What is a god?
There's no good answer to that question. The closer that you look at the question, the fuzzier the distinctions become because the concept of gods has changed so much depending on time, place, culture, and language. The exact borders are different because the exact borders are different, the definitions are different, and the array of god-like things that are similar to gods but not gods is different.
At a minimum, gods seem to be beings that care whether humans worship them. In return, they either return benevolence or restrain themselves from acting like complete assholes. Either way, humanity benefits.
Gods seems to be associated with civilization and culture. Founding elements of our laws, morality, customs, food, traditions, and knowledge derive from these supernatural sources. Indeed, we are civilized precisely because our civilization derives from the gods while those other barbarians out there, their civilization doesn't, which is why they're barbarians.
Gods exist independently of humans. Generally, they existed before humanity and often had a hand in creating them. Once humanity existed, they took in an interest in those hairless monkeys and got them car keys and golf club memberships. Now fully civilized, humanity invented slaughtering large animals in the name of worship and cookouts at the same time.
Being primal forces derivative of primordial chaos, the power of gods derives from their fundamental awesomeness. They really did put the universe in order by beating the crap out of the forces of chaos. With the gods around, chaos is kept at bay and we humans have a chance at a good quality of life, death, taxes, and copious version of barbecue for their cookouts.
Fantasy loves the idea of chaos overwhelming civilization, retelling that story again and again. As the gods drove back chaos in myth and legend, so do the heroes of today. It's always politically correct to beat on chaos.
For a while, fantasy took on the opinion that gods were powered by belief. The more belief that a god possessed, the more powerful it became. Thus, all religions vied for followers as a means of dominating the universe. The idea has merit as it creates a religious metaphysical physics that's easy to understand, and gives religions the motivation to spread proactively. It's enough to move a plot along, and that's grand.
Sometimes gods are powerful humans (or other beings) who've risen so high in power that the people no longer remembers their humanity. Because they've come to resemble gods, they get worshiped by a superstitious and ignorant population. They get da powa!
Being responsible for the general good running of the universe, gods have jobs, areas where they are the supreme experts. In the Indo-European tradition, the leader almost always coincided with he who bashes chaos the best. With death being such a popular human activity, somebody has to deal with the constant flow of dead into the afterlife, so gods of the dead have proven understandably widespread. Meanwhile, with so many people dying, you need more humans, so goddesses of procreation have proven even more popular than gods of death as there is an expanding population. You can't have death and taxes without more babies.
The exact set of jobs that gods maintain depends greatly on the human culture that worships them and what they value.
While gods do sometimes get this idea of destroying humanity to the last man, that's usually in the past. Gods love barbecues, so getting rid of those pesky humans soon proves itself a short-sighted idea. Everyone makes up at the end, the world gets repopulated, and humans get back to putting dead cows over coals. Yum.
In fantasy, most gods are usually remote. Like the President, we hear a lot about them but they don't actually show up for dinner. However, their policies trickle down like bad economics, and humanity gets the less than enjoyable job of sorting out the implications. Where the gods do show up, it's usually as a cameo. More often than not, they don't show up at all, instead delivering their words through unreliable narrators in the form of obscure poems, prophecies, or vague advice.
The best place for an bad god to show up is at the end because that's the climax. Enemy gods always get top billing, and the audience expects the heroes to shut them down. Sometimes the bad god works as a stream of advice to the main villain. In those cases, you may see a representation of the bad god, but not the god himself.
The worst place for a good god to show up at is the end, giving rise to the term deus ex machina, but it's okay after the climax so that they can congratulate the heroes. Good gods can work in the beginning, giving a hero a quest. Another good place for a good god to show up is just before the climax, giving the heroes a high five before sending them off to their certain doom against the bad god.
The relative good and evil of gods is directly proportional to the good and evil in the setting. Where morality is clear and distinct, so are the gods. Where morality gray and muddled, so are the gods. Even the ones who are supposed to be clear and distinct eventually reveal their muddledness, because in a conflicted setting, nothing is more powerful than cynicism.
In the end, a god is a powerful force inside a story, but should not be a substitute for the primary characters.
Return to: Religion in Fantasy