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When writing fictional polytheisms, it's tempting to draw inspiration from the existing ones.

In ancient religions (I'm mainly thinking of the Greek/Latin, Egyptian and Norse pantheons) there are some common tropes and similarities. They all have a "father"-god figure, they have gods of war, fertility gods and gods associated with wisdom.

Yet, it can be argued that those similarities are rather superficial. Odin is not Zeus by a far stretch. Týr and Ares, while being both associated with war and masculinity, are not the same. Those mythological figures have arisen in different places and times in history, and are expressions of very different cultures.

So, when inventing gods for a fictional pantheon, how do you avoid falling into those cliches?


I'd further clarify that having a "God of War" is not a problem, if it makes sense in the context. It is a cliché if the god of war in question is just "filling a seat."

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    Do you want silly gods or truly godly gods or a pleasant Mix? What is the setting of the story? – hszmv May 31 at 15:33
  • @hszmv I'm not thinking of a story in particular, but let's assume the gods must be realistic in their setting. So, godly gods, to be taken seriously by their believers and to some extent by the audience too. – Reinstate Monica. May 31 at 15:37
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    I've seen at least one author embrace the cliches, and posit that all the different pantheons were just different groups of humans (badly mis)interpreting the same underlying deities. You can even extend this to monotheism by assuming the humans incorrectly "demoted" the lesser deities to angels and such. – Kevin Jun 1 at 6:13
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    How many real world pantheons of gods have you read up on? If the answer is "not many" then I strongly suggest you study other religions, especially those that are less culturally familiar to most of us in the West (Aztec, Polynesian, Australian, Maori, etc.). – Jack Aidley Jun 1 at 9:35
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    I'm tempted to mention the book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, and its sequels. I feel like it's a good example of how to write interesting deities. – Hearth Jun 2 at 18:04

11 Answers 11

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I think my answer may be a tad tinted by my atheism, as I believe every faith and pantheon operates as a function of how a culture interacts with nature, the difficult-to-predict, and the unknown, but I would say a good starting point would be the environment your fictional society inhabits.

For example, Ancient Egyptian gods are numerous yet orderly, because of the extreme linkage between the Nile and Egypt's prosperity. When the Nile floods (which is a regular, predictable occurrence), there's an increase in fertility, plantable lands, fishable waters, et cetera, but this also brings dangers, like hippos. As such, everything has a cycle in the Egyptian pantheon, to the point where the sun's regularity is itself deified.

Meanwhile, the semitic monotheistic beliefs arise from nomadic desert tribes that largely subsist by raiding and attacking other tribes. As such, their God prioritises loyalty to their own tribe, virulent hatred of the other tribes unless they adopt the culture unquestioningly, and due to the unreliable nature of successful raids and land quality in a wilderness, their God is capricious. The tribe get hit by a flux? The tribe obviously didn't sacrifice enough. The tribe wins a tough battle? That was because God smiled upon them! Also, the presence of a non-fighting, priestly class means that sacrifices are required in the form of tasty burnt animals that are totally being given to God, not the priests.

Contrast with polynesian faiths, which is much more about animistic interpretations of natural forces, while religious figures (like Maui) are people that interact with and harness the animistic gods, as opposed to directly working for/speaking with them (it should also be noted that while most polynesian islands have Maui in their mythos, his deeds and abilities vary from island to island, emphasising the strong link to the environment again). This emphasises their society's need to accept if a calamity takes something significant; it's simply the ocean taking something back, et cetera, and unlike the semitic faiths, there's no impetus to make something happen by man's hand (as raiding is not a staple part of polynesian culture).

As for fictional faiths, I've made a few, which are generally misinterpretations of actual Gods at work. A tropical nation devised a six-god pantheon that perpetually argue over the most important aspects of life (the weather, justice, the cycle of life and death, freedom versus holding secrets man must not know), which to them explains the capricious nature of tropical weather, the human drive to explore isles upon an archipelago contrasted with storms and tides that prevent certain exploration, et cetera.

Other faiths founded by strongly class-stratified cultures focus on after-death justice, assuring peasants the meek shall be rewarded posthumously so you should let the rich do what they like, others still argue children cannot be fairly judged and so believe in reincarnation (in truth, the real Gods do both; the Underworld is a soul penitentiary, and if you do your time and repent, you get another chance at life, and similarly if you get bored of eternal bliss, you can choose to reincarnate).

Essentially, think of faith as a direct result of how cultures talk to the environment and Gods should naturally spring forth.

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    Multiple mistakes in your statement regarding Semitic faiths, or at least Judaism: 1. "virulent hatred of the other tribes unless they adopt the culture" - totally wrong, Judaism never was a proselytising religion, the Tanakh is perfectly fine with other peoples following other gods. See for example Micah 4:5. 2. "sacrifices are required in the form of tasty burnt animals that are totally being given to God" - tasty roasted animals were eaten on the day of the sacrifice and on the second day, and only the leftovers on the third day were given entirely to God. With no refrigeration, makes sense – Galastel supports GoFundMonica May 31 at 16:12
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    "And thou shalt do thy homework, or else God shall smite thee with nitpickers." – Galastel supports GoFundMonica May 31 at 16:19
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    @Galastel Biblical Judaism tells a very different tale of their attitude to others faiths; burning seemed to be the solution to heretics, whole tribes a typical sword & hostage job. So that's simply some contradictory sources. You're very right to point out that monotheism has its origins in polytheism whittled down to one 'important' god; likely arising from a need for unity (as a raiding tribe requires) and because, frankly, when all you do is war, perhaps a war god is all you need. – Matthew Dave May 31 at 16:23
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    Just where and when did we burn heretics? Give me one instance, I challenge you. There was the story with the Amalekites, but a) They were supposed to be put to the sword, not burnt. b) It wasn't because they were heretics, it was because they attacked us first so we were extracting vengeance. c) Apparently we weren't very good at it: there are multiple instances of us "wiping them all out", and yet a few years later they're back. Seems to me, "wiping them all out" was an exaggeration, perhaps meant to inspire fear, or something. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica May 31 at 16:39
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    Genesis 38:24: Harlot burned for playing the whore. Leviticus 10:3 Aaron's rebel sons burnt to glorify the Lord. Leviticus 16:1 Aaron is threatened with burning like his heretic sons. Levitcus 20:12 If a man sleeps with his mother in law or daughter in law he and all participants must be burnt to death. You get my point, I imagine. As for wipe out culture, well, there's several verses that indicate how they treat POWs and alien residents; the latter with hospitality, provided they worship their god, and the former as either potential converts and in the case of virgins, wives for warriors. – Matthew Dave May 31 at 16:51
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Similarities are not the same as cliches.

Various pantheons have a lot of overlap because they draw on universal aspects of humanity. Food. Fire. Home. Love. Children (and childbearing). Protection. Etc, etc, etc.

How these things manifest will change culture to culture. A nomadic group won't need gods for agriculture. A group on the equator doesn't need gods or rituals for the solstice and equinox.

And of course each group will draw the lines in different places (both by how they divide up the god workload and how many gods there are total). Even the 3 main monotheistic religions have "aspects" of God that work on different levels. All three have God on Earth (or a human representative of God who worshipers revere), represented by The Shekhinah, Jesus (also saints), or Mohammed, and all 3 have prophets). All also have different names and aspects of God in other rheims. Ways to focus your prayers.

For polytheistic religions, gods may have different (strong) personalities or may just be the embodiment of different parts of the culture. Different entities to which to send your prayers and devotion.

All societies everywhere will have gods or spirituality or something for basic living:

  • Love. Attraction. Marital matchmakers. Whatever you call it, it's central.
  • Fertility. No babies = no society after a few decades.
  • Childbirth. This can be a dangerous time for both woman and fetus/newborn. It may not be as visible to our modern eyes, but an awful lot of religion is dedicated to this.
  • Food. For hunting, for agriculture, for timely rain, for good harvests, etc.
  • Fire and light and sometimes technology (forge) that comes from them.
  • War.
  • Death. Sometimes an underworld.
  • Cosmology. Sun, moon, various planets, sky, stars, heavens, etc.

And others (this is not necessarily a comprehensive list). Nor is this representative of the way all cultures have divided up these tasks.

To create your pantheon, think first about the society you've created.

What is absolutely essential to them? Pretty much everything on the above list will be, but perhaps others as well. A harsh society with serfs and slaves may especially value fertility since many children die. Hunters/gatherers vs pastural nomads vs agriculturally-based societies all need different sets of gods for food.

Think about the setting they're in. How many volcano gods do they need? In many places, the answer is zero. Other places would totally have one. Still others would have multiple volcano gods, one for each volcano. Mild weather vs life-threatening storms? Snow? rain? lack of rain? What's their water supply like? How much do they see the sun and the stars?

Do they live outdoors or indoors? Outdoor societies will have stronger relationships to the night sky. What about technology? Fire is the big one. But also metal working, writing, science/math, weapons, plows, etc. What animals do they use for food, working, companionship, or are in fear of?

Keep asking questions and thinking about what gods your characters might pray to. What are their needs? What were the needs of their society in the past (since religions are usually quite old, even if they keep changing)?

Your gods will be cliches if they're disconnected from the world you've built.

Ground them in your society. Show how they are meaningful in peoples' every day lives. Or how they were once meaningful but now not so much. Sometimes societies stop being religious altogether (though there are always some who persist) and sometimes they're still very religious but some gods have fallen into disuse (and other small ones may have grown big).

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Don't focus on making your Gods be unique. Make the cultures worshipping them unique.

Let me explain. Faith is a reflection of how a culture views and interacts with the world. The truth is, God's can only be that unique. Here are the main themes:

War, fertility, celestial objects, an animal, a season or month, an element or an object connected with an element

Ares is the God of War, Venus is the God of Fertility, Hera is the God of the Sun, Poseidon is the God of the Ocean and the Horse, Vulkan is the God of Fire and the Volcano, I could go on for days.

Now, there are tons of gods who share the same attributes. Thor is the God of Lightening, a very specific thing. Zeus is the God of Lightening too. Do people look at them as the same? Do people think of them as potato/potato? No. Why? Well, most people haven't actually delved into mythology to discover the different nuances of their characters, but most people know of the different cultures they're affiliated with.

Thor is the God of the savage and brutal vikings. Zeus is the God of the (at least portrayed) civilized, brooding and intelligent Greeks (the Vikings were also smart but you get my point).

Have the difference lie in the cultures that worship them, and your reader is immediately going to have different connotations with them. And the whole dynamic between the God and the culture has a lot to say. Think about this;

A strong, tribal, savage and uncivilized culture has, among many gods, a god that is strong, powerful and brutal. Due to their brawny nature, and how their society is built up, the people of this culture value strength. So therefore, a God that is strong will be considered one of the good and even main gods in their faith.

Then consider this;

A civilized, delicate and philosophizing culture has, among many gods, a god that is strong, powerful and brutal. But due to their more peaceful nature, this god is looked more down upon, like Hades.

So let's say both of these gods from these different cultures were the God of War. There you have the exact same (superficially) god, but the gods feel completely different from each other to the reader, because of how they are viewed and what their place in the faith is. In one faith they are one of the main Gods, and they are worshiped and idolized. In the other, they are ostracized, looked at as the devil, maybe used in derogatory ways to "curse" someone.

But, there is another way too. You shouldn't be relying on this method alone, it should be paired with the first one.

Give your Gods more powers, titles and functions than just one.

A way to make for example two Gods of War stand out from each other is to make them more than just Gods of war. Let's say one god is the God of War and Horses, whilst the other god is the God of War and Famine.

And this can be a good way to reflect your culture too. If a culture's God of Death is solely the God of Death, it can mean they look at death as an element. As a force of nature. Whilst a culture that pairs the death with something little or something symbolically linked like the moon or ravens, then they perhaps look at death as something smaller, less significant. As just a thing, like the moon, or ravens.

Which brings me back to the uniqueness of cultures. Cultures that oppositely view small things like the moon, or a species as something more than just a thing, you might be looking at an animalistic faith, from a primitive and/or tribal culture. So, the God of Something and Ravens in one faith will feel very different from the God of Ravens in another, more nature focused faith, were certain species can be very significant, and nature in general means a lot.

Here's a last option, also one that should be paired with the first. This one is only if you're willing to go into pretty deep world building and lore.

Give your gods different stories where their character is shown

Nothing is better than some godly drama. Tales of the different deities are a big part of mythologies, and as stories are a lot more dynamic than god archetypes, that is where the major differences lie between for example two different gods of war.

But this is only if you're willing and your story is suitable for deeper exploration of lore and faiths.

  • A really good point in giving gods more than one element. A lot of gods in the greek pantheon represented a bunch of stratified qualities that they picked up with time, e.g. Dyonisus. – Reinstate Monica. Jun 2 at 18:05
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You may want some of the traditional gods. War is pretty much a universal in human culture, as is love, brotherly love, luck, sexual attraction, in some forms "good" and "evil", death, birth, hunting, etc.

Gods represent archetypes of human emotion; Aphrodite is the irresistible woman; Satan is the irresistible tempter.

Gods also represent the "cause" of luck in various human enterprises subject to a large dose of chance. Including battle, whether rain comes for crops (or insects come for crops), in human diseases, in gambling, in dangerous circumstances (navigating on the ocean) in safety while traveling, in finding love or security, etc. We propitiate (bribe) these Gods with sacrifices and offerings so things won't go wrong. We interpret bad luck (a hurricane or tornado or flood or earthquake or wildfire) as "punishment" from the god and offer forms of atonement. or we offer them thanks; Moses made live sacrifices of captured virgins to "thank" God for his victory in battle.

To avoid clichés, understand the reasons we have Gods (as paragons of various human qualities, or as the source of good/bad fortune), see how those things can apply to your fictional culture and setting and what is most important to them, and devise your gods to resonate with those characters. If they are farmers, their Gods will be related to good and bad luck in farming. If they are seafaring, their Gods will be related to that; Gods of Navigation or Weather, maybe separate gods of rain and wind and heavy seas.

If they are herders, different gods, if they are miners, different gods. If they are all of these things, and warriors and craftsmen in the bargain, a pantheon of Gods.

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    Except those archetypes can change. Aphrodite seems to have been introduced into Greece as a war goddess. The whole irresistible ditz thing came much later. – Keith Morrison May 31 at 22:42
  • @KeithMorrison Yeah, I think Gods got reassigned; maybe with Greek and Roman you don't need TWO war gods, so Aphrodite got transferred to the Love Department. :-) – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica May 31 at 23:49
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    Later on the Romans had both Mars as god of war, and Mithras as patron god of soldiers (originally an Iranian god). I think it's not that there was no need for two war gods, but rather perhaps that women had a different role in Greek society, or maybe some other cultural change. Romans did have multiple overlapping gods, coming from having conquered multiple peoples. Sometimes the gods of the conquered land would be merged into existing ones, sometimes kept distinct. Why throw away a perfectly good god? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 1 at 9:38
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    @Galastel, Athena always was a war goddess. She represented just and smart warfare; strategy and tactics and going to war for the right reasons. Ares represented the violence and bloodiness of warfare. To put it succinctly, Athena was about winning using your brain, Ares winning through shedding the most blood. – Keith Morrison Jun 1 at 18:33
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    @Galastel Aphrodite started off as Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of war, political power, and sex/prostitution. When her cult arrived in Greece via trade, she wound up losing her war and political power aspects eventually and going full-love goddess. – nick012000 Jun 2 at 7:36
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Some Pantheon aspects are little known but rather fun to work with because the initial concept is poorly understood among the non-faithful, and sometimes even the faithful. While religions are typically divided into Monotheism (one God) and Polytheism (More than One God), there is a third classification about the number of Gods called Monism (spelling is correct). Monism is not Polytheistic but not Monotheistic either. Essentially Monism holds that there is one God who is ultimately so fantastic he/she/it (I'm using a he to simplify, but ultimately it's insufficient to call this entity by any gender) and to interact with the faithful it appears as aspects of itself that are specified to a nature humans can understand. This is actually the nature of Hinduism, which has a diverse pool of gods (there are the traditional ones of course, but it's not unheard of to see a Hindu consider Jesus and Pope John Paul II as god figures of worship). There is some logic here, as a Hindu would understand the message of cows being gentle and thus should be consider sacred, where as a culture of people in Mesoamerica would find several issues with this teaching... the first of which would be, "What is Cow?" Additionally, while you dismissed the idea, a lot of Indo-European Polytheists have similar figures suggesting an evolution from a similar pantheon (even Asgaudians, though they are distant compared to comparison between the Hindu, Greek, and Egyptian Gods). Similar religions are Voudon/Voodoo and similar East African-Carribean-American religions which has the God Bondyne (The Good God) who again, is so fantastic he cannot interact with humans directly and relies on the Loa (definitely not deities) who can be summoned and served by the faithful in exchanged for champion the matter with Bondyne. Most Loa have certain sets of items (usually favorite foods and apperal) that will please them and make them more willing to take up your case. This religion surived because the concepts are similar enough to the Catholic Church, the Saints, and the nature of God (One God, Three Persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit/Ghost. Essentially God is all three, but the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.) Again, Saints are not deities (rather they are real people confirmed to be in heaven) and are not worshiped. Unlike the Loa, they are not served for their championship, but interceed on matters related to their patronage (which is usually tied to notable stories from their life and sometimes, bizzarely and even ironically humorous. Saint Lawrence of Rome, for example, was told by the Romans to turn over all the treasures of the Catholic Church in Rome in Three days. In response, he donated everything of value to the poor and appeared with a large group of the poor who could not get donations and declared them the treasure of Rome. The Romans, not amused by this at all, sentenced him to be grilled to death. While the execution was being carried out, Lawrence, an already notorious fan of groan worthy puns, shouted at his executioners, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side!" He is now the patron saint of the Church in Rome, Comedians, and Cooks! Saint Sebastian is the Patron Saint of Archers not because he was an Archer himself... but because he was shot by a lot of them.). A good analogy is to think of Saints as lawyers for you. Sure, you can go to God/the Judge without a lawyer and argue your case, but Lawyers know the ins and outs of court room better than someone representing themselves.

Other pantheons have Dieties that cross over, but specialize in different aspects of the same domain. The Greeks actually have two major figures as War Gods: Aries and Athena. Why they need two is because there are two types of war that they saw and each God specialized in one or the other. Athena was more stratigic focused while Aries was more brutality focused (he was also typically the villain God. Hades was rather apethetic and not malicious... well, with exception to the story of Persephone). Anyway, the best way to describe the difference is to imagine who two players would blessed by the two gods would react in a game of chess to losing a Queen: Athena's Patron would be collected about it, because he would realize that his opponent was now locked into a series of moves that will, 20 turns later, ultimately allow the blessed to declare check mate. All according his plan. Someone blessed by Aries, upon losing his Queen in chess, would upend the entire board, spilling all the pieces on the board, then punch his opponent in the face, and declare himself the winner because his opponent cannot make any legal moves the board (on account of the board being flipped upside down... and the opponent being unconscious). Other Gods can have carved up domains for more specialization... for example, A lone Death God could be split into God of Death By Drowning, God Of Death by Falling, God of Death by Old Age, Goddess of Death by Lovers Shouting "On my gods, My Husband is Home Early!" (She is also married to God of Hide and Seek Players) and many many more.

Other Gods can be given odd combonations of Patronages. Posiden is the God of the Seas... and Horses and Bulls (He created both, if you're asking why... he had a weird fascination with making hooved animals. He also is the god of Giraffes and Hippos.). As mention the Catholic Church's saints are the... er... Patron Saints of this aspect (Thank you for the assist, Saint Lawrence) and again, have some really odd patronages, and unconnected lists of patronages. Saint Nicholas, he of "Ho Ho Ho" fame, is the Patron Saint of Children... and sailors, fishermen, merchants, pharmacists, archers (again), pawnshop owners (Try getting the image of Santa spending the off season watching Pawn Stars), prostitutes (Mrs. Claus was not happy about this... Or was VERY Happy for his... er... patronage!) and repentant thieves. Meanwhile, St. Drogo must be a Saint's Saint give his list of patronages: Broken Bones, Hernias, Sick people, Insane People, Ugly People, Bodily Ills in general, and Coffee Shop Owners (If you're gonna spend all that time around hospitals, you're gonna be pretty chummy with the Starbucks staff too). Presumably he's also the Patron of people who write "Side Effects Include" lists for commercials in TV.

For humerous things, often times, people will have patronages that are pretty much meant to set up a joke (among Catholics, the fact seemingly everything has a patron, typically at least two) you have funny gags like the early 2000s joke of the Real Saint Chad being the Patron Saint of disputed Elections, or Catholic School children naming Saint Bernard as the Patron Saint of Snow Days. One from the 70s listed Pope John Paul I as the Patron Saint of Temp Workers (John Paul I is not a saint, and the gag is joking about how his papacy lasted for entirely 30 days.). Personally, If I wanted to make reference to a sillish god in my fictional Pantheon, I would have a "God of Atheists" and everyone wonder what the hell he does all day.

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    +1 for "god of atheists." – ShadoCat May 31 at 20:33
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    A God of Atheists doesn't have to silly in the least. That might be a deity that doesn't require people fawning over him and instead ensures that if they've lived a good life, based on his moral judgment, they get their reward, whatever it happens to be, even if they don't believe in gods. – Keith Morrison May 31 at 22:46
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    I'd suggest splitting your answer up a little, into paragraphs, as currently it is a bit overwhelming and hard to read. – A. Kvåle Jun 1 at 22:50
  • Please use more paragraphs. PLEASE! – inappropriateCode Jun 2 at 21:41
  • Please change "Aries" to "Ares" (several instances). – Mico Jun 3 at 0:14
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tl;dr- Cliches seem bad when things are there just for the sake of the cliche itself. To avoid this, you can develop meaningful notions of the gods – including what they are, why they're there, and how they interact. Probably best to start with deciding if the gods are superheroes or full-blown forces of nature.


Step 1: Pick what kind of god(s) they'll be.

I figure that there're basically two kinds of gods:

  1. Effector gods are the driving forces of existence; they cause whatever they're god of to exist. For an example of a monotheistic effector god, the guy in this xkcd is literally causing every moment of his simulated world to happen; if he doesn't actively effect something, it doesn't exist. He even apologizes for occasionally causing things to stop existing on accident:

    So if you see a mote of dust vanish from your vision in a little flash or something, I'm sorry. I must have misplaced a rock sometime in the last few billions and billions of millennia.

  2. Superhero gods are basically just superheroes who have thematic powers. For example, if Thor, God of Lightning, is a superhero god, then he doesn't really cause lightning to exist in a fundamental sense so much as he just has some cool superpowers related to it, even if those superpowers include abilities like summoning lightning.

I imagine that gods were all originally conceived as effectors. For example, why does lightning exist? Well, because Thor effected it, obviously!

Effector gods are a lot like modern scientific explanations. For example, we now acknowledge Electron, God of Negative Charge, and his beloved Proton, Goddess of Positive Charge. The big change is a shift toward mechanistic descriptions (like the Big Bang theory) over fanciful anthropomorphic descriptions (like Chaos theory), largely because it feels silly to make up stuff that's not empirically meaningful.

As such, effector gods make sense. But do you want to write about Thor, God of Lightning, whose OCD causes him to effect the phenomena of lightning? Or do you want to write about Thor, God of Lightning, whose superpowers grant him control over lightning when dramatically appropriate?

Some authors seem to mix these options together:

  1. Effector-superhero gods are sort of a compromise, where superhero-like gods are presented as though they're also effectors. For example:

    The fictional Marvel Universe contains a number of beings in this category that are a part of the universe, with their existence necessary to provide a certain function. Much like organs provide specific functions for the human body, these entities provide functions for the universe itself. There is no official (known) name for these beings, but they are often referred to as cosmic entities, cosmic beings or abstract entities. Many of them embody some concept or fulfill some essential need, but there are others who are considered within this reference frame simply due to their scale of power, such as the Infinites, Beyonders, Cosmic Cubes, or Watchers. Death is also considered to be a cosmic entity.

    "Cosmic entity (Marvel Comics)", Wikipedia

    So a cosmic being's "existence [is] necessary to provide a certain function", but I think they're still basically superhero-like in the narratives.


Step 2: Figure out why they're there.

Effector gods necessarily exist. I mean, Electron, God of Negative Charge, definitely exists in the real world. Just.. well, the part about Electron being in love with Proton is fabricated.

Superhero gods are pretty unnecessary. I mean, there's no reason that we need a superhero called Thor who, for whatever reason, has powers over lightning. So if Thor exists, how/why?

I'd further clarify that having a "god of war" is not a problem, if it makes sense in the context. It is a cliché if the god of war in question is just "filling a seat".

I think this is where you can run into the problem with cliches. This is, if Thor exists simply because the story has superhero gods, then it does seem a bit more like "filling a seat".


Step 3: Figure out how they interact.

Effector-gods can overlap. For example, if you write about the effector-God who causes everything, then any effector-gods that cause individual phenomena would seem to be aspects of the effector-God. Then Electron and Proton seem to have a complicated relationship with Positron; I mean, while Proton seems to try to avoid Positron, Electron seems to seek out Positron, get caught up in a fight, and finally blow up. ...drama, amirite?

Superhero-gods seem more ambiguous. I mean, while the God of Water and God of Fire would seem to have conflicting agendas as effector-gods, superhero-gods aren't necessarily at odds with each other just because their powers are. The God of Water and God of Fire could just as easily team up and use their superpowers as part of their Ultimate Combo Attack: Stream of Steamy Justice!.


Step 4: Ensure it all works together.

So, yeah, just smooth stuff up. If you come up with a good story about gods, be they effectors or/and superheroes, that makes sense and has consistency, then awesome!

I think you can manage to avoid just "filling seats", like with a mindless copy/paste of a mythological pantheon, if you give them substance. I think the cliche thing is moreso an issue when people have a stereotypical pantheon just for the sake of having a stereotypical pantheon.

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My first answer perhaps did not set enough context or was too written in shorthand. Let's see if this performs any better.

Avoiding cliches when writing gods requires not relying too much on existing mythology. When I say "Mars, God of War", or "Jahova", each reader will have a set of expectations about how the god will behave, what will be important, and how the god will react to human challenges. This what it means to write in cliche -- using an existing set of expectations to evoke a standard reader response without needing to do the work of establishing the context.

If I say "Aphrodite", you know I am talking about a female god known for her beauty. If you were deeply rooted in Hellenistic culture, you would know more stories with more context. If not, you put your expectations in play to make her hypersexual, with all the suppositions that image brings to you.

To write a god without cliches, you must pull the god from a blank page. Nothing about godliness should be presumed. You construct the god from scratch, perhaps using some bits of god legend, but used carefully, contrasting this particular god from what the god legend might imply. You can use the reader's cultural expectations of a god not as a shorthand for the attributes of your god, but as a springboard for comparing, differentiating, and constructing your own.

If your gods possess human emotions and foibles, and I suspect they aren't interesting to read unless they do, you can use human contexts to import some expectations into your gods.

I don't write gods, but Neil Gaiman has. As an example of creating gods, I suggest reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods. It develops the personality of several gods in a modern framework, including the rivalry between them and integrates them into the existing Pagan theology.

He succeeded by making each god be recognizable as a human, with various extra-human abilities. He uses some human character archetypes, such as the grubby little man driven by sloth, or the silicon valley entrepreneur, to set up some of his gods. He uses events from mythology to create additional conflict, but it is done slowly. Over many pages and chapters, one comes to recognize god myth rather than having it be exposed in a sentence.

American Gods discusses the mechanism through which each god derives their power, and the consequences for the gods and for people as that power is disrupted or fades. I remember being satisfied with the book, even though I come to it with no established god beliefs.

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    Perhaps I failed to specify that I thought Neil Gaiman's book succeeded in avoiding cliches, and so I thought the answer was responsive. It is a lot to ask, but I appreciate negative feedback in conjunction with downvotes. – cmm May 31 at 18:41
  • I haven't voted on your answer but I think the problem is that you're referring people elsewhere instead of discussing the issue yourself. You do describe a bit how Gaiman writes his gods but you don't talk about how this relates to the OP's question. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 31 at 23:09
  • @Cyn, is my edited answer more consistent with community expectations? – cmm May 31 at 23:38
  • MUCH better! Thanks. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 31 at 23:48
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I'm writing a story with a custom pantheon and figured I'd share my philosophy. What if there was no gods? Would love dissapear from the world because there was no Aphrodite? Would everyone become a brain dead vegetable if there was no god of knowledge like Apollo or Athena? No.

What the attraction of pantheonic gods has always been for me is that they have a humanity to them. They live, love, hate, feel jealousy, prank, and most importantly make mistakes. While my world has these Pantheonic gods a central part of the story is that their worship is no different than the worship of kings or pop idols. The 'God of War' is a title, not a purpose.

You don't necessarily have to fight cliche's and can instead subvert them to give your reader a new and interesting experience.

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The god or gods that a culture believes in represent the essence of that culture. Start by defining your culture, and then make a list of the most important aspects of it. Those are your gods.

There will be a god of war, if war is important to that culture. Other cultures will have a god of diplomacy or commerce. There will be a god of spring, growth, or harvest, if it is an agricultural society. There will be god of hunting, or deer gods, if it is a hunter society. There will be a sun god, if the culture lives in an equatorial region and has to deal with drought. There will be a god of winter if the culture lives in the polar regions. And so on.

Now that you have your gods, flesh out how that culture lives those aspects of life. Take hunting. Do they live close to nature, in huts, wandering with the herds they hunt? Then they will have a deer god whom they respect and thank for allowing them to eat one of his deer. Are they more "civilized"? Then they will rather have a god of hunting who brings them success. That is, however the culture views its relation to its game, the god of hunting will represent the game or the hunter.

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There are many ways to avoid the tropes. Mainly, think of dimensions outside the assumptions that the tropes embed.

Classic pantheons are sometimes...

  • anthropomorphic in shape. Yours might not be.
  • anthropomorphic in mindset (they have similar lives or concerns to humans - war, sex, live, conspiracy, individuality, ambition, jealousy). Yours might not be.
  • anthropomorphic in culture (they have a culture, and its not too far away from human culture only on a larger scale).
  • Anthropomorphic in wishes (they want the kinds of things people might want, if they have power - they want worship, fealty, rules they set to be followed, love, adoration, belief, trust, faith even if evidence is lacking, control over reward/punishment)

In a classic set of gods, some want to parent, some want to dominate, some want power and adulation, some want to help, some are indifferent. They share very human characteristics

Stepping outside these, you could ask yourself, what gods might not be designed in these molds.

  • Maybe the gods control the universe, in a different way (a God of Time, God of Quantum Outcomes, God of Causality)?
  • Maybe the gods have some different connection with life, or with people (are humans, or human minds, a pupal/larval stage of gods?)
  • Maybe the gods are seeking some quality that humans have (is the universe a simple art/aesthetic endeavour)?
  • Maybe gods are not individualistic - they have a hive mind, or are one being that divides itself for ease when needed?
  • Maybe gods don't have human-style emotions (what do they have then?)
  • Maybe the gods are seeking their own survival, perhaps against a loss of entropy, and the more order and structure that they can create, the longer the universe's lifetime hence their own survival, is guaranteed.

You get the idea. Imagine "what if" the tropes aren't true. Then build your own alternative.

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If you are following the design of classical civilisations and their pantheons, then it's worth considering two things. Firstly, the culture you're creating with inform how Gods with similar roles are different. Secondly, the main stories of these Gods will reflect prehistory.

Consider the difference between the Goddess of love in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. Hathor and Aphrodite respectively. Ancient Egypt was generally speaking an okay place to be a woman, ancient Greece was generally speaking not.

Ancient Egyptian women enjoyed the right to own and inherit property, could represent themselves in court, even ride chariots. None of this was an issue. In Greece however attitudes to women were closer to those held by the Afghan Taliban. Women needed male guardians and were not, with some exceptions like Sparta, offered many rights or responsibilities outside of the home.

This cultural difference is reflected in Hathor and Aphrodite. Aphrodite was the Goddess of love, beauty, and sex. She was unfaithful to her husband, and generally considered bad tempered. Hathor in direct contrast was regarded as being good tempered, and had a diverse portfolio of responsibilities: love, beauty, sex, dance, music, cosmetics... and mining. Indeed we see a similar cultural difference with Norse mythology. Freyja was responsible for love, beauty, sex, war, death, fertility, and gold.

So the character of the Gods will surely reflect the cultures which they are tied to.

The nature of the stories will also have prehistorical significance. I have noticed, and assume others may have too, that there's a common theme with power being transfers from old gods to new gods. In Norse and Greek mythology the older and larger gods are destroyed or imprisoned by the smaller next generation. In Norse it was ice giants. In Greece it was titans.

This, I suspect, may be a creative retelling of conflict between settled farmers and nomadic hunters. Recent evidence suggests that early settled communities were actually quite malnourished, and consequently the people were small. The explanation is that farming was embarked upon out of desperation, due to overpopulation. Over time civilisation developed and settled folk were better able to organise and dominate socially, in contrast to the better nourished (but poorly organised) nomadic folk, who would have been bigger.

Point being, mythological stories likely have prehistoric origins which explain how social orders and culture changed. Just in rather grandiose terms.

You won't have any cliches if the environment and history you create isn't a cliche. So it's important to be aware of various mythologies (as you clearly are), and the histories of these societies, their relationship with their geography, etc. That will allow you to create unique societies which in turn have original pantheons.

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