As a fantasy author, mythology holds a special place in my heart. The shape of a culture’s mythos speaks to more than just the beliefs of a people. It teaches about the world around the people who created the ideas in the first place.
Gods, monsters, heroes, realms. The keepers of multiple underworlds, the master of lightning. All these ideas are living, breathing testaments to the history that made us who we are. As a writer, the mythology and beliefs of the world can be a font of inspiration.
It’s really tempting to run with the stories at face value. Let’s be honest, the reluctant demi-god forced through his trials of passage to become a hero is very appealing. And death with his shadowed cloak and scythe is an evocative symbol of loss (or change, depending on your take on things).
But, as world shapers, we can do so much more than that. Mythology offers us an iconic bridge to our readers, familiar and part of their paradigm. But once we’ve made that connection, we’re free to run wild.
It’s said that there are seven basic plots. No matter what you write, or how many boxes you blow up in your plotting, you’ll fit into one of the seven. Really, on a large scale, this is true. But that doesn’t mean you need to spend your life searching for the eighth.
Embrace the archetypes. Use them as a platform on which to place a new box to blow up. More people can see the explosion when it’s higher, anyway.
Story archetypes are useful, because you don’t have to explain them very much, which means you can spend more time explaining the twists you’re layering on top of them. So don’t be afraid to embrace the hero’s journey, even though it’s older than all of us combined.
A lot of modern ideas have very old roots. With some creative application, you can make use of the different angles to give your story a unique spin.
For example, I said before that I have an affinity for the pomegranate in my latest work. This comes from both its very old and very new associations. The pomegranate in many mythologies is a symbol of abundance and fertility. Eating a handful of its seeds tied Persephone to eternal life in the underworld, bringing spring to the surface during her return. The pomegranate also adorned the columns of King Solomon’s palace.
On it’s modern face, the pomegranate is a living representation of sacred geometry (which I use heavily – if quietly- in my current WIP), the distribution of its seeds an example of the Fibonacci sequence in nature, each seed a natural dodecahedron. Not to mention the research being made into its anti-aging qualities. Who knew the ancient Greeks were right…
So, if you find a myth that resonates with you, look at it from a different angle, do some research, and you might be shocked by the facets you discover and the inspiration that comes with them.
Filling the Gap
Whatever you believe, it’s hard to argue that there’s a certain gap left by modern understanding, which is where mythology is born. As writers, we can exploit that gap with abandon.
The first advice you’ll hear about writing is to READ. Often and everything. I’m going to repeat that again. And what is mythology if not the collected stories of a culture? But don’t just read the words for the story, read the story for its purpose. Start to notice common questions that are asked and answered, and you’ll see where the gaps in understanding lie.
Some of these are huge and obvious – what happens after death? Where does life come from? Others are small and personal – how do you know when you’ve found the one you’re meant to be with? How do you move forward after hardship?
Others still are more speculative and abstract. What does the REST of the human brain do? Where does lightning really come from? Is it a hammer wielding (and way too frigging good looking…) blond God? Or was Nikola Tesla right about radiant energy?
Find one of these questions that rely on mythology for an answer and come up with your own explanation.
Good ol’ Gods and Monsters
One of my favorite books of all time is American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. It’s the ultimate example of everything today’s blog is about. If you haven’t read it, go do so.
Sometimes you just want to take a traditional approach to the mythos. You really want to write a story about dragons and vampires. Awesome! That doesn’t mean they need to look like everyone else’s, though.
I’ve been loving my exploration into contemporary fantasy. But it’s a genre filled with vampires and fae and werewolves and other bodice-ripping baddies. Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach. I just feel the genre offers so much more potential as well, and I’m drawn to other aspects of it.
That being said, the character I’ve written that’s closest to my heart is a dragon. Yup, a fire-breathing, scale covered lizard with wings. And I, for one, see nothing wrong with that.
Use the classics. They’re classic for a reason. But for the love of god make them yours. If you haven’t watched the movie ‘Bright’ on Netflix, give it a try. It’s another great example of breathing fresh air into a classic mythos. Write your dragons and your vampires and your hammer wielding Gods. They’re well entrenched ideas with a familiarity that will find an immediate audience. But if they’re the same as every other dragon and vampire and hammer wielding God, your reader will get bored fast.
In short, mythology is a great inspiration and a fast way to bridge your reader’s interest. Use it! But remember that it’s a bridge – not a destination. Hold your reader’s hand as they walk the ropes, then once they hit solid ground, yank it out from under their feet.
Who doesn’t like a freefall?
Besides, maybe a hammer wielding God will catch you on your way down…