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Monday, September 26, 2016

GUEST POST: How many gods is too many?: Writing the Long War, Part Five by A J Smith

Gods are interesting. In no real sense do I believe in them, but that is beside the point. In a fantasy setting, they are almost indispensable - to me at any rate. A well-designed god can make its people do anything and call it divine. They can justify plots and schemes of such labyrinthine intent that the humans beneath them have little to no clue of what is happening. This applies to gods who intervene, gods who walk amongst men, and gods who remain distant and unknowable.

There are many ways of giving a character motivation, or justifying the actions of an invented people – “Because my god made me do it” is my favourite. The beauty of this is that things are never so simple. People’s actions may be driven by the divine, but they are seldom intellectually aware of this. The same is true of the reader, and it’s a gift to be able to write about things that can’t be seen... until they are. Because, no matter how distant or unknowable, the god will always reveal themselves eventually.

If this shadowy motivation is enough to sway a single civilization, imagine the possibilities of three or four unknowable titans, each with contrasting alignments. The avenues of conflict are endless. You can multiply this as many times as you like, revealing more and more layers of intrigue as you reveal more and more gods and the people who worship them. I’ve found that it can get out of hand, and that restricting yourself to a handful of gods is sensible. I relegate those I’ve invented and discarded to a shadowy time before the present when anything was possible, a Deep Time when infinity spewed forth deities from the very edges of their followers’ imagination. This is my storeroom for nasty entities that I’m fond of, but have no immediate use for. But they’re all still gods and can all be used when and if the need arises.

This may appear a bit dues ex machina, as if the gods can be wheeled out to deal with any problems that arise in the narrative. But not if they are already coiled around the living history of the world, just waiting for their chance at supremacy. This is the trick to effective use of ancient beings – they have always been there, letting flickers of their essence seep into the world, yet invisible to the reader.

Then we have the priesthoods. Should a god’s followers be representations of its divinity? Or ignorant mortals, flailing at eternity for a glimpse at their god’s motivation. I use both kinds. It’s always helpful to have men and women of god who actually know what’s going on, but they are the exception, not the rule. I’ve always felt that revealing too much of the unknowable diminishes its power, and when it does reveal itself it should illicit awe and madness, rather than divine revelation. I enjoy the hypocrisy of fantasy religions. Invariably, the most devout follower will have their faith shaken when face-to-face with the monstrosity to whom they’ve devoted their lives.

So, a fantasy world can have infinite gods. But a storyteller should always be wary of over-populating the heavens, for even if your pantheon are playing a well-defined game of chess over possession of the most followers or greatest power, the skies can get awfully crowded. Every god needs worshipers, every religion needs a creed or a motivation, and I think this is where the narrative should play out. Eternal titans of the world can joust all they like, but it’s at the mortal level where this jousting can redefine a nation’s boundaries or topple its kings.

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: A.J. Smith is the author of THE BLACK GUARD, THE DARK BLOOD and THE RED PRINCE. He spent twelve years devising The Long War chronicles. When not living in the Lands of Ro, he works in secondary education.

NOTE: "Arjun Invokes War Goddess" artwork courtesy of Mukesh Singh.


Kathryn Troy said...

Hi - I love the discussion you've started here on deities in fantasy fiction. Even for ones that are never physically manifested, if their presence is felt in the environment you've created-in its mood, in the behavior of the characters--it gives such great depth to a story, and has infinite interesting permutations.

I'm trying to figure out just how this works in my own fiction, where the definition of "god" is debatable. Is it any and all spirits, or only superior ones? What makes them such? I'm thinking about ancient deities, their return to the physical world, and their relationship with avatars--if they are one and the same, or can be distinguished.

AJ Smith said...

That's an interesting avenues for deities. Are "gods" simply highly evolved beings? After all, any significantly advanced culture will appear as magic to lesser beings.


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