Welcome back to my worldbuilding tutorial series. If this is your first time, you should probably start at the first one. This series aims to elevate your ability to create your own worlds. You know, so your stories are even more awesome for your audience. I want them to want to be in your world. Stories that transport people are found to be more persuasive (relevant here because it reinforces the fact that people like to be whisked away). In this tutorial, we'll be talking about creation stories and mythology, why you should include some into your stories, and we'll look at some aspects to consider. This tutorial expands upon the previous one, History, and In the next couple of tutorials, we'll expand this even more to cover cataclysms and more.
Creation Stories: Facts and Fiction
I'm going to be talking about two different creation stories here, but mostly I want to focus on the fictional ones. The stories your world's inhabitants invented to account for the things they could not understand. We'll get to those in a moment, but the realistic creation story--how your world was made--might be important to your story (it also might not).
In either case, the most important element isn't going to be this information, but how they impact your characters. In fact, I would say that's the only thing that matters. Because if you can show the impact, the effects, in all the subtleties and nuance of your characters, their cultures, etc., then the reader will give a shit about the mythology or the science behind it. It will be relevant. If you just throw it in there because you're excited about it, forget it. Make it relevant.
Let's briefly discuss the actual creation of your world.
We talked a little bit in the previous tutorial on how far back you really need to go with your world's history. Do you actually even need the creation story? Will it be relevant to your story at all? If not, you can probably get away with skipping it, unless your world features some special physics that you may want to flesh out. For example, if your world is similar to our own, there is no need to explain how it was created from a scientific point of view. You'll just be loading people up with infodump. It will be like explaining the gestation process of a race that won't be distinguishable from humans. It will be boring to people.
Only include the parts people will find fascinating because they are exotic or fantastical--if they are relevant.
If your world differs from ours, how does it differ? Move backward. Is the environment different? What led to the planet ending up that way? The setting should be treated like another character. It has quirks, scars, features. They all ended up there somehow.
Was the planet colonized or terra formed? Why? How might the original colonists have shaped the cultures to come? How might their DNA have influence future generations? There is a concept called the Founder Effect, where smaller subsets of a civilization only bring small portions of that culture with them. They can't represent every aspect of their culture. They may also bring specific genetic defects or traits with them that effect future generations. Diseases are another thing to consider when you write about colonization.
How else can you incorporate your world's unique physics into the story in ways that might not be straightforward? The key here isn't to think of the science alone, but how the science effects the inhabitants. How does it shape their worldviews and their behavior? How does the culture respond?
Maybe your world wasn't the product of science, but intelligent design. In this case, you're going to have a creation story. Of course, in your case, the creation story will be fact. But how many of your inhabitants will know the real creation story? How will they know? Over time, how might that knowledge get skewed? Some of your world's inhabitants might not know the real story, in which case they'll be filling in the gaps with creation stories of their own. The real fun happens here when there are competing mythologies.
Which brings me to my next point:
Mythology: The Precursor to Scientific Discovery
Consider how mythologies are formed. They are an attempt by a civilization to account for the unknown. We have a thirst for knowing things, and in the absence of evidence or information, we make it up. These attempts can be pure story, a mixture of story and hypothesis, bits and pieces of science, etc. The more primitive the culture, the more they will rely on mythology to explain things they do not fully understand. The prevailing stories are typically those held by the ideologies with the most influence. Another thing that muddies the water is that a conquering culture might co-opt the mythologies of the conquered civilization. Mythologies become mixed.
How might your civilizations have attempted to explain things? Culture also shapes mythology, and mythology shapes culture. They feed on each other. Native American folklore features a lot of animal influence, because they were culturally closer to nature. Look at some of the oral histories surrounding the creation of Devil's Tower. Some cultures had a close relationship with trees, some with the sun, others the stars, the moon, the ocean. Others created deities to explain scientific phenomenon. This is how we get things like a god of thunder, a goddess of rain, etc.
If you've got interesting physics in your world, it will pay dividends to have some mythology surrounding those things in your story. Even in a world of significant scientific advancement, there may still be remnants of mythology that bleed into the cultures. Think of our own world. Mythology still plays a role in many cultures, and there will be superstitions that spring up as a result of people's fears regarding the unknown. How might the mythology and folklore, superstitions, and other things influence the behavior of your characters?
Incorporating these things into your stories will not only give your characters extra motivation for behaving in interesting ways, but it will also add a good deal of flavor to your setting. It will provide you with stories within your story, and you can save them for the right moments to add a dash of flair to help keep your worlds interesting and fascinating.
Check out some of these further resources for inspiration:
- Forest and Tree Symbolism in Folklore
- Solar Folklore
- List of Creation Myths (Wikipedia)
- Common Elements in Creation Myths
- Folklore (Wikipedia)
What Is Top of Mind For Your Characters?
Mythology and folk influences are typically going to be stronger with things that are of grave importance to your characters. What do they fear? Even when people know better, they may make appeals to higher powers based on major events happening in conjunction with your timeline. A drought will cause an increase in related superstitions and divine intervention from sources that may be able to affect change in the situation. What are the events effecting the lives of the characters? Civilizations that are always at war will likely have deities they think will give them an edge in battle. Mystics and snake oil salesmen alike will play on these themes, selling trinkets and items that are sure to provide the right kind of aid. How else might your characters try to circumvent these events? During the Plague, people thought good smells would help. Plague doctors took to wearing bird masks because they could load the beaks with things that smelled good. Make your characters innovative. This is another thing that will help bolster your setting and the character development alike.
It may be helpful to understand other aspects of the nature of folklore. Most folk tales and legends are transmitted via oral traditions. They are passed on through storytellers for entertainment or to spread information or a lesson of some sort. Legends about battles, historical events, or parables and fables all play a role in transferring knowledge from one person to the next. Parents use scary tales to get kids to behave (look at Grimm's Fairy Tales).
Mythology is the precursor to scientific discovery. How did your world's inhabitants attempt to explain the world around them before the real answers were found? What pieces of these explanations still persist into the current timeline? How do these beliefs and ideas shape the attitudes, behavior, and culture of your world's inhabitants? How can the behavior of the characters lead to more tension and conflict? How can mythology help shape and alter your characters' decisions, and in turn the plot? How can you use mythology to add splashes of color to your setting and the story?
Remember that the creation stories, the mythology, the superstitions, they shouldn't go into the story for the sake of themselves. The power in these elements come from their impact on the characters and how the characters react to their environment and other characters. That is how you can use mythology and folklore for maximum impact.
If you want to be notified, simply subscribe to the RSS feed for all writing articles, or the worldbuilding feed so you don't miss these! And leave me a comment below, let me know what your favorite parts of worldbuilding are. What do you have trouble with? What would you like to see in these tutorials?
- Tutorial 1: Building a Universe
- Tutorial 2: Geography and Cartography
- Tutorial 3: Cultivating Culture
- Tutorial 4: History
- Tutorial 5: Creation Stories and Mythology
- Law, crime, punishment
- Technology and science
- Naming conventions
- Flora and Fauna