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The 5 Rules of Building Believable Mythology

May 31, 2012 by Kiersi

Creating mythology has been a bit of a hobby of mine over the last few years, perhaps even longer than that (I blocked out most of my early writing career, as it went approximately nowhere). Particularly since the revival of paranormal fiction, and this new “revised mythology” fad (the Percy Jackson books, for example), the flames of original mythology have also been ignited.

I decided to write this post after honing some world-building in my upcoming novel, The Aeronauts, and on the coat-tails of an interview I did with the delightful and lovely Kelly Hashway. We talked about her January 2013 novel, Touch of Death, which is based on some interesting Greek mythology of its own, completely separate from the Riordan cloud.

After reading a couple myths and working on one of my own today, I asked: What makes good mythology? Is there some formula? Does it always have to drawn on existing legends and history, or can it be born completely new?

I think the answer is: both. But there are some important things to keep in mind when developing mythology, whether it is the completely original history of a fictional world, or a new spin on an old tale. I have done my best to be clear and concise in these five suggestions, and of course, this is all my own opinion. Perhaps you will find some wisdom.

1. Tone of voice.

If you think about traditional Western theology (which is what I will focus on, as it is my area of greatest experience, though there are many similarities between say, Western and Chinese mythology), much of it is told in a particular tone of voice. A sort of Homeric, epic voice, that generalizes in some places–mainly sparing detailed descriptions of things, places, actions–and focuses more on the feelings and actions of the characters participating in the story. Here’s an example from the story of Ophiuchus, a lesser-known tale Kelly will talk about in the interview I’m posting tomorrow. Check out the following passage, where Zeus is angry at Asclepius for his transgression against Hades:

“Zeus struck down Asclepius with a thunderbolt.”

Bam. Thunderbolt. Dead. No talk about how it happened, or how his dead body looked as it fell, charred, to the ground. Just Zeus, thunderbolt, dead.

2. Greater thematic elements.

While mythology is sometimes directionless, having many twists and turns in the story, in the end there is usually some take-away. Believable fictional mythology serves a greater purpose in the story where it is being told, augmenting whatever thematic and plot elements that have already been established. For example, betrayal is a good (and common) theme in mythology, where one party betrays another party for a selfish goal, and is then hurt/killed/rebuked.

It’s okay to over-simplify a theme in a legend or myth–that’s sort of the point. Your greater story is where the large-scale version of the theme unfolds; your myth is a sort of microcosm, a background story that lays down some framework for your world-building. Other themes that I’ve found commonly appear in mythology are:

-Family disharmony, familial murder

-An action of extreme emotion that results in regret

-Lust and the negative effects of lust

-Mortal vs. immortal, and how beings sometimes travel between the two

3. Keep it short.

Remember in #1, where I mentioned the tone of voice that often generalizes and skips over details? Keep that in mind as you develop your mythology. Myths are short. They can be remembered easily and communicated verbally over the fire. The story is the most important part, and it shouldn’t be so long and twisting that the bard reciting it gets lost or confused. Similarly, it should be long enough to be entertaining, and have enough plot and twist to keep readers and listeners interested.

4. And that whole “epic” part?

The ramifications of your mythology should be huge. Try to explain the world with your myth, whether it’s this world or one you’ve invented. Create origin stories, even if they are totally bogus, that impact how individuals in your story perceive their universe. Going back to thematic elements, incorporate the grander themes in your story into your myths.

Think big. Don’t be afraid to make sweeping generalizations. Myths in the Bible are a great source of inspiration for creating mythology, where all of the human race is often boiled down to a handful of individuals (think Adam and Eve). Resting the fate of the world in the hands of a few is a good tactic in developing a legend, and gives that grand scale, “epicness” to your story.

5. Things can happen that don’t really happen.

This sounds obvious, but it’s true. Forsake all the rules you know about the world, and create new ones. Planets can’t talk. Who cares? Neither, is it likely, that Zeus or Athena existed, but they make for great stories. Horses can’t fly. Men can’t craft thunderbolts with a hammer and anvil. Many of our myths originate in ignorance: before we knew that the sun was a great ball of gas burning millions of miles away (thanks, Pumbaa), we made up stories to explain what it was, and how it had gotten up there in the sky. Apollo pulled it around on a chariot. The Egyptian god Ra was the sun, or sometimes it was merely a part of him, like his eye.

Whatever world it is that you’re building, try to rewind it to a time in history when things weren’t explained, when people weren’t as sophisticated as they are in the present. How could these phenomena in their daily lives have come to exist? Think the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, where Kipling pretends to explain things like How the Leopard Got His Spots in a traditional African tone.

In the end, remember that you want your mythology to say something, that otherwise couldn’t be said in narration. Made-up legends (or even modified ones) should fill a hole that couldn’t be filled by other means. They are a good way to show culture and how it has developed, or been influenced, by these verbal stories. Look to existing myths and legends for inspiration, and see how they have filtered down through the ages to appear in popular culture, thousands of years later.


3 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the mention. 🙂 And thanks for interviewing me, too. It was a lot of fun.

    I love mythology. I always have, and it creeps in to my manuscripts–sometimes taking over. 🙂 I do think you can take certain liberties with myths because they are myths. That’s what makes them great and allows the writer to have the freedom to put his/her own spin on things.

    Great post!

    • Kiersi says:

      Thanks, Kelly! I, too, have a habit of writing mythology into a lot of my stories. Some kind of inborn fascination with such duplicitous history, I guess. Even those weird ones where Zeus takes the form of an animal and sleeps with human women.

  2. Nice article Kiersi. Some bits were useful for an article I just wrote – I hope you don’t mind too much. 🙂

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