Q&A: Myths and Stories

Would readers be put off if a cast of characters was depicted differently in a standalone novel than in most stories involving them? The novel is a Portal-Fantasy where a different world’s gods are exiled to Earth as mortals. Stories in their homeworld are from the mortals’ POV’s, who the cast treat as inferior beings. The novel, however, is from the POV of a human who never felt a power imbalance. Would readers be upset by learning that the victorious, “happy” ending wasn’t so great after all?

There’s, at least, three different ways to read this, so I’m going to just pull out some of the possibilities.

As a nitpick, portal fantasy is, usually, where the characters come from the “real world” and intrude into a fantastic world. The classic example is C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which also gives the sub-genre it’s other name, “wardrobe fantasy,” because the portal is, literally in the titular wardrobe. Though, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are other, very notable, examples. This doesn’t mean you can’t turn the concept inside out, it’s just a, slightly, unusual way to describe it. Also, I realize I’m listing relatively modern literary examples, but the idea of traveling to another mystical world is certainly nothing new, and pops up in classic myth going back thousands of years, which is where we get into a possible read of this question. Also, like I said, I’m being a bit picky here, because there is a sub-genre of Portal Fantasy where characters do intrude into the “real world” from their fantasy realm, it’s just less common.

Are these gods supposed to be based on actual myths?

If that’s the answer then, no, people won’t really care. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a story where Jörmungandr and Fenrir masquerade as private investigators in 1940s LA, investigating the murder of their client, leading to the discovery of an apocalyptic cult. You could do that. There’s also no reason you’d need to consider yourself completely handcuffed to those myths. You have some flexibility.

At this point, you need to ask yourself a question, “what am I getting from this?”

Myths can be very attractive as a baseline. They’re buried in symbolism and meaning. They can become a tool to wink at your audience. They can become a method to mislead your audience without ever lying to them. Clearly, Fenrir’s going to have issues with Tyr; clearly Jörmungandr is going to turn out to be orchestrating the cult, to the point that you can step back and say, “no, I never said that, you filled in the blanks yourself.”

However, if you just wanted the names, there’s no reason to burden your story with those preconceptions. When you’re taking on a myth, and adding to your story, you’re bringing a lot of context into your work, that didn’t exist before. So, if you’re trying to bring an existing mythology to your work, I would strongly recommend you read up on it first.

I mean, if you’re writing fantasy, I’d recommend you’re at least conversant in a few of the classic pantheons. There’s a lot of goofy drama and weirdness mixed in there, and it can’t hurt to know a bit more about the stories people used to tell.

If this is fanfiction or tie in work, even if it is hijacking a notable pantheon in the process, you need to do your research. This situation’s non-negotiable, and your potential audience can seriously rebel if you’re misrepresenting characters they’re familiar with. This doesn’t mean you can’t be subversive, or change them into something they’re not, but you need to build off the character that exists. Changing that foundation is a recipe for your readers to accuse you of poor quality (assuming you can’t drag them along, before they realize what you’ve done.)

This requires that you evaluate all behavior of the character in canon work. You need to examine their dialog carefully. Then, you need to have a read on them that allows you to re-contextualize their motivations. This needs to seem more natural than the official reasoning.

The high watermark here, for this kind of fanfiction, is to actually replace who the character is in the original work, within the head canon of your readers, without them realizing what you’ve done.

If you are doing official tie-in work, you’re probably not going to have the option of doing something like this unless you’re specifically tasked to, but that’s the nature the job.

The final option is you made all of this from whole-cloth. Your, “gods,” are just people, not mythical figures, not someone else’s character. At that point, you can (kinda) do whatever you want. On one hand, this can be very freeing, you can make your entire cosmology, and create the wacky adventures of deities doesn’t quite match their actual experiences.

There’s nothing wrong with having multiple perspectives on a character. There’s the person your character is, the person that people see them as, and the god that they write elaborate stories about.

You’ve got a couple options here to consider:

It’s possible that the myths are exactly that; completely unrelated to reality, someone came along and used their likeness to craft increasingly preposterous legends.

It’s possible that the myths are distorted retellings of events; the motivations change, sometimes the people change, maybe a close friend, (who never existed) gets dropped in to heighten the drama, maybe a tragic ending is twisted into karmic retribution. Sometimes people who were there get dropped off the page because they just weren’t interesting enough to the person who remembered, and sometimes, just sometimes, the person retelling the story a century later screwed up, and mixed up some details, or a scribe created a new individual because they misspelled someone’s name. A later scholar might come along and conflate two mortal enemies with one another, because their names were similar. Mistakes happen.

The important thing is to be consistent with your setting’s rules. This doesn’t mean you need to be explicit about what is, or isn’t true. But, if you’ve got characters who were there hearing fantastical stories, then they might have something to say about the inaccuracies, even if they keep that to themselves or each other. After all, “who the fuck is Lancelot anyway?”

There’s nothing wrong with people having a sanitized, “happy ending,” to their story. It’s a little odd in the context of mythology. Most mythologies have some idea how everything will eventually spiral apart. So, happy endings are somewhat uncommon, or at least bittersweet. Sometimes the myths simply bring the audience, “up to date,” and don’t bother moving forward, in which case they don’t really, “end,” the way conventional storytelling presents it. Like I said, it’s entirely possible there’s a relatively upbeat story that actually spiraled into a mess.

The one thing you do need to consider when writing your own setting’s myths from scratch is that it informs the culture that tells those stories. Myths tell you the virtues a society values; what they look for in a hero. It tells you the sins they consider severe. They tell you where that society believes the came from, where they see themselves in the world, how they view the people they share it with, and who they think they should be. Creating the myths is double sided, because you need to create the concept of the culture telling them, and then shape their stories around that.

There’s certainly room for gods who don’t reflect the, “modern,” incarnation of the society they produced at all. Where their myths have been distorted over the centuries because the religious and political influences in their adjacent world have reconstructed and distorted the myths and tenets to fit structures that are more beneficial to maintaining their authority. Just a thought.


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