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The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Myth

This is the second of several weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

Out of history, or perhaps parallel to it, grows myth. Defining what qualifies as myth can be a little tricky, but for my purposes, I mean stories that get passed down from generation to generation, regardless of truth, origin, or religious connotation. The story of Odin creating the world out of the bones of Ymir is myth. So are the labors of Hercules. So is the life of Jesus. So is the story of John Henry versus the steam drill, and so is the story my wife and I tell about how we met.

Like history, myths pervade our lives. Often, as in the case of Odin creating the world out of Ymir’s bones, they grow up to explain a mystery. Other times, as in the case of Hercules, myths are created to couch moral lessons in an exciting story. Myths may be created around a person or event to serve a specific purpose (read a bit about the Gospel of John to see this in action in Christianity). Myths can also serve to promote particular values (John Henry) or to create narratives that cast certain people, institutions, or ideas in a particular light (the story my wife and I tell falls into this category).

Myths aren’t necessarily true or untrue. Often they’re true in spirit, at least to their teller, but they can’t be proved or disproved factually. When my wife and I tell the story of how we met, everything we tell really happened, but when we take those real events and create a narrative out of them, we’re building a myth—one that will probably outlast us. When I tell the story of how my grandmother and grandfather met, I’m retelling the story they told to me as it makes sense to me, further filtered to fit the needs of the moment and molded into a form that I think will make sense to my listener; I’m very far from reciting history. A culture’s larger myths follow that same trajectory, even if they begin as a historical narrative and even if they’re written down.

So, like history, myths will be ever-present in the lives of the characters in your fantasy story. There will be cultural myths, like Tolkien’s tales of Numenor. There will be local myths, like the one Gandalf refers to about Bullroarer Took in The Hobbit. And there will be personal myths, like those Frodo creates in his own mind around Bilbo and his travels. Myths matter, in fantasy as in real life, because they color how we see people, ideas, and institutions. We also sometimes make decisions based upon them if we have nothing better to go on (consider Frodo deciding whether to kill Gollum).

Because myths of one kind or another will be important to your characters (even if only because they, rationalists that they are in your story, define themselves in opposition to myths), you need to be able to create a reasonably coherent myth. You need to have a basic idea of what situations inspire myths, how people use them (e.g. what prompts people to create them, recall them, or take action based upon on them), and what sorts of general structures they follow, both in their “canonical” versions and in the versions (often lengthened or shortened considerably) that people create when they retell them.

You can learn some of this by studying myth from a structuralist, academic perspective—reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces and its ilk—but I suggest, in the tradition of academic study itself, sticking with the original source material wherever you can. Pick one myth, like Odin creating the world out of the bones of Ymir. Read about it in the Elder Edda. Then read about it in D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths. Then read about it in The Gospel of Loki. Then ask your friend who really loves Norse mythology about it. You’ll learn a lot about how myths twist and change between retellings, depending on the mind and purpose of the teller, and that will teach you how to use myth in a believable fashion in your world.

Regardless of how you come by your knowledge, you need to be able to use myth to write great fantasy. Myths are important in any narrative—even literary fiction set in contemporary New York City has myths, though they rarely involve gods and magic. But myths are particularly important in fantasy because many (not all, but many) readers come to the genre for them. They love looking at the world through the lens of ancient myths, with their tales of gods, heroes, giants, magic, and heroism. And to hook them, you need to be able to show them your world through that lens.

Catch the next post in the series here.

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The Building Blocks of Fantasy – History

This is the first of several weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of writing a great fantasy novel. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your writing and find ways to improve it. Enjoy.

Fantasy may be born in the imagination, but it doesn’t come from nothing. No group of people, including the characters in a book, emerges without connections to those who came before them. There’s an endless string of chickens and eggs reaching back into the mists of prehistory and beyond. And if you fail to create a world in which those chains are apparent, your fantasy suffers.

I often think about where a fantasy novel gets its credit with readers from—how an author gets the story to feel real. Every time a reader picks up a fantasy story, its author asks them to swallow a whole package of statements that conflict with the world as they know it: Dragons are real. Elves and dwarves are real. Magic exists. Gods and goddesses walk the earth among mortals.

To make that package palatable, the author has to establish some credit with readers, even people out-and-out looking for that package. There are lots of ways to do that, but history is one of the most powerful.

We live in a world steeped in history. If you grew up in the United States, like me, you grew up inundated with stories about Jamestown, the American Revolution, the Civil War, Manifest Destiny, etc.—all the way on up through the Civil Rights Movement and the AIDS Crisis. On top of that, odds are you got some kind of religious history. Genesis and Exodus. The New Testament. Other books in other religions I should know more about. You also grew up surrounded by the detritus of that history. Monuments. Parks. Graffiti. Arguments. Stereotypes. Prejudices.

For most of us, I think, history fades into the background of our lives until some event forces it into our consciousness for a little while. But it’s always there, subtly informing the way we see ourselves, the people around us, and the world in general. Maybe most importantly, most of us receive history fairly uncritically. The first story we’re told about something sticks and becomes truth until something else dislodges it. We end up stuffed full of received historical narratives, and anything that fits into them feels true, because it plays to what we think we know about the world.

So people are used to looking for history, and they’re used to swallowing it more or less unquestioned. As an author looking to get a reader to believe in an imaginary world, that provides you with an incredibly powerful tool. A little dose of history—most often not dead history in the form of an encyclopedia extract or ten pages of backstory but living history in the form of a monument, a ruin, a prejudice, a fight, or a conversation that directly impacts a major character—helps breathe life into a world. Beyond that, a story that loosely shadows a widespread historical narrative feels true to the reader as well. It’s immediately plausible, because the reader has heard of something sort of like it once before. A pastoral green land (England/The Shire) is threatened by a shadow from the southeast (Germany/Mordor). An emperor (Caesar/Palpatine) usurps power from a senate (Rome/The Old Republic).

In the end, that means two things for the writer of a fantasy novel: you must read history, and you must write history. Read it to understand how people think about it and talk about it—to grasp the shapes of the stories we tell and how they might appear in your fiction. Write it because without it, your stories won’t feel whole. Where your characters are coming from matters as much as what they’re heading to.

Catch the next post in the series here.

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