Pick any major franchise you can think of, and I’ll show you the original myths and fairytales that inspired them.
Are you a fan of Dragon Ball? Then look at Journey to the West, with a little kung fu thrown in. Enjoy reading about the adventures of Batman? The Caped Crusader owes his roots to the likes of Zorro and Sherlock Holmes. Are you keeping up on the latest Star Wars movies? George Lucas got his ideas from Flash Gordon serials and Akira Kurosawa movies, along with pieces of Taoist literature. All these colorful and creative storylines borrow, if not outright copy, from even older tales and legends. Like the Good Book says, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
So whenever I hear people complain that there’s nothing “original” anymore, or whenever I hear a fellow writer worry that they’re not “creative” enough, I can’t help but laugh. By those standards, none of us are or ever will be.
But where does that say that we can’t tell good stories? It just means that we have to reinvent our mythologies.
I don’t mean “mythology” like creation myths or Greco-Roman tales of heroism. Well, I do, but not in the way you might be thinking. See, a myth is a story that a culture uses to explain something. Some of these are stories that ancient cultures used to explain scientific phenomenon (e.g., the myth of Demeter and Persephone to explain the changing seasons). Other myths, however, are tales woven around real-life people and made to fit what we already think about them (e.g., George Washington and the myth of the cherry tree). Every story we tell is a way to explain something that happened long ago, something that’s happening now, or something that could happen in the future. It doesn’t even have to be true or accurate, so long as it all makes sense to the audience.
We’ll break down how to create mythology in 3 easy steps.
A Trip Back to When We Were Young
Ask yourself this: “What were my favorite stories as a kid?”
We can’t escape the stories we grew up with, for better or for worse. I grew up with Batman comics and cartoons, Power Rangers, Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, and Calvin and Hobbes. Try as I might, those stories will always have an impact on the kind of tales I’ll be telling today. I’ll have a perspective that favors brave and/or clever heroes going toe-to-toe with villains who have twisted minds, usually not of a cosmic nature.
By the same token, our real-life experiences shape the stories we tell. This is true of both people who’ve had reasonably happy childhoods and people who’ve faced loss or despair at an early age. What happened in the past finds its way into the stories we tell now. Arthur Conan Doyle had fond memories of a professor by the name of Dr. Joseph Bell, and some of those memories found their way into his writing in the form of the world’s most famous detective. Virginia Woolf suffered from a series of nervous breakdowns, beginning at age 13 when her mother died, and her experiences influenced her lyrical and experimental prose as an author.
Writing Stories for the Modern Age
Ask yourself this: “What’s the most important issue we’re facing today?”
Maybe your biggest worry is the impact of climate change. Maybe you’re afraid of terrorism or a spike in crime. Maybe you’re LGBT and you’re concerned about the backlash against your community in conservative parts of the world. Whatever holds a high place in your mind, write about it. Chances are, whatever concerns you the most today is something that you can write authentically about. It’ll shine through in your fiction, and your audience will appreciate that.
Keeping One Eye on What’s Ahead
Ask yourself this: “What would I want my kids to learn?”
None of us knows what the future will bring, and many of us won’t live to see certain dramatic shifts in our world. But each writer has a secret gift to fling a light into the waiting darkness. Some, like science fiction writers, will try to imagine how life might change in the years to come. Others will try to speak directly to future generations, as Dr. Seuss once did when he wrote a beloved story called The Lorax.
This, of course, ties back into how we create our recurring myths from our past and our present. We remember what we’ve lived through and we try to impart the lessons of those times to people we’ll never meet.
Now, it’s your turn, readers. What were your favorite stories, fairy tales, or legends when you were growing up? Share your memories in the comments below.