Best Practices for Incorporating Mythology Into Your Work?

editing_for_authors
Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
Hey guys!

I hope you are all doing well with your writing and other activities!

Now, I just picked up some books on mythology (Bullfinch's Mythology and a book on global mythology), and I'm really excited to start reading them. My idea was to study such subjects in order to get some ideas for working on some kind of fantasy series. I'm a big fan of C.S. Lewis, who did much the same thing in his works, and I loved the Redwall series when I was kid. The author of the last of these, Brian Jacques, drew upon similar ideas in his own work (I think).

With all that in mind, I would love to crowd-source some best practices for incorporating ideas from mythology into fantasy works of any variety. I have some ideas in regards to the subject, but I would love to hear input from other people. I'd even be open to talking about how mythology can be thrown into stories based in other genres.

Cheers,

Levi Sweeney
 

MythMonger

Willing to Learn
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 11, 2012
Messages
1,358
Reaction score
317
Location
Raleigh NC
I'd think that general world building advice would apply. Generally, I like to drizzle in world building a little at a time, and only when it works for the story (character development, plot, etc).

Others like a heavier dose.
 

Bufty

Where have the last ten years gone?
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 9, 2005
Messages
16,766
Reaction score
4,651
Location
Scotland
I don't understand the question, but that just means I'm not as bright as those who do. :snoopy:
 

lilyWhite

Love and Excitement
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Aug 13, 2012
Messages
5,357
Reaction score
762
Location
under a pile of mistletoe
There's plenty of options there. You can make a world based on the mythology/ies in question, or simply use individual element(s) as part of your story. You can adhere to the original mythology as closely as possible, or you can twist it to your liking.

There's no real "best practice"—it's whatever you want to write. You can make a great story either by making something faithful to the source material or by taking and playing with a singular detail.

(Because phooey to any depictions of sirens as evil creatures luring men to their doom. :p)
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
I'd think that general world building advice would apply. Generally, I like to drizzle in world building a little at a time, and only when it works for the story (character development, plot, etc).

Others like a heavier dose.

Hello, MythMonger!

I appreciate your helpful words, and I am inclined to agree, for the most part. Though I lean toward the "heavier dose" approach, as you put it, I am more than happy to study other methods.

Now, as I am always wishing to learn new things, I would be exceedingly grateful if you could recommend to me some pro-tips on world-building in general. Such advice may be relevant to this topic.

Cheers,

Levi
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
I don't understand the question, but that just means I'm not as bright as those who do. :snoopy:

That's perfectly alright, Bufty. What I meant to communicate was, "What are some general bits of advice (do's and don'ts, that is) that could be used when using mythology as a world-building tool?

Does that make sense? :)
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
There's plenty of options there. You can make a world based on the mythology/ies in question, or simply use individual element(s) as part of your story. You can adhere to the original mythology as closely as possible, or you can twist it to your liking.

There's no real "best practice"—it's whatever you want to write. You can make a great story either by making something faithful to the source material or by taking and playing with a singular detail.

(Because phooey to any depictions of sirens as evil creatures luring men to their doom. :p)

Your advice is duly noted, lilyWhite! I appreciate the input.

I suppose it all comes down to how much you draw upon your research and how much you make up completely. When it comes to world-building, I like to stick to two big rules:

1.) There is nothing new under the sun.

2.) True originality is obscurity of source.

The second is mostly obvious in its meaning, but the first may not be. The first rule simply means that storytelling has been going on for so long that no new ideas are really available. Sure, new genres or types of fiction may spring up, such as how Dashiell Hammett invented the hard-boiled detective story based on his own experiences as a private investigator, but the broad strokes involved in such things have always been there and will probably always continue to be there.

Therefore, the key to true originality (insofar as I perceive the matter) is to mix-and-match existing sources in new ways or patterns so as to depict old ideas in a new perspective. Importing more exotic or obscure elements and mixing them with more familiar things is the sort of storytelling that gave us everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Star Wars to Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Now, I would love to get your feedback on all this, if you don't mind. :)
 
Last edited:

Kjbartolotta

Potentially has/is dog
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 15, 2014
Messages
4,171
Reaction score
992
Location
Los Angeles
To OP: With aplomb but very carefully! I sometimes see the tendency to assume the universality of many myths while flattening over their cultural context, also the tendency to think we understand myth a 100% according to our current theories and the way they were transmitted to us, the more I delve into the sources of well-know myths the more I realize we don't understand very well what believers actually thought at the time. One of the things that blew my mind reading Theogony is that Hesiod, who we own a huge part of our understanding of Greek mythology to, spent a copious amount of time discussing the goddess Hecate, who we understand as an obscure goddess of witchcraft and ill-fortune but who he heavily evangelizes for and depicts as just the nicest person ever.

I broadly agree that there are no best practices beyond checking your sources (I can't remember if there are any issues with Bullfinches beyond that it is very Victorian, would urge hard caution with James Frazier and lightly point out that Joseph Campbell is one person and his theories on myth are just that, not fundamental truths). In terms of mixing and matching and drawing from established archetypes, I'm fine with that and do it myself a lot, but also advocate caution. I think it's easy to break a lot of IRL deities into easy catagories; Loki was a trickster, Zeus was a randy daddy, Cernunnos was a king of fertility. But it's never *just* that simple or clear.
 
Last edited:

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
To OP: With aplomb but very carefully! I sometimes see the tendency to assume the universality of many myths while flattening over their cultural context, also the tendency to think we understand myth a 100% according to our current theories and the way they were transmitted to us, the more I delve into the sources of well-know myths the more I realize we don't understand very well what believers actually thought at the time. One of the things that blew my mind reading Theogony is that Hesiod, who we own a huge part of our understanding of Greek mythology to, spent a copious amount of time discussing the goddess Hecate, who we understand as an obscure goddess of witchcraft and ill-fortune but who he heavily evangelizes for and depicts as just the nicest person ever.

I broadly agree that there are no best practices beyond checking your sources (I can't remember if there are any issues with Bullfinches beyond that it is very Victorian, would urge hard caution with James Frazier and lightly point out that Joseph Campbell is one person and his theories on myth are just that, not fundamental truths). In terms of mixing and matching and drawing from established archetypes, I'm fine with that and do it myself a lot, but also advocate caution. I think it's easy to break a lot of IRL deities into easy catagories; Loki was a trickster, Zeus was a randy daddy, Cernunnos was a king of fertility. But it's never *just* that simple or clear.

Hello, Kjbartolotta!

I am glad to hear your advice! I totally understand that careful study of the source material is indeed required when embarking on a thing like this. Your observation about Hecate is quite intriguing, for one thing. Study of both primary sources and later interpretive expositions on those sources might very well be worth studying, no?

I have read Campbell's book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and for a time I was slavishly devoted to his idea of the monomyth. I have since put more stock in other methods of plot structure, chiefly the ones modeled after Freytag's Pyramid (see here). Granted, Campbell has some interesting things to say, but sometimes they are valuable solely because they are interesting, and not because they are helpful.

I haven't heard of James Frazer, but a quick Google search gives me a good feeling about what he might have to say, based purely on a gut-level analysis. Could you please elaborate based on your experience?

Also, regarding archetypes: Do you refer (if only in some way, shape, or form) to the archetypes discussed here?
 

Kjbartolotta

Potentially has/is dog
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 15, 2014
Messages
4,171
Reaction score
992
Location
Los Angeles
I haven't heard of James Frazer, but a quick Google search gives me a good feeling about what he might have to say, based purely on a gut-level analysis. Could you please elaborate based on your experience?

Also, regarding archetypes: Do you refer (if only in some way, shape, or form) to the archetypes discussed here?

I'm at work right now so not sure I have time to do a deep dive into issues w/ Frazer, let's just say I'm comfortable saying his work is dated enough you can't use it as a primary source.

WRD archetypes, no, I mean just more the way we fit mythic personalities into neat categories, I'm not sure I agree with this person's system. If it works for you, all's good, but I just don't get it.
 

ironmikezero

practical experience, FTW
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jun 8, 2011
Messages
1,622
Reaction score
254
Location
Haunted Louisiana
I love the idea of incorporating myths. (I should--I crafted an entire series on the concept, and had tremendous fun!) As for the world building, keep in mind that myths (and most folklore) are tales designed and told by cultures to address anything (especially natural phenomena) that was not fully understood, and to entertain the audience in the process. Such information delivered as entertainment tends to fix itself in the memory; repetition lends to presumed veracity and cultural acceptance.

Using that as a baseline, you need only develop a premise that sparks your imagination, offering a tangent that suggests a story and a potential cast of characters. For example: in my series (THE STEWARD), some creatures of myth and folklore are real, and those of whom haven't slipped away to the Multiverse (and only occasionally visit) have elected to hide in plain sight. Of course, they've learned to blend in, stay under the radar, etc,; but, they still have the same issues as the rest of us (finding employment, making ends meet, paying their taxes, etc.), and have to stay one step ahead of those others (not all of whom are human) with other agendas who would take advantage. There's a lot more to it, of course; but that's the gist.

The crux is all you need is imagination. Incorporate myths as much, or as little, as you deem fit. Remember to have fun!
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
I'm at work right now so not sure I have time to do a deep dive into issues w/ Frazer, let's just say I'm comfortable saying his work is dated enough you can't use it as a primary source.

WRD archetypes, no, I mean just more the way we fit mythic personalities into neat categories, I'm not sure I agree with this person's system. If it works for you, all's good, but I just don't get it.

Understood. I would be glad to wait for other thoughts you might have when you are available. Thanks!
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
I love the idea of incorporating myths. (I should--I crafted an entire series on the concept, and had tremendous fun!) As for the world building, keep in mind that myths (and most folklore) are tales designed and told by cultures to address anything (especially natural phenomena) that was not fully understood, and to entertain the audience in the process. Such information delivered as entertainment tends to fix itself in the memory; repetition lends to presumed veracity and cultural acceptance.

Using that as a baseline, you need only develop a premise that sparks your imagination, offering a tangent that suggests a story and a potential cast of characters. For example: in my series (THE STEWARD), some creatures of myth and folklore are real, and those of whom haven't slipped away to the Multiverse (and only occasionally visit) have elected to hide in plain sight. Of course, they've learned to blend in, stay under the radar, etc,; but, they still have the same issues as the rest of us (finding employment, making ends meet, paying their taxes, etc.), and have to stay one step ahead of those others (not all of whom are human) with other agendas who would take advantage. There's a lot more to it, of course; but that's the gist.

The crux is all you need is imagination. Incorporate myths as much, or as little, as you deem fit. Remember to have fun!

Hello, Mike! Good to hear from you again!

Your advice intrigues me, and indeed, I do have one or two ideas stemming from this discussion percolating in my brain right now. I was an avid student of Greek mythology when I was a kid, but it dropped off my radar as the years went by. But now I am excited to begin studying the subject again, though now in a more serious fashion.

I had this problem with another story I was working on where I drew upon more contemporary (though still obscure) stories and attempted to mash them all together, only to realize that it would be, at the very least, a bit tacky, and at worst, derivative. Hence my new interest in studying world mythology for ideas.

So, you wrote a book? Tell me, is it available for purchase yet? I might consider giving it a look-see.
 
Last edited:

themindstream

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Nov 12, 2015
Messages
1,005
Reaction score
173
Now, as I am always wishing to learn new things, I would be exceedingly grateful if you could recommend to me some pro-tips on world-building in general. Such advice may be relevant to this topic.

I'll jump in here. "General world-building" (one of my favorite parts of writing) is a topic that fills volumes. If this is your first stab at the fantasy genre, you're going to want to dig into some of those volumes.

My recommendations:

- Some good general texts in the social sciences (anthropology, history, sociology, politics, religion, etc), as in most cases, your world is going to be heavily shaped by the people inhabiting it. Here's one of my recent favorites for world-building fodder.

- Any books specific to peoples/histories/religions/places you're drawing inspiration from.

- How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction (Orson Scott Card) - Card is disliked these days for his political views (which get a side-eye from me as well) and the 'how to get published' parts of this 90s-era book are very dated now but there's still a solid worldbuilding primer in there and I keep it on my reference shelf. (If you want to read any of his fiction, the original Ender quadrilogy still holds up; Speaker For The Dead and Xenocide especially.)

- Writing Excuses (podcast) - The hosts of the podcast are all genre authors and this year they're doing a series on worldbuilding.

- Brandon Sanderson's course - Sanderson (who is also a Writing Excuses host) is one of the current big names in epic fantasy and his university course has been recorded and posted for free on YouTube.

I'd also encourage you to reach beyond just the usual Western European canon of Greek, Roman and sometimes Norse myth. Also be cautious if you are looking to borrow from myths belonging to a historically oppressed culture and be cautious about looking at those myths from an overly Western, Christian viewpoint. (Even many of the Greco/Roman stories have been somewhat 'Christianized' by the writers compiling them, something IIRC that is true of Bullfinch's Mythology.)
 
Last edited:

Kjbartolotta

Potentially has/is dog
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 15, 2014
Messages
4,171
Reaction score
992
Location
Los Angeles
(Even many of the Greco/Roman stories have been somewhat 'Christianized' by the writers compiling them, something IIRC that is true of Bullfinch's Mythology.)

Same with Norse, as is my understanding. One thing I've learned about oral tradition is that if you're the first person writing it down, you get a LOT of leeway in you interpret it and your take pretty much wins.
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
I'll jump in here. "General world-building" (one of my favorite parts of writing) is a topic that fills volumes. If this is your first stab at the fantasy genre, you're going to want to dig into some of those volumes.

My recommendations:

- Some good general texts in the social sciences (anthropology, history, sociology, politics, religion, etc), as in most cases, your world is going to be heavily shaped by the people inhabiting it. Here's one of my recent favorites for world-building fodder.

- Any books specific to peoples/histories/religions/places you're drawing inspiration from.

- How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction (Orson Scott Card) - Card is disliked these days for his political views (which get a side-eye from me as well) and the 'how to get published' parts of this 90s-era book are very dated now but there's still a solid worldbuilding primer in there and I keep it on my reference shelf. (If you want to read any of his fiction, the original Ender quadrilogy still holds up; Speaker For The Dead and Xenocide especially.)

- Writing Excuses (podcast) - The hosts of the podcast are all genre authors and this year they're doing a series on worldbuilding.

- Brandon Sanderson's course - Sanderson (who is also a Writing Excuses host) is one of the current big names in epic fantasy and his university course has been recorded and posted for free on YouTube.

I'd also encourage you to reach beyond just the usual Western European canon of Greek, Roman and sometimes Norse myth. Also be cautious if you are looking to borrow from myths belonging to a historically oppressed culture and be cautious about looking at those myths from an overly Western, Christian viewpoint. (Even many of the Greco/Roman stories have been somewhat 'Christianized' by the writers compiling them, something IIRC that is true of Bullfinch's Mythology.)

All duly noted, Mr. themindstream! I greatly appreciate the volume of helpful advice you have provided me with. I'll see about investigating these resources and getting to work. :)

Also: I loved Ender's Game. The ending blew my mind. I tried to get into Speaker for the Dead, but I had difficulty staying interested, in part due to a busy schedule. :(
 

ironmikezero

practical experience, FTW
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jun 8, 2011
Messages
1,622
Reaction score
254
Location
Haunted Louisiana
Hello, Mike! Good to hear from you again!

. . .

So, you wrote a book? Tell me, is it available for purchase yet? I might consider giving it a look-see.

Uh yeah, Levi, actually I wrote a series in this genre, the first two books of which are currently available (see link).

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077ZSD3KK/?tag=absowrit-20

However, we here at AW are all about helping one another. If you think you'd find either (or both) of these books helpful, just let me know--I'll send you complimentary e-copies in the format of your preference. In fact, I'd honor a similar request from any of our members. After all, mutual support is a basic foundation of this writers/authors community.

(Just PM me; we'll work it out.)
 
Last edited:

kuwisdelu

Revolutionize the World
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 18, 2007
Messages
38,198
Reaction score
4,542
Location
The End of the World
Same with Norse, as is my understanding. One thing I've learned about oral tradition is that if you're the first person writing it down, you get a LOT of leeway in you interpret it and your take pretty much wins.

So you probably shouldn't, if you aren't from that culture, and don't have permission from the oral storytellers of that culture.
 

Chronodendron

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Aug 26, 2019
Messages
56
Reaction score
8
Location
Ireland
I'm writing a whole series based on old myths, so here's my two cents for all it's worth.
My first book, Wyrd Gods takes place in a sort of a hybrid version of the Greek and Norse Underworld but I focus on the themes of those myths more than the world itself.
Mythological worlds tend not to make much sense. Things like gravity, distance or time are mere suggestions, and even the gods' magic is arbitrary at best. I created a world where those impossibilities serve a purpose to the story and force the characters to interact accordingly.
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
Hello, everyone!

I'm glad for all the helpful advice everyone has offered so far! I sincerely thank you all.

Now, a new question has come into my mind, stemming from a little bit of reading I've done in the area of Greek mythology. I know a little about it, having adored pouring over this one book as a kid, and am now getting reacquainted with the subject. Reading a little bit of Bulfinch's Mythology, I can't help but shake my head about how familiar it all seems.

So, that puts this thought into my mind: Is Greek mythology too overused as a source of inspiration for writing fantasy? Have too many authors drawn from that particular well?

Now, this may not be the case at all. I may in fact be quite mistaken. Indeed, I'm sure there are plenty of stories tucked away in the bowels of Bulfinch's Mythology and other sources of information on the subject to completely put the lie to the assumption behind my question, ignorant as that question may be.

But all the same, I'd like to address this idle inquiry to you good fellows: Would you advise going directly to Greek mythology for inspiration? If yes, then what would be some good ways to avoid comparisons to similar works which do the same?

I ask these questions not having a lack of imagination, but merely to see what my fellow writers have to say about the matter. :)
 

MythMonger

Willing to Learn
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 11, 2012
Messages
1,358
Reaction score
317
Location
Raleigh NC
So, that puts this thought into my mind: Is Greek mythology too overused as a source of inspiration for writing fantasy? Have too many authors drawn from that particular well?

I certainly hope not! (sheepish grin)


Now, a new question has come into my mind, stemming from a little bit of reading I've done in the area of Greek mythology. I know a little about it, having adored pouring over this one book as a kid, and am now getting reacquainted with the subject. Reading a little bit of Bulfinch's Mythology, I can't help but shake my head about how familiar it all seems.

Many readers feel the same way about Greek Mythology. It's something they love or feel very comfortable with.

I quoted the first part of your post second in order to answer your own question. You should write what you're drawn to. I'm also writing my own take on Greek Myth, namely because it's a subject I love. I can't tell you how many times specific knowledge of Greek Myths influenced my writing on the fly. When you're in the thick of it, that can be invaluable. You don't have to note things for later or try to remember to include something or do a quick web search... it just comes naturally. Hopefully it reads that way, too.

But all the same, I'd like to address this idle inquiry to you good fellows: Would you advise going directly to Greek mythology for inspiration? If yes, then what would be some good ways to avoid comparisons to similar works which do the same?

If you write your own take on Greek Myth, you won't have to worry about comparisons to other works. It'll be unique because it'll be yours.
 

LeviSweeney

Registered
Joined
Aug 20, 2019
Messages
37
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle, WA
I certainly hope not! (sheepish grin)

Many readers feel the same way about Greek Mythology. It's something they love or feel very comfortable with.

I quoted the first part of your post second in order to answer your own question. You should write what you're drawn to. I'm also writing my own take on Greek Myth, namely because it's a subject I love. I can't tell you how many times specific knowledge of Greek Myths influenced my writing on the fly. When you're in the thick of it, that can be invaluable. You don't have to note things for later or try to remember to include something or do a quick web search... it just comes naturally. Hopefully it reads that way, too.

If you write your own take on Greek Myth, you won't have to worry about comparisons to other works. It'll be unique because it'll be yours.

I appreciate your kind advice, ma'am! I wish you the very best, and am happy to report that I have since gotten to work on the first draft of my story! I look forward to when it is finished so I can get started on the re-writing process!

Cheers,

Levi Sweeney
 

BPhillipYork

Sphinx of black quartz judge my vow
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 10, 2019
Messages
58
Reaction score
2
Location
Seattle
Website
www.BPhillipYork.com
Hello, everyone!

I'm glad for all the helpful advice everyone has offered so far! I sincerely thank you all.

Now, a new question has come into my mind, stemming from a little bit of reading I've done in the area of Greek mythology. I know a little about it, having adored pouring over this one book as a kid, and am now getting reacquainted with the subject. Reading a little bit of Bulfinch's Mythology, I can't help but shake my head about how familiar it all seems.

So, that puts this thought into my mind: Is Greek mythology too overused as a source of inspiration for writing fantasy? Have too many authors drawn from that particular well?

Now, this may not be the case at all. I may in fact be quite mistaken. Indeed, I'm sure there are plenty of stories tucked away in the bowels of Bulfinch's Mythology and other sources of information on the subject to completely put the lie to the assumption behind my question, ignorant as that question may be.

But all the same, I'd like to address this idle inquiry to you good fellows: Would you advise going directly to Greek mythology for inspiration? If yes, then what would be some good ways to avoid comparisons to similar works which do the same?

I ask these questions not having a lack of imagination, but merely to see what my fellow writers have to say about the matter. :)

It's probably much easier to write something unique if you use one of the mythologies that isn't as well known. The Greeks have been done a lot, as "what if they were real" and "a sci-fi version" so your readers are more educated about them, though many of the lesser-known heroes and Gods. But if you use the Greeks you're competing with big names and well-known properties. Ditto for the Norse gods. But if you chose a less explored mythology in some ways the myths themselves would be mysterious, and that might give you a lot of license.
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away