Mythology, or Mythos, often brings up several misconceptions:
- Myths are the old stories of an Ancient Peoples like the Greeks, Celts, or Norse.
- Myths are lies.
- Mythology is canon and lore surrounding franchise fiction.
If you believe one of those answers or any other, you need to set that idea aside and start with a better definition.
That might sound like a daunting task, but for our purposes, we will rework that definition like this:
In other words, your story's mythology is the collection of imagery and stories necessary for you to tell the characters' story as living people in their own world.
The advantage of taking the time to do this world building concurrent with story development, rather than before or after, is that you will unlock themes and levels of the story you might have missed.
This is also a powerful way to prevent or cope with writer's block.
In the end, you will have a story that feels like it has been retold and improved for generations before it came to you. You will uncover the depths and flesh out a world as well as a story.
Where do Myths Come From?
Let's take a look at Joseph Campbell's explanation of the origin of myth:
Wait, what? No one can invent a myth? That's right. That is what is wrong with our fiction. We have spent so many years, and spilled so much ink, trying to invent a story we could have just looked within and found. That is the difference between a myth and a good story. Myth speaks to something deep down within our souls. They tell us that their is more to the story than we caught at first glance. Great stories don't, they just entertain us.
This is not because some invisible muse whispered arcane secrets into the poet's ear. The writer allowed the story to take on a life of its own. It is only when the unconscious mind is active in the creative process that a myth can be born. We all carry these forms within us. Great writers step aside long enough to let them show through.
A good example of this is George Lucas. He set out to write a new myth, but found that it would not cooperate with him. He had writer's block. Eventually, he put aside everything that he wanted to write about, and just wrote. Star Wars is undoubtedly a triumph of the muse over the artist.
Before we get into the process of drawing the myth out there are a couple other things we need to understand first.
The Four Functions of Myth
Myth has four functions, or four levels it works on:
"The first must be to open the mind of everybody in the society to that mystery dimension that cannot be analyzed, cannot be talked about but can only be experienced as out there and in here at once (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
"The second function of a mythology is to present an image of the universe that connects the transcendent to the world of everyday experience (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
"The third function is to present a social order by which people will be coordinated to the mystery (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
"Finally the fourth function of the mythology is to carry the individual through the course of life (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
From Creation through to the Apocalypse into the dissolution of all things, this cycle covers the whole expansion of the cosmos.
Hero's Cycle (Monomyth)
Only one story has ever been told, and that story is called the Monomyth. This story's versatility allows it to take on infinite forms. We will use the monomyth in several different ways, and you must. One of the biggest mistakes writers make once they encounter the hero's cycle is to use it like a plug-n-play formula. They fill in the blanks, and think they have a myth. They don't.
Remember, the myths we have today were told and retold for generations before they were written down. Those iterations are the secret to excavating the unconscious mind for the gold hidden there in. There is a way to replicate this process as you develop your story.
Before we get here, you have to understand the simplest form of the monomyth, and see how it opens up.
Another way to think about this is to visualize the cycle like this:
Now that I have exposed you to the basics, let's start uncovering our myth.