World-Building: 5 Things an Author Should Know About Myths

I’m very passionate about mythology. Beyond the fascinating cleverness that goes into each myth at its conception, mythology as its own brand of story-telling has always been an awe-inspiring way to bring magic into the mundane. So, whether your novel’s world has real magic in it or not, and whether your character has access to that magic or not, myths are a way to bring that fantastical element right to your characters.

 

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Image found on betanews

1. Myths, or lack thereof, are an important foundation for character beliefs.

 

I don’t think much argument is required for the statement “Religious beliefs are a fundamental part of a character.” Simply compare medieval Europe, where the question wasn’t belief in God but rather one’s thoughts about God was the biggest question, to present-day Europe (or America, if that makes a difference, as I think the similarities are present enough for the point I’m trying to make), with the great shift from religion to spirituality.

The concept of mythology for your characters is along the same veins. In large part, because myths are almost always linked to religion. A full mythology often results from a polytheistic religion, because the different gods and goddesses have different capabilities and thus one would be used to explain the origins of something, etc. However, myths can still arise from a monotheistic religion. The Christian narrative of Noah’s Ark is a myth that explains the origin of the rainbow, and certainly, the creation of Eden is a myth that explains the origins of the earth.

In any case, mythology is one of those factors that links many different people together under a set of beliefs. It can ground characters in the world they live in, rather than have them float upon it. It can spawn preferences in characters’ figurative language, or influence how they react to any given phenomena, such as wonder, disdain, disgust, or reverence.

2. There are a few different kinds of myths.

You can Google “types of myths,” and you’ll probably get a few different answers, depending on what sites you visit. The point is, there are no set types of myths. All it is meant to do is explain something otherwise inexplicable to your characters.

That said, I think there are three fundamental types of mythology.

Legendary Kraken, monster of the deep, pictured as a giant squid. Engraving 1870.
Image found on BBC
  1. Origin myths explain things related to the natural world: lightnings and rainbows, for example, or perhaps earthquakes or hurricanes. They might explain the name or color or structure of a plant or animal. They might explain the passing seasons, or the celestial bodies.
  2. Humanity myths explain things related to being human, or the human body. There are a lot of things that appear mysterious to people, especially before we had the science to back them. Where life comes from or what happens after death are two primary examples, but how the body functions — why blood flows, or what the heart is supposed to do, etc. — can also be good sources of humanity myths.
  3. Historical myths explain key figures or events in history. They’re passed down from generation to generation through stories, and almost always end up becoming a sort of fable, or follows the trope of good (the heroes, the victors) and evil (the villains, the defeated).

3. Myths can be tied together, weaving a much larger mythos, but they can also be as unconnected as is necessary or desired.

How connected your individual stories are will probably also depend on their reliance on whatever religion comes from that region, and also on whether or not it’s polytheistic. A monotheistic religion will probably have its myths tightly connected, especially if a lot of time has passed since the original event. The origin myth for rainbows? God’s doing. The humanity myth regarding man’s inclination towards sin? Well, not God’s doing, but definitely relates to God. The historical myth of, say, David and Goliath? David was favored by God, and Goliath was not. See the connection?

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Image found on Sinte Gleska University

Many Native American tribes, from what little research and knowledge I can claim to have, are not based on any real set of deities, but rather believe in the natural divinity of every animate thing. The Lakota tribe has the myth of the Four Winds, and how the balance of the winds correspond to the well-being of the world.  (main source: Living Myths).

 

Or, if you look to the Ancient Greeks, their polytheistic religion left them with different gods or goddesses being ascribed to different things — Demeter and her daughter being the reason behind the seasons, the three Fates being the ones responsible for a person’s life, and so forth. They are connected in that the Greek gods, or mythological creatures (nymphs, gorgons, pegasi, etc.), are the explanation to the unexplainable, but they are separate in that only certain deities could feasibly be responsible for any given myth.

4. The source of certain myths come from location, while others are varied answers to the same question.

As you contemplate myths, you’ll find some examples that aren’t going to apply to your world. Myths arise as necessary. If a town lives near a dormant volcano, they’ll likely have a myth about it because of their proximity. Other towns in other locations of the world won’t have that same myth — wouldn’t even think to make a myth about dormant volcanoes — because they’re not interacting with it on a day-to-day basis.

But there are some geographical or scientific phenomena that most people are probably going to encounter and want an explanation for. As far as I’m aware, every place in the world is hit by the passing of seasons to some degree or another. While the people from different parts of the world might have different explanations for the seasons, it’s quite likely that they’ll have some story that explains why it happens.

20 prompts, including a myth for sunrise and sunset, for the moon phases, for snow, etc., can be found on Writers Write.

5. The origin of the myth does not, by any means, need to parallel the myth itself.

In fact, this is part of the fun. Some myths, you write them down, and they’re done, you know? Such and such happened, and now we have lightning. Cool. If that’s the case, don’t even worry about this point, because… well, 1) Unless there’s magic involved in lightning, or whatever, you don’t really need to explain something we readers now already have a pretty good understanding of. 2) There’s really not much to do with a lightning myth, generally speaking, and you don’t want to create more work for yourself regarding the actual source of lightning unless you intend to use it, in some capacity, in the narrative itself.

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Image found on Atomic Rockets

But this doesn’t always have to be the case. One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in the creation and development of my novel is coming up with an origin story to a set of beliefs regarding the two deities that the citizens of my world follow. The first few versions aligned rather close to the myth itself, but the further along I got with it, the more unique it ended up being. And why shouldn’t it, really? Myths are bred from great events and great lapses of time. Things get dramatized. They take on an air of mystery. Eventually, it shifts from an event in history to a story passed down in each generation. It still matters, though, because, in the end, the source of the myth enriched the planned climax of the series. The myth’s origins seeped into the narrative, and I think the story is better off for it.

Leave a Comment!

What is your favorite made-up myth that you’ve ever stumbled across in a narrative? Or, perhaps, what is the worst one?

However fascinating The Young Elites was, I still remember being quite disappointed with The Midnight Star because it tried to use a myth to explain what was happening to the Elites. Even worse, the myth was completely accurate, as far as the reader could tell, and as I’ve said above, that’s not really how it works.


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