found that concept interesting. My husband likes the story of Medusa, who turns people to stone with one look. She's one creepy monster.

20 comments:

  1. Thanks for the tips! I'm piecing together my fantasy world, and these tips will definitely help with my rulers' backstories--they're highly revered and respected (almost to the point of being gods)--and writing out how they got to be so revered. Thank you, Mrs. Williamson!

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  2. My book is based largely on Norse myths, but I've twisted them to fit my story. My world is torn between war between elves and humans, and all of them have godly roots. The elves were children of Freyr, a Vanir god, who fled to earth when the Dark Elves took over. The humans are all descended from a son of the war god Tyr, but through breeding with indigenous people of earth, real humans if you will, the blood has been tainted and is no longer divine. But, some humans have more godly blood than others, and can still use magic. The elves never bred with humans because they were stuck-up and considered it beneath them. Thus, the are still "pure", and every one of them can use magic.

    I love the concept of how the fires from Muspelheim met the frost from Niflheim in Ginnungagap, and melted it to create the first giant. If you haven't read that myth, I recommend looking it up. It's really cool. And good luck pronouncing all that.

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    1. Jonathan, your book sounds SO COOL! From all these things I've heard about it, it have GOT to read it when it gets published!!

      Do you have any key words to search for that myth, or just look up the names and stuff you said?

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    2. Thanks, Emily! I'm flattered, really. It's my first book that I'm actually gong to finish, so I'm not so sure about the publishing bit. But you're welcome to read it nonetheless once it's done!

      On the myth, just Google "the creation of Ymir in Norse Myths". Even if you just type in "Ymir", it should come up. Ymir was the first giant who was created, in Ginnungagap, so, yeah. It also involves a giant cow somewhat but I can't be sure as I haven't read it in a while. Again, flattered.

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    3. LOL! Yep, I had no clue how to pronounce it. Congrats on spelling it all right. :-)

      I love that you're using Norse myths, Jonathan. The Greek ones are overused.

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  3. I need to bookmark this post! My next story is the first one that will contain an actual pantheon (instead of vaguely-referenced superstitions or something of that sort), so this is going to be really helpful.

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  4. I think that a symbolism of what each deity does would be helpful to start thinking about. Ex: Venus is the goddess of love and beauty; You can think of some morals or objects and often nature elements like the sky or rivers or snow. I have no good tips for naming though, but a random thought I had was to spell the element your deity controls backwards. I don't know what that would bring up! Sorry I'm tired! :)

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    1. Good tips, Emma. Thanks for sharing those. Symbolism is always a wonderful thing to add to any story. And spelling things backwards is a fun way to find creative names.

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    2. Haha, or using google translate to find what your symbolism is in a different language is how I've gotten names or several of my characters!:)

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  5. The interactions of gods and humans in fiction and mythology is fascinating. I think that is the best part and the hardest, especially with how different regions/cultures/people will view one god compared to the next. I'm torn between the Greeks and the Egyptians. Greek mythology is rich but Egyptian makes an odd sort of sense for the time period.

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    1. There are so many fascinating mythologies out there. I suggest you use Egyptian, just since Greek has been used so much more in novels. Egyptian mythology would feel more fresh.

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  6. Thank you for this post, very helpful!
    One of the novels I'm working on has a pantheon of gods, and it was really fun to create. Inventing the religion was one of my favourite parts of worldbuilding.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Kate. I'm glad you enjoyed creating the religion. Worldbuilding is my favorite! ;-)

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  7. I always liked how the norse gods had a goal. That goal was to stop the end of world which was kind of impossible, but they still tried. I have a story with norse gods though I don't use them as gods. They are really just another culture. My main character is not one of them though. My main character is one creature they would really like to kill.

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    1. How interesting! I like that twist. Sounds fun.

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  8. I loooooooove the Greek gods and I like the idea of incorporating a pantheon into my story—though I haven't, yet. These are awesome things to keep in mind, though—I will absolutely refer to this list later!

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  9. I really enjoy Norse mythology, though mainly the concept of trickster overcoming the greater strength, though I'm not opposed to seeing Loki deal with the consequences of his actions, as it's not always possible to fast talk your way out of purposeful murder.

    My favorite story that works from established mythology is the Tapestry series, by Henry Neff, which is based primarily on Celtic mythology, with the main character's story following CĂșchulain's story. He works with many other elements, like Greek and Egyptian. I really like his use of geassa, limits imposed on strong supernatural entities. The main villain, a master manipulator, cannot lie. That makes his ideology hard for the main characters to work though, for though they oppose him, they can't flat out discount him. So, something to look at is how much the supernatural get involved with the characters, how powerful they are, and how they're limited.

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  10. I loved your list! Very practical and useful. I thoughts your tips about looking at pantheons in cultures on earth was very good advice.

    I do lots of research like that as a hobby and there are a ton of similarities. Normally there is a creator god, a god of chaos, and other gods for the elements. Deities can have big powers, like elementals, or they can be for household needs like curing colds and chasing away bad dreams. Usually most of these gods are related. They mirror human life through things like betrayal, love, jealousy, and acts of mercy and revenge.

    I'm working on a project where I'm creating the begining of a Pantheon. I'll be referring back to your list for sure. Great Job!

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