Mythology is fun. I know, I have a whole website about it.
And some of the best ideas for a novel have gained inspiration for books. And your books don’t have to be based on mythology, i.e. they don’t have to be the next Percy Jackson series, to resonate with audiences.
In fact, you don’t have to use existing mythology at all. You could create your own myths that your characters believe.
This is especially common in fantasy and science fiction books, but keep in mind that not all myths involve epic heroes and gods.
Some myths are just common stories that hold meaning for us.
And stories like that can really deepen a story.
- What a myth is
- The key elements in a myth
- My step by step process to developing a myth
Table of contents
- What is a Myth?
- The Difference Between a Myth, Legend, Fable, and Fairytale
- Elements of a Myth
- How to Write a Myth: 3 Steps
What is a Myth?
There are competing definitions of “myth” among scholars, but a broad definition is that a myth is a traditional story that explains a belief, custom or mysterious natural phenomenon. Myths often have to do with the early history of a group or place, and feature supernatural beings, gods, and heroes.
Myths have several key features that tend to be common:
- They take place in an imaginary world or time. Myths don't (usually) aim to be historically accurate.
- They feature gods, supernatural beings and extraordinary heroes.
- They explain the origin of a custom, name or natural feature.
- They illustrate a worldview.
Myths persist and have endured for centuries and remain popular (even when the religions that spawned them are long gone) for a number of reasons, including:
- Entertain audiences. Myths keep cultures amused and engaged.
- Transmit values. The themes in myths reinforce social customs.
- Explain the inexplicable. Myths give meaning to what seems unknowable.
- Link past and present. Myths connect contemporary life back to a magical past.
The Difference Between a Myth, Legend, Fable, and Fairytale
As mentioned above, there is debate among scholars about the exact definitions and boundaries between myths, legends, fables, and fairytales.
However, some loose general guidelines are:
- Myth – An ancient story that explains the mysteries of nature, humanity, or the cosmos, often involving gods or heroes with supernatural powers. Myths convey the worldview and values of a culture.
- Legend – A story rooted in a past event or hero, but likely exaggerated and embellished over generations of storytelling. Legends blur fact and fiction to create compelling tales.
- Folktale – A fictional story originating from common people that spreads through oral tradition. Folktales use fantasy and archetypes to teach lessons and transmit culture.
- Fairytale – A folklore story written down and published by a specific author. Fairytales adapt oral stories to literary form.
- Mythology – The collection of myths, legends, folktales, and fables from a particular culture. Mythology forms a web of stories that shape a group's cosmology and identity.
The lines between these categories often blur. A story may start as a legend with some basis in history, then evolve into a myth that explains cosmic events. A fairytale may adopt aspects of older folklore. The categorization depends on perspective.
Ultimately the labels matter less than the stories' lasting cultural influence. All four types use fantasy and imagination to convey meaningful lessons, explain the unknown, and link past to present.
Elements of a Myth
While we have already defined what a myth is (at least for our purposes), we need a deeper understanding of the building blocks of a myth before we can write one.
So while none of these are 100% required, the following are common elements that you’ll find in most real-world myths. These include:
- Distant origins
- A moral lesson
- Explain the unexplainable
- Fantastical elements
- A Hero
- Often episodic in nature
Myths often transport us to distant origins, a time or place filled with wonder. When writing your myth, consider creating a setting that's ancient and beyond ordinary understanding for your main characters.
This gives your myth a sense of timeless wisdom and separates the ordinary from the extraordinary.
Example: In J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, the creation story involves an ancient, mystical place created by godlike beings called the Valar. At first, it exists outside our concept of time and space, giving a sense of a distant origin to the narrative.
A Moral Lesson
Every good myth has a moral lesson, usually. You can try to use your myth to showcase societal values or demonstrate right from wrong.
But make sure this isn’t necessarily YOUR moral lesson, but one that reflects those values taught by the culture that spawns the myth, whether they be fictional or not.
Example: The story of Icarus in Greek mythology serves as an example. Icarus ignored his father's advice and flew too close to the sun with wings made of feathers and wax. His wings melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned. This story conveys the moral lesson about the dangers of hubris and disobedience.
Explain the Unexplainable
Ever wonder why the seasons change? Ancient Greeks believed it was due to Persephone's yearly trips to the Underworld. Your myth can serve a similar purpose. It could explain the unexplainable, providing a sense of understanding about the world of your story.
Example: In the Native American tradition, there's a myth that explains why the bear has a short tail. A fox tricks a bear into fishing with his tail in the winter. The bear's tail freezes and snaps off, leaving all bears with short tails to this day.
Most myths have some kind of fantastical elements, and honestly, most popular myths (aka popular fiction stories of today) have these as well. These elements are usually magical in nature.
Example: In J.K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series, one of the most popular modern myths of our age, the author makes heavy use of fantastical elements.
No myth is complete without a hero. This character, either an ordinary individual, or often a demi-god of some kind, is destined for greatness. When writing fictional myths, try drawing inspiration from “The Hero's Journey” blueprint coined by Joseph Campbell.
The beauty of a hero myth is showing an exemplar facing challenge after challenge, much how we do in life, and succeeding despite bad odds.
Example: A well-known hero from myth is King Arthur. An ordinary boy, Arthur pulls a sword from a stone, showing his destined greatness. He faces numerous trials, each one leading to growth and transformation.
Bring in the gods. These powerful beings personify everything from natural forces to human emotions. Remember, while gods are powerful, they usually exhibit human-like flaws, and sometimes super-human-level flaws (looking at you, Zeus).
Example: In the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Greek gods interact with humans, each embodying certain aspects of human nature or natural forces.
Finally, consider an episodic structure for your myth. Mythology often involves connected events or a series of adventures with the same hero
This structure lends adaptability to your myth, accommodating new episodes or different interpretations.
Example: An example is “The Labors of Hercules,” where each labor Hercules undertakes forms an episodic narrative. Each labor is a separate adventure connected by Hercules' ongoing journey of redemption. The voyage of Odysseus has similar episodic techniques, as Odysseus moves from one peril to another.
How to Write a Myth: 3 Steps
Alright, now that we’ve established the common elements of a myth, it’s time to actually start building it out.
Remember, that you should already have an idea of what role this myth will take. Is this a retelling of an existing myth? Is it a myth to be used as part of the worldbuilding for another series?
For the rest of this article, we’re going to assume the latter, but keep in mind that these techniques can apply to any number of applications.
The three steps to write a myth are fairly straight forward:
Let’s dive into all three.
Step 1: Brainstorm
The first step is the first step for any good story, and that is brainstorming. But there are a few key differences that you’ll want to keep in mind when you’re writing a myth, specifically.
Here are some tips:
- Start with a creation myth: There are many types of myths to start with, but one of the most common is a creation myth. And it has the advantage of being a nice introduction to the mythical realm you are creating.
- Borrow from existing myths: You don't need to reinvent the wheel entirely. Feel free to borrow elements from existing myths, especially from more obscure mythologies (my favorites are Canaanite, Korean, and Inuitt). This can give your myth authenticity and depth. And you can also base your entire book off of a myth in some way.
Once you have the full brainstorm down, you can start putting together the pieces. Which leads us to step 2…
Step 2: Write the Myth
The next step is to actually write the myth. Now, if you’re creating this as a background for another story, like for your worldbuilding, thankfully this won’t take as long as writing a full story.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind while you are writing, including the style of prose you use. Here are some tips:
- It’s not a normal narrative: when you begin to write, move through the plot fairly quickly. Myths aren't generally long, drawn-out narratives. Instead, they focus on actions and events.
- Make it an oral story: Using more flowery, oral storytelling language can enhance the mythical feel of your story, as most myths were originally told through oral storytelling. However, this is optional and should fit your overall writing style.
- Introduce the setting and protagonist: Start by introducing your setting and main character. Set the scene and establish the stakes for your hero. The hero's introduction should ideally follow a concise format, such as the ‘who/who must' format, i.e. My story is about BLANK who must BLANK in order to BLANK.
- End with the moral: Lastly, finish your myth with the moral of the story, driving home the lesson or value it seeks to impart to its audience (which remember, might be the people/culture within the story you are telling).
Step 3: Incorporate the Myth Into Your Story
When incorporating your myth into your story, there are really three ways to do it:
- Your story is the myth: If this is the case, then your entire plot revolves around the myth. If this is the case, you’ll want to flesh it out even further from what we created in step 2. Break it down into chapters and scenes, flesh out the characters, and then write it like you were writing a regular novel.
- Your myth is part of the worldbuilding: one of the most common ways to use a myth is to create one as part of the worldbuilding. Most cultures have myths, and so it would make sense that the cultures in your book, particularly in science fiction and fantasy, have myths as well. If that’s the case, then incorporating your myth into your book will help to make the world feel alive. But don’t just include the myth for the sake of including it. Make sure the myth has some reason to be shared, perhaps it’s important to a particular character, or elements of the myth foreshadow something that happens in the plot. Whatever the case,
- Your story is inspired by the myth: This is often the case as well, where your story isn’t based directly on the myth, but inspired heavily by it. Think Percy Jackson or Marvel’s Moon Knight. If this is the case, writing the myth down ahead of time helps you to solidify it in your mind, making it easier to use as reference down the road. You could even use what you wrote as additional material in the appendix for your book!
Myths are fun stories, and they’re fun to adapt and create. But ultimately, you’re going to want to focus first on writing a novel, and all of the skill that goes into that.
And that’s not to mention all of the marketing that still has to happen, which you can learn about on our Book Marketing 101 page.
Finally, once your book is finished, it’s time to format it, which is why I recommend Atticus as the primary tool, because it will format books beautifully with just a few clicks, and it’s cheaper than the leading alternative, and works on all platforms.
Plus you get lifetime access, which is pretty awesome.