World Building Part 4: Six Things To Think About When Constructing Myth In Fiction

Fantasy, Goddess, Mystic, Serpent, Snake, Woman, Myth

Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.

But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.

Note: You may want to check out Worldbuilding parts 1-3 over here

1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledge a culture uses to interpret reality.

Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.

Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.

When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.

2. Myths structure our idea of purity

Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.

Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.

Myths may or may not include the following

  • What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
  • What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
  • Marriage patterns
  • Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
  • Important dates
  • Important people
  • How we mark or think about time
  • What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
  • How many genders are there? Which one is in charge or are they equal? Are there more than two genders (recall part 2’s conversation about the Native American Two-Spirited system with up to five genders)
  • How was the world created?
  • Will it be destroyed? When? How?
  • What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
  • How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
  • Is there free will?
  • How many lives do we have?
  • What words are sacred/dangerous?
  • Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
  • What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?

You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.

3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power

Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)

Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.

4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality

Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.

In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…

5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity

Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.

And one final thing…

6. Myths are not monolithic

If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.

If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.

Happy Writing!

Oh and Also, if you like sci-fi check out my books!

Unfinished

White Jigsaw Puzzle Illustration

A few weeks ago I went on an anthropology retreat with the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology. What is an Anthropology Retreat? It’s a space for anthropologists and other social scientists to converse over issues in the field, their research, and trade ideas.

One of the things this retreat often features is a poetry writing workshop… The theme of the retreat was unfinished, and so I wrote a short poem in relation to the weekend and the concept that our work is always changing and growing and mutating. Here it is.

Unfinished…

Unfinished?

Why do we always feel like something unfinished leave us so diminished?

And How did it become an obscenity to consider our identity a fluent and ever changing entity?

It seems as if all of the threads that we must contend with force us to apprehend our knowledge

and suspend our disbelief that life has some kind of clear beginning and clear end.

It’s taken me a long time to accept the concept that I am part of the whole, not an individual soul or that I do play a role in this oppressive system of capitalistic control

I have to ask myself, What is the cost of this toll?

Life and culture is constant progress and process

I think the dead ends haunt us like an absess because we obsess with the mess and stress of maintaining false binaries that we aren’t allow to transgress

One or the other back and forth west and east, south and north.

We have to fit things in neat boxes before we set forth

But in outer space there is no single direction and often the project left unfinished is no real transgression

And sometimes the way forward is to stop and consider your own reflection

Especially if you yearn to learn the lessons as you pull that wheel for a uturn

But really, it’s okay to turn back and leave something unfinished

And since not much rhymes with unfinished? That’s where this poem is going to stay

17 Things I have learned teaching Cultural Diversity and Anthropology

This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last five years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.

Monks, Pilgrimage, Pilgrim, Path, Sunset, Landscape

I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.

1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.

2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.

3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.

4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.

5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.

6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.

7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.

Narrative, History, Dream, Tell, Fairy Tales, Book

8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.

9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.

10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.

11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.

12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.

13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.

14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).

15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.

16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.

17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.

I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.

Compass, Map, Nautical, Antique, Navigation, Vintage