I'm pleased to present you today with a post from author, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, co- editor of the Bad Ass Fairies anthologies and author of the award winning novel Yesterday's Dreams. Danielle will also be giving away to one commenter a PDF copy of her books Halfling's Court and Yesterday's Dreams.
By Danielle Ackley-McPhail
If there is one defining characteristic of the human race it is the overwhelming need to know why. Why does the sun rise each day? What makes a rainbow appear? What causes the thunder in the heavens?
Let’s face it, as a race we have much in common with a two-year-old.
And much like that self-same two-year-old we have a history of making up a reason to sooth our soul if one is not readily understandable. Just look at the parallels throughout the civilizations of the world. In each of them there is a myth or legend dealing with those questions above as well as all the other at-one-time unfathomable occurrences both in nature and human experience.
This is the second defining characteristic of the human race: creativity. Now, imagine the two paired together…
As writers, particularly of speculative fiction, old answers—myths and legends—can add depth and meaning to our writing as we present our readers with new questions. Whether it is a key part of the plot or a hidden significance in the details, literary allusion is like the spice in a good sauce, not always obvious, but definitely enriching. No matter what myth cycle or legend you borrow from, chances are at least a percentage of your readership will be familiar with the original.
I believe very much in borrowing such references, not only because it keeps them alive, but because they make for great fiction. Let’s take a look at how…
Borrowing names—or even whole characters—from mythology serves several purposes for you the writer. First, it makes the reader feel good when they recognize the reference, like they got the in-joke. Second, it helps both you and the reader define the characteristics at play. For instance, if you name a character Lucifer, that name comes with some automatic connotations based on the biblical reference. This tells the reader right away what they should expect, or gives you as the writer a foil to work against if your purpose is to overturn those preconceived notions. And third, it can be used to foreshadow events to come. For instance, in my science fiction story Building Blocks (Barbarians at the Jumpgate, Padwolf Publishing; 2010) I named a ship the Cortez. It was an exploratory vessel that unknowingly caused harm to a life form the crew was not even aware of until it started to fight back. In another story, Carbon Copy (Space Pirates, Flying Pen Press; 2007) I named a state-of-the-art warship the Rommel, in this case a historic reference, but still relevant.
Ultimately, my point is mythology (or history) is full of names: heroes, villains, creatures, all of them can help build a character, defining for the writer—if no one else—what that character should be like, or provide a focal point from which your story can grow.
There is a popular opinion that there are no new stories, only new tellings. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. By using an established legend or myth as the foundation of your story you have a better understanding of the steps that need to take place and that gives you the freedom to play along the way, rather than having to figure out where you’re going next. For example, my first novel, Yesterday’s Dreams (Mundania Press; 2006), takes aspects of Celtic mythology and actually weaves them into the plot. This is how it happened: I named my antagonist Olcas—which is Gaelic for evil—and while researching Irish mythology I discovered there actually was an Olcas in legend. He and his family terrorized ancient Ireland until they were brought down and destroyed by the Sidhe. By incorporating these details into my novel I now had a concrete goal for my bad guy (other than just being the bad guy). He wanted revenge, he wanted to triumph over those that had destroyed his family, and he wanted power like he had had before. And what was more…he had two brothers who wanted the same thing, which meant I had much more story to tell, and more factions to play with than those I had when I started out. Two other books worth, in fact!
Another plot use for myths and legends is as a template, not using the actual details of the myth, but using the familiar landmarks to tell a different story. In fact, mimicking existing myth with legends of your own is a great way to ease a reader into a universe of your own creation.
Both legends and myths have archetypes or tropes that most of us recognize…the white knight, the wicked witch, the damsel in distress, and the learned wizard to mention some of the most familiar. Now, you can call them whatever you want, but the reader will still recognize them for what they are and anticipate what is to come, have some kind of understand what their role will be in the story.
Again, not necessarily a bad thing.
Whether it is a primary character (like the above-mentioned Olcas) or a background character, drawing from mythology awakens an echo in the reader’s subconscious or even outright recognition. That makes the writer’s job easier and frees up your mental muscle for those things you do have to figure out on your own. It also gives you room to play. For instance, my most recent novel, The Halfing’s Court (Dark Quest Books; 2009) is about biker faeries. What most people don’t realize is that the first biker gangs were started by retired Air Force personnel. In the Air Force, if something went wrong with the plane it was gremlins; when they became bikers that translated. Anything that went wrong with the bike was blamed on road gremlins. I was able to incorporate and expand on that myth. Now most people have some vague understanding of what a gremlin is, and probably some concept of what they look like, but where I got to play was in describing one tailored to the road. Mythology is full of descriptions of legendary beings that mimic their surroundings…I capitalized on that…and had a lot of fun! Here is my description of a road gremlin:
- “As the biker rode away down the center of the road, the puddle bubbled and seethed. Up from its shallow depth popped an odd, tiny creature, clutching at its ears. “Smear doesn’t like the faerie-man. Not at all. Or his bloody little shrill bell. Smear wants to grind his face, crush the bell.” Crouched upon the road, he slammed his thick, meaty fists against the asphalt. Microfissures formed: the conception of a pothole.
He was joined by another, and then another, crawling up through the fissures, expanding them, until the puddle was gone. Standing in its place was a troupe of inch-high gremlins, identical in every way: Skin as grey as asphalt, with an oily, rainbow shimmer. Hair long and thick and spiny, like a porcupine mated with a box of nails. A thick white line ran down the center of their faces, like war paint, and along their arms were thick, black squiggles. Like tats or tribal markings, only with the dull gleam of tar snakes. Each finger was like a spike, reminiscent of those found at toll booths and security gates, only jointed. The miniscule troupe rumbled and grumbled as they watched the bike speed away.”
As you can see, I used physical characteristics of the road, combined with the slang bikers use, to take the concept of a road gremlin and not only make it my own, but did so in a way that the reader can identify with and appreciate.
The Moral of the Story
Literary allusion—be it mythology, history, or current events—is an invaluable tool for enriching your fiction, and not just that of the speculative type. Mythology and legend are a fundamental part of who we are…use that, stir up echoes in the mind that make the reader wonder, that put them in awe, draw them into your telling of a timeless story. This is a tool of such diversity. Grab it with both hands and have some fun!
Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for over fifteen years. Her works include the urban fantasies, Yesterday's Dreams, Tomorrow's Memories, and The Halfling’s Court: A Bad-Ass Faerie Tale. She is the senior editor of the Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series and Dragon’s Lure, and has contributed to numerous other anthologies and collections.
She is a member of The Garden State Horror Writers and Broad Universe, and can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). To learn more about her work, visit www.sidhenadaire.com.
Enter to win the ebook versions of Halfling's Court and the award-winning Yesterday's Dreams by leaving a comment below telling me which myths or legends you enjoy seeing incorporated into the stories that you read.