Easy tactics to create myths to add texture and dimension to your stories
When you hear the word myth, what do you think? An epic Homer text or a Euripides play? Do you think of a 10-hour Lord of The Rings trilogy? Something enormous and impenetrable. I find it daunting to think in terms of creating something that huge.
And fear aside, the Middle-Earth Blog by Michael Martinez reports that it took Tolkien 17 years to write Lord of The Rings. Who’s got that kind of time?
But fear not, mythology doesn’t reside only in epic fantasy or sci-fi books, and it’s not hidden in the formidable stories of the Greeks and Romans.
From phrases like an urban myth to unicorn investment, the idea of mythology surrounds us, and we love it.
What is a myth?
Formal definitions for a myth have a wide range; they talk about early humans and traditional stories, supernatural elements down to a fable that is without truth.
But none of these dictionary definitions help with the technical crafting of a myth. So I looked to the guru, Joseph Campbell, and his ubiquitous book on mythology, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
There he describes a myth as the,
“The secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation”
Now we’re getting closer. The human cultural manifestation is the life of our characters as imagined by us, human writers, who by default, have our own cultural experience. The inexhaustible energies of the cosmos then relate to any part of the fictional world that we create around them. Inexhaustible and cosmos suggest infinite possibilities, which there are in storytelling.
This is a liberating definition; it gives us all the facility to be able to create a myth.
But it still feels frightening, so I’m going to venture a super-simplified description of a myth.
A myth is an element in your story that remains unexplained; it can be a character myth, a world myth, a quest myth; anything that remains unresolved. It becomes spirit like and stays with you long after the tale has drawn to a close.
Myth vs Story
This definition leads me nicely to the difference between story and myth; the first has an ending, but a myth through the fact that it remains unclosed remains open.
As screen or fiction writers we’re sometimes so eager to make sure there are no loose ends or gaping plot holes that we tie up every last thread which can work against the practice of using mythology.
To explain everything, we leave nothing for the audience to muse on after the show has finished.
Let’s look at two Bruce Willis films. Die Hardis often cited as a perfect action film. We have a sweaty Bruce in a vest; we have tremendous obstacles and a formidable enemy and a beautiful set of action sequences. In short, we have a grand spectacle of a film and script.
I love Die Hard, but when the story is closed and resolved, we’re not left with anything to take away or allow us to see the philosophical elements of the story around us. A pure action film is fine of course, I love Die Hard and a sweaty Bruce Willis, but if you’re looking for ways to add texture or depth to your story, try a little myth-building.
The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is built on a myth; the ability to interact with the dead which will always be unresolved. The story with Bruce Willis is closed; he finally accepts his death, but the bigger question about how the boy can live his life with his sixth sense and how he can connect with his mother remains open.
The film ends, but there are many unanswered questions about how our protagonist is going to live.
Below I explore a range of easy hits to create myths in your stories.
Your Writer’s Myth
Firstly, onto your own writer’s myth. Everyone has at least one myth, something you believe in that no-one else can see or touch. It’s the culmination of your human experience. Maybe it’s an observation about the outside world; perhaps it’s a political or religious belief that you hold, perhaps it’s a fear or a hope. The less obvious to the world your myth, the less explained it is, the bigger the myth becomes.
What’s the question that haunts you? What are the unresolved energies in your own life? What has made you sad, happy, at one with the universe?
You could ask these questions about all of your main characters.
The Myth A Character Creates About Themselves
How honest are we about the way we think of ourselves? How self-analytical can we be when factoring in desires, wants, quirks, jealousies, beliefs, etc. The less rational and founded the opinion a character has of themselves, the more they have created their mythology which can be an authoritative source of momentum.
In Breaking Bad Walter White is haunted by the success of his ex-girlfriend friend from university and is perpetually in a state of anger. He sees himself as having been robbed of wealth and satisfaction by their acts of injustice. But is this true? Walter also creates an external myth when he names himself Heisenberg. He’s quite the myth-maker. Vince Gilligan talks about the process of discovering the force of Walt’s ego in his behaviour.
“ the ego I think hides a great deal of damage and low self-esteem that’s just below the surface.”
What are the lies the character uses to justify their behaviour? What’s an untapped memory that is affecting their lives? What do they think about themselves? These are great questions to get you thinking about your protagonist’s myth.
Myths Around Other Characters
Building up myths for other characters can also be great for adding texture to your story. By withholding information either to your audience or from other characters in the story, multiple myths can be born.
The antagonist in Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games has a mythological status that keeps expanding every time we learn a piece of new information about him. Instead of becoming more knowledgeable, we are less confident, which gives a sense of intrigue about him. His myth builds; he’s a god and a demon, a stranger, and a community member; a gangster and an intelligence recruit. As I read the novel, his character grows in stature, and I enjoy my own relationship with him; something enabled via the building of his character myth.
This is such an easy feature to include in your writing; just give a bite, not a plateful of the reasoning behind your characters’ actions. Keep an element of mystery, and your story will have a deeper dimension.
Superstition shares some of the features of a myth; its power isn’t seen or owned and can never really be proven. Our knowledge of the residual rules of superstition is more durable than the origins and creating a notion about your world, or your character’s world is an effective way to add dimension to a story.
Horror often uses superstition mythology; if not existing superstitions, then they create their own set of illogical rules that govern the plot. The myth sits on top of the characters, and they ignore it at their peril, generally.
You can also keep a character textured by giving them a superstition or a rule that they try not to break. It can be unstated and drive audience curiosity. Or it can be part of the story, like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets.
The great thing about myth-based behaviour is that it stops us being able to anticipate each move a character makes and builds suspense.
Superstition also operates well on objects in a story, like the rings in Lord of The Rings. In my own heist trilogy, there’s a myth built around a stolen gold stash. The legend goes that every time the gold is moved someone dies — it’s not a fantastic myth on its own, but it creates a psychological ecosystem for each of the characters involved. It counts for irrational behaviour if you don’t believe in superstition or rational behaviour if you do. It drives different actions in each of the characters, which adds a lovely texture and drives unexpected behaviour.
Mythology can be created by the shadow of something that is no longer there. A missing father figure or sibling. A house built on an ancient graveyard. A city sunken under the sea.
Something that is no longer there but leaves its trace on a person or area is a fertile source of myth, and of course, something that is no longer there cannot be proven.
Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now is about a married couple who are struggling to live their lives following the death of a child. The desire for understanding and solace drives John’s actions which ultimately lead to his death.
The power of something that is no longer there is substantial and feeds into the complexity of human relationships. Regret, guilt, sadness, hope are strong emotions that stem from the shadow of something that is gone.
Likewise, a missing father figure or partner or sibling creates a sense of empathy and connection. Just like in life, we can more easily forgive someone who is suffering from the tragedy of loss.
The idea of battling and conquering mortality can be a powerful myth to put on your characters.
Ciro di Marzio in the Italian crime series Gomorrah is nicknamed L’Immortal after surviving a few bomb attacks that left everyone else in the vicinity dead. The myth affects allies, enemies, and even his behaviour and plays into a greater myth about life and death in Gomorrah.
Bringing someone back can be trite, but what about playing with the idea of a character being immortal or create a rule that will lead to death if broken.
Injustice and Redemption
The fantastic Netflix drama series The Ozarks is home to a few of tv’s best female characters of recent years; they’re tough, uncompromising, and utterly delectable to watch. Darlene is one such character. She runs a heroine farm in Mississippi and is driven by a desire to resolve an injustice perpetrated on her family when developers flooded their land to create a lake. Knowing Darlene and her volatile actions we’re not quite sure how much of the story is true or if there isn’t more to it than meets her story, but this intrigue creates a mythology that feeds the overall tone and excitement of the show.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a few of these tips for creating mythologies in your fictional stories. With so many people at home at the moment and Netflix subscriptions continuing to soar it’s our time storytellers to make those tales shine.
A myth at the simplest storytelling level is something that remains unproven
Give each of your characters a myth that they believe about themselves
Make up a superstition about one of the main themes or objectives of your world
A missing person is a fertile ground for myth-building
Mortality; that great question that we all have is a great device to use
Injustice or redemption are two dominant motifs that you can use to create a myth within your story.
Thanks for reading. I write a lot about storytelling. If you’re a fellow creative writer you may be interested in this blog about writing devices from Émile Zola.