Religion and the Afterlife in Fantasy Fiction

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A central part to many fantasy worlds are the gods and religions.  I went over this long ago here, which explained the various systems I’d seen in fantasy.  This time I’m going to briefly talk about the afterlife and open the floor.  Keep in mind that I’m talking about fantasy fiction here.  Specifically those that include gods because those that don’t tend to avoid the subject.

It is kind of funny how often the afterlife comes up in some fantasy stories.  One big reason is because of the attention to combat, so death is always present on the minds of the characters.  Priests spout on about it and tend to get into arguments with those who follow other gods.  That can be amusing since deities tend to be a present force, so it’s more about which one is stronger than if they exist or not.  From these conversations, you get the feeling that the afterlife is divided among all of the gods with no crossing over.  I know in Dungeons & Dragons, we were told that any people who don’t have a chosen deity are put into ‘The Wall’ where the unclaimed goes.  Still not sure if this is true or something that was made by the guy running the game.

Personally, I find the discussions of the afterlife rather interesting because you get some insight to a character.  This is especially true for those who are not priests and casually follow a deity.  The true followers will give you an idea about the religion, but they always say ‘I will be with my god’ in these chats.  It’s even a goal sometimes.  With the other characters, you get the juicy emotions.  Are they afraid of death?  Are they sure of what’s on the other side?  They can be driven to do certain things or even to survive against all odds because of they aren’t obsessed with hanging out for eternity with their favorite god even if it’s a party.  I truly believe that religion and the afterlife in a fantasy world puts a fascinating dimension of depth to the stories.  Right up there with monsters, various cultures, and a consistent magic system.

So, what do people think about fictional afterlives and how prominent they are in fantasy stories?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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48 Responses to Religion and the Afterlife in Fantasy Fiction

  1. L. Marie says:

    I mention the afterlife in mine, because a character thinks that she’s died and has gone to join her God. But I think the discussion is an interesting one, because it gets at the beliefs of characters. I can’t help thinking of the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology or Valhalla of Norse mythology.

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    • My mind tends to go to mythology too. One interesting thing is how often a reader of fantasy will try to put their own beliefs into the fictional world instead of going along with what’s on the page. I’ve actually heard a few people talk about wanting to write fan fiction of Middle Earth and other fantasy worlds where a real-world religion takes over.

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  2. I’m a huge Greek mythology fan, where gods and demi-gods regularly walked amongst mortals, so I’m all for fantasy books that explore the concept of the afterlife (or, in the case of a D&D style pantheon system, multiple afterlives based on which god you worship). One of the reasons I quite liked the Sword of Truth series is because there were two gods — the Creator (good guy) and the Keeper (bad guy). Not everyone believed that they existed, because it was one of those situations where the gods’ influences weren’t really detectable unless you had magic and were looking for them. Which led to all sorts of fun shenanigans, like sorceresses pledging their souls to the Keeper and gaining black lightning magic and so on.

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    • That’s kind of funny. I wonder how an atheist would work in a fantasy world like D&D. In an old game, somebody tried to play one that swore the gods were nothing more than powerful wizards and sorceresses who were fooling the rest of the world. He mouthed off to a destruction priest and took a lightning bolt to the face. We figured resurrection would offend him since it was holy magic.

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      • Lol. Yeah, atheists in worlds were gods walk amongst us is kind of doomed to failure, isn’t it? Unless it’s less that they object to the existence of gods, and more that they just hate the gods and want to live their own life without divine interference. A lightning bolt to the face seems a fairly apropos ending. Gods don’t enjoy being talked back to, lol.

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      • They can get a little touchy. Especially the ones that are known for gleefully killing their own followers. Death gods are other ones to smile, nod, and agree that they exist because you don’t want to know how they can prove it.

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  3. Karen says:

    Fictional afterlives are often intriguing, providing food for thought. Sometimes they can be funny – depending on the authors’ creativity and the readers’ imagination.

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  4. estyree says:

    I don’t do a lot of mentioning of the afterlife in the Stone Dragon Saga because there isn’t much reason to, but I am a HUGE fan of ancient mythologies and their afterlife myths. I love the continuity between us all…even in sects/religions/peoples/areas that had no contact with others (that we know of) their mythologies usually include several similar beliefs to others a world away. Native American Mythos is a BIG influencer on me, as well as Greek and Irish. The varying afterlife depictions are astounding and often beautiful, even in their starkness. Transporting these images into fantasy fiction adds such a depth to the stories and characters, which is lacking (in my opinion) in pieces that delve into mortality issues but do not include a deity (Twilight springs to mind…I think that the characters could have had so much more depth and the discussion of whether or not vampires have souls could have really helped that if it had been deeper.)

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    • I use a lot of Greek, Norse, and a smattering of other mythologies when I create these things. Honestly, I’ve yet to really delve into the afterlife of Windemere beyond a few brief mentions. The characters are talking a lot about death since they were told that at least one of them will die in the final battle, but they don’t know who. It puts an interesting twist on them because they’re heading for this big fight and unsure if they should plan for anything afterwards.

      Odd thing about Twilight is that I can’t see it having that kind of discussion. Maybe I see it too much as a paranormal romance fluff piece. Not saying all paranormal romances are like that, but Twilight gave off a simple vibe to me.

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      • estyree says:

        It was simple and the writing was not stellar (again, in my opinion) but the story/plotline could have moved so much more and been absolutely stellar if she had included those types of things. Like maybe explain more about the werewolves and how they don’t age if they don’t want to. Connect that to a Native mythos and deity, afterworld effects etc. I have the same problem with The Hunger Games. The books are decent and the plotline is amazing, but the characters are mostly just flat to me.

        I have been using a mixture of Irish and Native elements for the myths that I create in The Stone Dragon Saga…and pretty much anything else that needs a good fairy tale!

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      • Interesting how Twilight and Hunger Games are like that. Harry Potter had more of a history than a religious mythos, but it definitely gave the worlds more depth. Do you think many authors and publishers think such topics shouldn’t be in YA books that aren’t fantasy? I never really read either one, so I can’t make a full judgement here. Most of my info comes from interacting with fans and a few excerpts.

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      • estyree says:

        As a teacher and YA author, I think the topic should be broached carefully but definitely more often. Children are more capable than some adults are at handling the ideas of deity and religion etc. They are so open and have a finite agreement on things…so that a church of Christ or Methodist or whatever (I live in the Midwest/South where most people at least teach their children that their is a GOD) child will read, enjoy, and to some extent believe the Percy Jackson books, but understand that the reality is forged for the books. Whereas many adults have left their sense of belief and wonder behind and have a tougher time even with the added extras.

        Many children’s books circumvent the idea of ‘religion’ but include universals like the Golden Rule so that everyone can be included. As for what other authors and publishers think…I can barely stand to be in my own head, theirs are all scary! 😉

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      • I keep thinking of Narnia and how it had religious themes that adults would get more than children. I think authors tend to fear the backlash of such topics. If you put it into a kid’s story then you worry that the parents will make a scene. At least in some genres. Fantasy seems to get a pass while those that are Earth-based have to tread carefully.

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      • estyree says:

        C.S. Lewis intended for his audience to be far reaching so Narnia is meant for all…though a great point. I love the work of Tim Tingle, he’s a Choctaw storyteller and one of the first to really write books about their beliefs. He has middle grades series called, How I Became a Ghost (also the title of the first book), that explains in great detail the belief that Choctaw never leave their tribe, even in the afterlife. It is FABULOUS and written on a third grade level…though I suppose it could be called a Fantasy novel it is based on actual beliefs of his people.

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      • I’ve been reading ‘Ranger’s Apprentice’, which delves into a few beliefs. It’s nothing big and more use of oaths from one of the cultures. It really doesn’t have a belief system, but it doesn’t lose anything because of that.

        I like that Choctaw belief. Kind of like how the deceased are looking over us and don’t really leave entirely.

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      • estyree says:

        Oaths are fascinating to me. The things that certain cultures placed oaths on are amazing.

        Kind of…although their belief is that the spirits of our ancestors walk with us and are actually merely kept separate by a thin veil that some are able to part. They are the guardians of their people, it is very interesting.

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      • Definitely sounds interesting. A lot of real and fictional belief systems use a veil between worlds.

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  5. estyree says:

    AGH! It told me that the first comment didn’t post so I re-did it. *face-palm* Welcome to Monday

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  6. VarVau says:

    The afterlife is not something my world discusses very much as the belief didn’t establish itself the way it has for many fantasy/sci-fi worlds. It’s merely something the majority of the population doesn’t pursue to know. Deities, however, are something inhabitants pursue without ever attaining, and if they are fortunate to encounter such an entity it quickly becomes a case of being unfortunate.

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  7. djmatticus says:

    I intentionally left religion and deities out of the fantasy novel I’m writing. I wanted to keep the focus of the story on the inherent characteristics of the core heroes and villains without adding in any interference from outside sources. In the fantasy novels I read the most growing up (The Dragonlance series), interaction and distraction from the gods seemed to be the driving force behind most of the conflicts, and while I immensely enjoyed those stories, I didn’t want my battles to escalate to such lofty realms. Why can’t a thief and a priest resolve their differences without a god of good showing them the way? Why can’t a king go on a quest for glory and power without a god of evil whispering in his ear?

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    • Good questions. Personally, I think religion plays into a lot of real-world issues. That might be why it becomes a driving force in fantasy. A mad king or wizard seems to have a dark god that they’re influenced by.

      I’m seeing a lot of new fantasy authors refusing to touch on gods and religion. The common argument is that the addition of such things removes free will from characters. I didn’t go this route since the gods are major players in Windemere, but there is a big pull away from the deity-influenced world these days.

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      • djmatticus says:

        In worlds where religion has played a huge role, where generation after generation has been raised on the doctrine and ideals, the characters, by necessity, must be shaped with that as an integral part. For, or against, or neutral, doesn’t matter. It has to be addressed one way or the other. I think in some ways I’m just a lazy writer and didn’t want to have to create that much more backstory for both the world and each of my characters. I know some of it would have resolved itself as I wrote, but not all of it.

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      • Do you need a lot of backstory if the gods are physical beings that appear as characters? I’ve wondered that as I have mine show up from time to time. They aren’t allowed to get fully involved in most events, but they can appear to give vague hints or say hi to favored. Though one god gets to bend the rules a lot. Still, I’ve kind of had it that not every children follows the same deity as their parents.

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      • djmatticus says:

        Interesting.
        I guess I’d always figured that you’d need a good back-story, because at some point it would come up in the book(s). Either from questions from offspring, or references to the past, or just needing to write out why a certain character believed and behaved the way they did. Other than to spread chaos, without knowing why a god is whispering in a favored’s ear, would a reader be able to come up with their own idea of why a deity is doing what they are doing? Probably, readers tend to be as imaginative as the writers they follow…

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      • It probably depends on the system. In my story, the gods openly say why they do what they do. Each one has an ‘area’ that they rule over. For example, Gabriel is the God of Destiny, Hell, and the Chaos Void. Zaria is the Goddess of Purity. I have a luck goddess and a 5 page pantheon list. With a specific area (like in Greek mythology), you can get a feeling as to what drives the god and why a character will follow them.

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      • djmatticus says:

        Ah! Well, yes, that does make sense. Again, I guess I’d never thought about writing gods from that perspective, since that wasn’t prevalent in the fantasy novels I read most growing up.

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      • I got into Greek Mythology and D&D when I was in high school. There were gods for everything there. Seemed to be an interesting route that could create fascinating characters to jump among my various series.

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  8. Seán Cooke says:

    In the fantasy series I was working on (and will some day get back to, I swear…), death and the afterlife is pretty much the core focus. Well, the real focus is fate and how it interlinks people, raising the question of willpower and freedom of choice. But this is most frequently portrayed through the gods and the afterlife.

    The characters don’t discuss death and the afterlife much. Instead, they live it. They are frequently thrown into the world of the gods and tested, witnessing the afterlife first hand and then returning to their own world.

    A lot of the series focuses on the fear of death and the way a lot of people try their best to ignore it, despite its constant presence. This is paired with the ever present fate, which the characters also try to ignore and avoid.

    Damn. Now I want to get back there…

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    • It’s a delicate balance between ignoring death and obsessing about it. That’s what a lot of people seem to have issues with at times. How do the characters witness the afterlife first hand? Do they get brought to the afterlife a lot in the series?

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  9. Jae says:

    I like reading about fantasy afterlives because typically it’s the least pretentious. Typically we all know it’s fiction, so it really doesn’t matter what conclusion we come to about the religion of that world. And I think that opens up the possibility for thought about that very thing in our own lives, what we believe, what we don’t, etc. That’s something I’ve always loved about scifi/fantasy, is an ability to examine ones own belief (not just religious, but about anything) and because it’s seems so distant from our own world it allows for new perspectives on what we see as truth. Star Trek always did this very well for me (at least in TNG). Great post!

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  10. Another side of this is whether there can be ghosts in your world. If there can be ghosts, then obviously there’s an afterlife. And then you cab have priests or even vigilantes who lay ghosts to rest and such. I’m not thinking of zombies and vampires here, more the Star Wars phenomenon where Obi-Wan can return as a ghost to chat with Yoda and give Luke advice.

    Whether characters in a novel talk about spirituality and the afterlife probably depends most on the needs of the story. Because, like everything else, we don’t put these interesting asides into our stories unless they have a purpose.

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    • There are ghosts of various flavors in Windemere. I’ll probably be delving into them much later in another series. I was playing with the idea in another ‘world’ that ghosts weren’t spirits. They were the remaining emotional and mental image of a person who died a violent or sudden death. I never figured out if that was the sign of an afterlife or the impact the human mind can have on their surroundings.

      It does seem that characters discussing the afterlife or spirituality tends to be a sign that someone is about to die. I use the discussion as a character/relationship building scene from time to time. Honestly, I can’t really see a way to put these kinds of topics in without it having some kind of purpose.

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