Writing Fantasy: 5 Tips For Using Alternative Mythology

Last year when NaNoWriMo was in full swing I gave some tips to people who wanted to write fantasy stories. Since then, I’ve been exploring the world of Alternative Mythologies and found there were some interesting things to be done there. My original tips were based in the more general fantasy, but new challenges appear when you look deeper. To those of you who have been following the Alternative Mythologies series, you may have some questions. So today I’m thinking it’s time to go a little deeper.

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As fantasy has evolved there have been a growing number of subgenres that have branched off from the core genre that has long ago become known as Epic Fantasy. Among these genres, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Young Adult Urban Fantasy currently reigns supreme. But other genres to have branched off from the core have also included things such as Historical Fantasy, Slipstream Fantasy, and the bizarre world of Jane Austen Parody Fantasy.

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So when looking at my Alternative Mythologies series of blog posts, some people who write in these other genres may ask themselves how to appropriately use these mythologies from around the world. Adding new and interesting creatures to Epic Fantasy tends to be easily done, but how do you work in something exotic into an Urban Fantasy setting appropriately? After all, the biggest draw of Urban, Historical and Slipstream is that feeling that it could be in the world as it actually is rather than the far off unreal world of something like Lord of the Rings.

So, just how do we apply the mythologies of other cultures to a more tangible world?

Incorporating the Alternative Mythologies

One of the biggest problems with using mythologies that we’re not familiar with is often the fact that those mythologies also come from cultures and people that we’re not familiar with. People are wary of writing what they don’t know and are particularly wary of the idea that they might be wrong about whatever culture they’re using when they start to stray from their safe zones. However, the question I pose to many people following this train of thought is this: how sure are you that you understand the cultures of the mythologies you already use?

It seems like a fairly simple question to answer. You feel like you know everything you need to know about them and people have been using the same tropes for ages. So those tropes must be right, right? Well, take a look into the history of Romania and you’ll find that modern tropes of vampires have basically romanticized one of the most brutal killers in the history of the territory, given the moniker “the impaler” for the way he executed his enemies both inside and outside his own borders. Yet here we are centuries later trying to put a romantic spin on one of the region’s most brutal killers ever.

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The most significant indicator that we’ve lost our minds on the subject is that we’ve come to know Dracula as a symbol of sexuality. We’ve associated him with the ideas of seduction, temptation, and animal magnetism. Meanwhile, the original Vlad Tepes was a horrible monster of a person who was not exactly model quality.

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So, that leads us to our first tip.

1.    Don’t Fill In The “Blanks”

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There’s an old rule of thumb that’s been passed around by speculative fiction writers for years: if you have a name for something that already exists, don’t give it a new one. You don’t need to call coffee something outrageous like “Hyperion caffeinated bean juice from omega 9”. In fact, if you did do that, you’d make a lot of people groan and briefly question your intelligence. But it goes even deeper than that: what if you create a name for something only because you didn’t know the original name? That’s when cultures groan.

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Well, provided they’re paying attention by that point.

One of the most common mistakes of people working outside their comfort zone is the assumption that their personal ignorance of a detail means that detail doesn’t exist. This is, of course, completely wrong and will often result in comical backlash from the people who do know the detail. The most famous example of this is the backlash Stephenie Meyer got for making her vampires sparkle. What many don’t realize is that the reason she did this is because Meyer had assumed that there was no explanation for why vampires couldn’t enter the sunlight. At that point, her idea is brilliant because it’s essentially “our true form is revealed when the light of the sun is cast upon us”. But when you take something like that and you don’t acknowledge the difference, people are going to roll their eyes at you.

Truthfully, original vampire stories varied wildly in what did and didn’t hurt them and burning in the sunlight was added over time as a natural evolution from the fact they were nocturnal and all evil things were supposed to be banished by the light. Combined with some medical history and you know there’s some more to it than just a Hollywood twist. But there was never a reason Stephenie Meyer couldn’t change the reaction to her liking, just so long as she acknowledged it. Unfortunately, to acknowledge it, you’d have to know the original detail first.

So then you have to ask yourself, “how do I avoid the same mistake?”

2.    Research, No Excuses

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The most obvious solution to the problem is to start researching anything you don’t know. There’s no excuse in this day and age of not looking for the answer to a question when it is literally faster than typing out your bullshit excuse. If you need to know something about the cultural detail you’re about to use, Google it. There’s no reason not to do this.

That leads to the second biggest problem for newer writers – one that could take them years to learn. You will never be able to know everything you need to know ahead of time. You’re going to need to do a lot of research and you won’t have the best story until you’ve done it. There are no genres that escape this fact and you’ll often find the best writers are the people who had special knowledge about things that no one else did. Tolkien was a linguist with a deep knowledge of old folklore who crafted his world through the use of languages he built himself and ideas he reshaped from knowledge he’d had before. Isaac Asimov had a background in science, specifically biochemistry, which gave him insights and curiosity into the creation of new life. Each person with each story has to bring greater knowledge to the table than simply a basic understanding of people.

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As I pointed out yesterday, some don’t even have that.

If you haven’t done that footwork yet, keep going before you try anything too complicated.

3.    Don’t Include Your Uncertainties

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So let’s say you’ve done your research and the detail you were looking for just happens to be no where you can find. There’s some vague reference to it possibly existing on a research paper published years ago but never digitized, and you really don’t have time to go learning necromancy to resurrect the guy who wrote the thing. What do you do then?

Don’t write about it.

The fact of the matter is the easiest of the solutions to the problem of filling in the blank is to just avoid writing about the things you don’t know about. If you’re worried you might misrepresent the religion of a certain group of people, don’t have them involved in any religious ceremonies over the course of your story. If you’re concerned that you might not have the right food on the character’s dinner table, then you should have them hold that important conversation somewhere other than the dinner table. If you can’t find out if these people are monotheistic or polytheistic but you know the name of one god, that’s the only god you need to include in your story and you can avoid commenting on the existence of the others.

Is it a cop out? You bet. But it’s one that would give you the ability to show respect to the mythology without being an expert in it. There’s enough going on in our modern world that if you put these characters into a modern setting there will be enough changed about their lives that you don’t have to address the daily routine of these people from the way they originally were. After all, if you’re writing about a Yara-Ma-Yha-Who in New York City (like a supernatural Crocodile Dundee), you don’t really need to talk about the eccentricities of the Aborigines outside of what you know. And, honestly, it’s probably best if you don’t.

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4.    Remember Cultures Are Tied To Geography

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So one of the big things about this idea is that cultures are tied to where you live, not where your ancestors lived. It’s hard to gather for a lot of people because a lot of us live in a box where we don’t quite realize that we’re nothing like our ancestors and yet we put everyone in the same box with their ancestors. My family lineage comes from Germany but has been in the US since the 1700s – I have no reason to act like a German man.

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Though I often feel the lure of my people.

This box is most visible in relation to Asian American characters. Think back on the Asian American characters you’ve seen in the past and realize that you’ve probably only seen three varieties. Note I’m talking about Asian American characters because they’re the ones where the box is big and glaringly obvious. Other types still have their boxes, but they’re a bit harder to spot.

The first of these roles is the Asian person who never really left Asia. Their family has been in the United States since the 1800s but they still live in Chinatown, speak fluent Mandarin and have an accent like they just stepped off the boat. They may own a family business and, if they do, that business is full of ancient Chinese secrets™. Hell, they might sell you a Mogwai.

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The obvious problem with this is that you’ve written a character who’s family history just stopped happening once they left their country. It doesn’t matter they haven’t been in China for 200 years, they’re still going to cling to the all the Chinese roots. Now if you write a character who is only one to two generations removed from their homeland, there will be some lingering aspects. But if your character is 4 or more generations removed, they aren’t from that culture anymore. But then stereotypes pop up for the second role.

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The super smart Asian nerd: a stereotype that’s disrespectful in ways that takes people time to figure out. A lot of people joke about how this is supposed to be a compliment while never realizing what exactly it entails. Like the previous entry, it’s basically related to the idea that they never left their original culture. It’s very true that Asian countries have a more disciplined approach to education and a more intuitive method of learning math. But if your character was born and raised on this side of the ocean there was a good chance they’ve never even seen an abacus, let alone worked with one. They learned math in the same busted education system the rest of us did. Which of course leads to the backlash that created the third role.

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The anti-stereotype is when you take a culture and then flip the expectations exactly 180 so you can run a joke or make a statement about how the original stereotype wasn’t true. But in doing this you often find yourself reinforcing the stereotypes for laughs. Harold and Kumar were infamous burnouts, but to give them redeeming traits and have a character growth they stepped back into the role of the people they didn’t want to be as they got high off their ass. Sure, they rode a cheetah, but then they went back to being a medical student and a pencil pusher. In a way, while they were the anti-stereotype and it was hilarious for doing so, they went right back to the same role as always.

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In the end, the point here is that you should always consider where they live and what their history is specifically with that location. If your Yara-Ma-Yha-Who was born and raised in New York to a family that has been in New York for several generations, they’re not going to be Australian anymore. On the other hand, if your Jiangshi is a new immigrant to the US, they’re going to have some cultural holdovers. But with each passing generation, those holdovers are going to fade more and more until they disappear all together over time. Don’t be afraid to write your exotic supernatural creature as someone who has become naturalized, so long as you follow the last step.

5.    Lampshade Your Differences

So, say you’ve researched all the questions, hammered out the details, and adjusted character history accordingly but you decide there’s some changes you want to make. Maybe the abilities and talents of the creature you’ve picked don’t perfectly work into a narrative you’d enjoy writing. Maybe a little twist would help smooth it over and make it more interesting for you.

Would changing something be disrespectful to the source material? It wouldn’t be disrespectful at all, so long as you don’t flip it 180 degrees away from where it started. In fact, the only real requirement after you’ve done the ground work is that you let people know that you intended to make the change rather than did it purely out of ignorance. Show where the original might have dovetailed with your version, add details that are deeper than the original story. These things are acceptable so long as you acknowledge, even if only in indirect implications, that the original existed.

For example, how much less insane do you think people would be about the Twilight thing if Meyer used lines like this:

“I can understand why they’d think we burned. From a distance it can look like we’re on fire. But here, up close, it just lets them know we’re not human.”

Suddenly, her sparkling idea would be brilliant. It wouldn’t be born out of ignorance, it wouldn’t be disregarding the cultural ideas that she was originally drawing from. Her inclusion of sparkling might have actually been accepted universally as an interesting twist with a shoddy description. I’m sorry, but it’s really hard to be scared of something that’s described with the kind of stuff you’d find normally associated with innocent and happy things.

Okay, I stand corrected. You can make anything terrifying with the right approach.

(I write novels. And if you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo, so do you. Check mine out and good luck on yours.)

3 thoughts on “Writing Fantasy: 5 Tips For Using Alternative Mythology”

  1. This would make sense if you were trying to teach a myth. But you’re not. Just reusing the same myths, no matter how unknown, isn’t exactly pushing your creativity. You worldbuild by taking nuggets of reasrch & then make it your own.

    1. This post is a few years old and I’ll admit I should have been clearer about some details because I didn’t intend to say you should never put your own spin on it (note that #5 is specifically about putting your own spin while acknowledging the originals). However, the point I was originally trying to make still stands and may be worth a revisit so I can try to word this a little clearer. The crux of this was just that there’s a tendency to grab something and not understand the full weight of what you’re grabbing. And while you want to push your creativity and add your own spin, you should be careful to add that spin after you’re well versed in what you’re dealing with. Essentially, the point of this was that you should do what you can to avoid two things: looking stupid or being insulting.

      Most of us are just putting spins on mythologies we’re already pretty comfortable with. We all know European lore so we’re okay with just adapting it to our needs because we know just how much it actually does or doesn’t matter. The problem is that it’s really easy for someone to step into a lore that isn’t their own, not be fully versed in what specifically they’re dealing with, and then make a mistake born purely out of just not knowing enough. Even some of the best authors have stepped into some problems by not being completely aware of just how important some of these things are to people.

      One example I recall from a couple years ago was that JK Rowling did her “History of Magic in North America” and stated that Skinwalkers were misunderstood examples of wizards taking on animal forms. For a lot of fantasy writers, this seemed like a pretty natural spin, I’ve done it for several European creatures myself. But the problem was that the actual lore around Skinwalkers within the Native American community is pretty adamant about these creatures and their origins. While it wasn’t the worst mistake that could be made, the fact is Rowling herself never intended any disrespect and hadn’t realized how much it would matter to some people.

      By no means should we live in fear of branching out, but it’s worth remembering that while it’s perfectly fine to rewrite some mythologies, others are still uncharted waters. In my own work I do a great deal of rewriting of history and mythology of creatures, but whenever dealing with a culture that isn’t my own I make sure that what I’m doing isn’t going to come across disrespectful to those people. One example that comes to mind is the Jiangshi of East Asian mythologies, the “Chinese Hopping Vampires”. Now if it turned out these creatures were actually important to the culture as a whole, and I started to meddling with them haphazardly, there’s a chance I could offend a fairly large group of people. But if you look into how China itself uses Jiangshi today and they have fiction genres dedicated around them now and they’ve settled into the same cultural slot we would put our own Vampires into. Would some people quibble about the specific details? Sure. But these creatures have been demonstrated to be open to interpretation within that culture so there’s no real damage caused by adding a twist of your own.

      Essentially, this whole thing boils down to: research and respect will save you some embarrassment and some controversy.

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