Whether you’re incorporating real-world gods into your book, or you’ve created your own pantheon, deities are some of the most difficult to write because humans are not immortal. How can you think like one? How can you determine what an immortal would think is important, considering they have all the time—and often all the power—in the world?
There are a few things that I’ve seen done successfully. Of course, if you’re basing your deities on those in real-life religions (God and angels, the Greek gods, the Roman gods, the Egyptian gods, the Norse gods—to name a few), you must first do all the research you can into the stories that have been told about them. What can you discern from their character? Feel free to take creative liberties; consider everything, take what you want, leave the rest.
If you’re making up your own gods, what are their attributes? They should be ordered in importance and power in the way that the people of your world deem them, as many gods are simply given their power by human belief and worship. Is the sun most important because if brings light and life? Or the Earth, because it’s a terrifying power? Or even war, because your people are warriors first and foremost?
All deities have powers that match their attributes. Poseidon, god of the seas, of course has powers over the ocean. Thor, god of thunder, has a hammer with which he brings down lightning. Azrael, angel of death, severs the soul from the mortal body and escorts them either up or down to the afterlife. So, what are the powers of your individual gods—and what do they share?
In the Greek myths, the gods all have the ability to shapeshift, to teleport, to perform feats of untold power. They are unique in their domains, yes, but as a god, they have certain powers allotted to them. It is simply biology, if you want to call it that.
That being said, not everyone can be all powerful, especially if you have a collection of gods. There is always something or someone more powerful. Gods can fight each other on equal ground; most times, they can be hurt by others who share their strength; they have emotions of their own; they can become mortal (in some myths).
What limits do your deities have? Are their abilities limited, or are they only limited by their own internal flaws? Perhaps they lack creativity, and therefore rely on human ingenuity to create new things. Perhaps they rely solely on worship for their power. Perhaps they are limited by their own selfishness.
Consider a deity with all-knowing sight. Would it become boring for them to know everything all the time? Would they perhaps try to turn their gaze away so that they may be surprised? How would they react if there was something they couldn’t see?
Hand-in-hand with their powers, gods are often prideful. They have large egos that are only made larger by worship, and they think that they’re the best. They often destroy people who dare question or belittle them. Just like people, gods enjoy their power, and they’ve never known anything different. It’s like with humans who are born with privilege. Consider a human who has been born rich. Never hungry, never too cold or too hot, never wanting for anything. They do not have the ability to empathize with those who are born poor, who starve to death because there is no food. They can sympathize, sure (if they want), but they can never truly understand what it is like to be that other person unless they walk in their shoes.
For gods, this is rare, because why would they want to know what it’s like to be mortal any more than we humans would want to know what it’s like to be a worm or a mosquito? Curiosity? Perhaps. But not because we want to understand them and their lives. (I admit, there are rare few people who might feel this way, who care for all creatures and have the desire to know what it’s like being something else to better understand how to treat them. This is unlikely.)
Deities in the Books I’ve Read
The first and most obvious choice is of course all the books I own by Rick Riordan. I started reading his books in the second grade and I’m still loving them. He’s done series for the Greek gods, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Norse, and even incorporated gods of other pantheons into his stories. He sponsors authors who write books for those other religions as well, as he’s admitted he can’t do all of them himself.
I’ve read a lot of work which incorporates capital G God—mostly classics, but also books like Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and Cassandra Clare’s work The Mortal Instruments, though God doesn’t necessarily show up in that series, only angels and demons.
I’ve read books in which a new all-powerful deity has been created, such as Father Earth in the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Father Earth is the main (if only) deity in the series because he is the most important. Plate tectonics are causing mass destruction and Seasons of drought, disease, and earthshaking. He is given life as his own force, rather than the force of science.
I’ve also read books where a whole new pantheon of gods has been created, such as the Shadow Atlas series by indie-author Jenny Sandiford, in which there are eight main gods who are patrons to their Houses from which humans draw their magic. They each have names (many of which are hard to pronounce) and lives, though they are hard to connect to even though they interfere with the plot.
I think, whatever you decide to do, remember that you should always be asking yourself more questions. Know every detail about who and what you’re writing, because trust me, readers can definitely tell when you know what you’re talking about. Know everything you can, so that when you write, you’re not letting that edge of hesitation sneak into your words—hesitation that shows you’re still unsure about how some things work, or you’re worried someone will catch an inconsistency. (I’ve seen it before.)
My favourite stories that contain gods are when they subvert expectations. Sometimes it’s when the god is forced to be mortal to learn a lesson, others when the gods are different from the myths (talking about Neil Gaiman’s interpretations of Lucifer as opposed to the traditional Catholic and/or Christian beliefs about him). I love when something is new and exciting while still being consistent, either with the new reality the author has created, or an added layer of depth on top of the real-life stories.