Creating Myths and Legends for Your Fictional Worlds, Part 1
Post written by Andrew Wall. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.
For almost as long as we have been around, humans have been storytellers. We tell stories about everything from what happened to us last week to what happened two hundred years ago. Stories, in many ways, form the foundation for how we understand ourselves and our world. We are constantly weaving narratives to make sense of all that is going on around us and how that is connected to our lives and the lives of others.
Stories are powerful, but not all stories have the formative power of myths and legends. These types of stories fall into a category of storytelling that I refer to as “cultural narrative.” Cultural narratives are stories that have been told over and over again to the point that they have become a part of a people’s identity, they shape how people perceive the world and how it works, and they define for a people what is true and what is not, who is to be trusted and who is not.
Why are Cultural Narratives Important?
Broadly speaking, cultural narratives work together to put into place the worldview, the lens, of a whole culture. These stories are usually distinct perspectives on historical events in the history of the society. They are as important for what they say as for what they don’t say, for what they highlight about past events as for what they leave out.
While this sort of selective storytelling happens whenever someone gives an account of an event (like when I tell the story of when I was wronged by the cashier at the grocery store, but leave out that I was having a bad day already and was being extremely rude), when we are talking about cultural narratives we are talking about stories that have worked their way deep into the psyche of the society itself and are, for the most part, told across the whole spectrum of the society. These narratives play an important role in shaping the biases and assumptions a society has about itself and about those who do not belong to it.
For example: when someone talks about Columbus discovering the New World in 1492, they are retelling a cultural narrative. That isn’t to say that Columbus didn’t travel to North America in that year, it is just to say that North America was only “new” to Europeans. There were, of course, already people living in North America, so the land was not in fact “discovered” by Columbus, he merely put it on the map for Europeans. Yet this cultural narrative sets up the assumption that Columbus found a vast land ready and available to be settled, downplaying (even erasing!) the existence of First Nations and Peoples. This cultural narrative around Columbus’ “discovery” has been consistently used to cast the “pioneering spirit” of European settlers in the light of adventure and bravery, while leaving out the fact that they were stealing land and displacing existing nations from ancestral homes (or even actively working to eradicate them).
Do you see how powerful cultural narratives can be? Every child growing up in the United States of America learns this cultural narrative and it shapes everything from their perspectives on historical events to their moral compasses when assessing their country’s current actions. Every nation and society has cultural narratives. Learning to identify your own will only help set you up well for the process of world-building for your story!
Cultural Narratives and World-Building
In terms of world-building, thinking through the cultural narratives present in your society—or, at the very least, determining your society’s perspective on certain key events—is a fundamental part of making your world feel alive and believable. Why? Because that’s how societies work in real life! For example, which side of a war a society was on will shape how it tells the story of the conflict in years to come. (A prime example is the Confederate perspective versus the Union perspective during and after the Civil War in the United States.)
Here is another example. Whether or not a society is accepting of those different than them may have something to do with a cultural narrative that has been passed down about a bad experience the founder of their society had with “one of them.” For example, if Founder A has a falling out with Founder B and both go on to found neighboring settlements, Settlement A may harbor a long-term grudge against Settlement B because of how the story of this falling out is handed down from generation to generation as an example of “how those people people from Settlement B cannot be trusted.” As you can see, cultural narratives usually distort the truth to a degree, since they are told from one perspective.
To write your fictional society’s cultural narratives (or at least sketch them), you need to pursue the “why” behind:
- the values a society has,
- their societal norms,
- their prejudices,
- what they assume is true, and
- their perspectives on particular experiences they’ve had.
Look for ways that one narrative in your fictional world can engender multiple of these items.
Myths and Legends
This, of course, brings us back around to myths and legends. While you can write more general cultural narratives, these are two types of cultural narratives and two of the most powerful. They are also two of the more clearly definable and usable for writers! So what exactly are they?
- A myth is a narrative told to reveal a particular truth about the world and typically involves the supernatural.
- A legend is a story about a real past event that has taken on fictional elements and usually involves kings and heroes as the embodiments of societal virtues.
Both of these types of narrative can be used for a variety of things and I will be exploring them more in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, where I will lay out the ingredients of each, give examples, and talk more about how to create and use them to enrich your storytelling.
In summary, stories shape us through and through. If we want the worlds of our stories to be compelling, then we need to think through the stories that shape their residents. We do this by asking “why”, pushing to the roots of their cultural lenses, and grounding those things in story.
Want help creating myths and legends for your fictional world? I can help you with that in Advanced World-Building! And for more on building compelling societies, check out our Society-Building Toolkit!
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