Creating Myths and Legends for Your Fictional Worlds, Part 3
Post written by Andrew Wall. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.
In Part 2 we talked all about myths and how to utilize them in world-building. In this article we look at a second type of cultural narrative: legends. We will define what a legend is, look at what it is used for, identify its key aspects, and discuss how to use legends in your story worlds.
What Is a Legend?
As opposed to the word ‘myth,’ ‘legend’ as a term isn’t that far astray in its meaning from how we use it colloquially. If we refer to a person as “legendary” we are describing them as someone who is well-known for their exploits. So a “legend” is a narrative about a particular individual’s accomplishments, usually focusing on what led up to those accomplishments and how they achieved what they set out to do. Usually this is all with a healthy dose of exaggeration. Pretty straightforward, right?
What a Legend Does
Where it gets really interesting and what distinguishes a legend from, say, a biography, is that legends are stories that play a particular role in the life of a culture. One of the key things that legends offer are aspirational ethics. The protagonist of the story usually embodies some natural trait or personal ethic that the society values.
Take Odysseus from Ancient Greece. Odysseus survives his crazy adventure home not because of his brawn or his encyclopedic knowledge. He makes it home and escapes danger again and again because of his cunning. In nearly every episode of his great odyssey, it is his cunning that keeps him alive and inching towards home.
The perfect example of this is when his ship passes the island of the sirens. Odysseus has his crew put wax in their ears to prevent them from hearing the sirens’ luring song so they can make it by. Someone has to be able to hear the song though, so they can let everyone else know when it is past. Odysseus has his crew tie him to the mast and ignore his pleas to be let down as they row by. This whole setup is pretty ingenious! An excellent example of his cunning getting them through a tight spot.
The legends surrounding Odysseus hold up the cunning mind as a desirable trait for a person to possess. In this sense, legends reflect the values of a society by embodying them in an exemplar.
Aspects of a Legend
In addition to acting as a mirror for a society’s values, legends have a few key aspects that are essential to their makeup: the types of characters used, their setting, and their mixture of fact and fiction.
Types of Characters
I touched on this a little bit above, but legends primarily feature heroes and royalty as their protagonists. These heroes are cultural heroes, directly connected to the originators of the legend, who act as representatives of social norms and values. Less common, but still legendary in their own right, can be tragic heroes who embody particular vices or negative traits and whose stories serve as warning instead of invitations for emulation.
Odysseus from our example above can serve both functions. Not only is he the standard bearer for the virtue of cunning and quick thinking, but he also serves as a warning against pride. He was a braggart and relished his victories. While it was his blinding of the cyclops Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son, that serves as the basis of the god’s animosity towards Odysseus, it is Odysseus’ over-the-top taunting of the cyclops—which included a put-down of Poseidon himself—after he has already made it to safety that seals the deal.
Notice that while gods and supernatural beings can be characters in legends, they are not the protagonist like they are in myths. In legends, the point is that the protagonist is one of us and has attributes that members of society can strive to emulate.
Legends are always set in the past. Not the imagined primordial past that myths occupy, but the concrete, verifiable past. An event from the history of society or a particular figure of interest that is a part of their heritage are typically the subjects of legends. Take the example we have been using of The Odyssey. The backdrop for this narrative is the Trojan War, a historical event, and the journey home across the ocean that the Greek victors needed to make.
Yet legends are not constrained to the distant past, though that is much more common. Legends can also be about the more recent past. Take the category of legend known as “urban legends,” stories about something mysterious and unexplainable that happened to someone in a particular place. Urban legends often are about much more recent occurrences than the distant past.
For example, there is an urban legend from Japan regarding the aka manto (“red cloak”). There are a variety of versions of the story from all over Japan involving a great number of unconnected individuals and deaths. Yet the stories all share a particular element in common: a person in the fourth bathroom stall in an older bathroom finding there is no toilet paper. Upon noticing, they are asked by a strange voice if they want “blue paper” or “red paper.” Either option leads to a brutal and immediate death at the hands of, in many of the stories, a red-cloaked figure.
Whether this story is “true” or not, is not the issue at hand. The fact that it is a tale that is so widespread, has a unifying figure (albeit a mysterious one in this case), and has its setting in the contemporary era is why I share it as an example.
Reality and Exaggeration
Here is where we come to the true heart of legends. While they can be chock full of verifiable reality, such as real events, people, and places, legends are also rife with exaggerations. What do I mean by that? Legends are stories that are told over and over again. Often the accomplishments of the legendary heroes are inflated, added to, and embellished over time. As the years go by, legends grow and morph as they are influenced by their storytellers.
The kernel of truth that is at The Odyssey’s heart is undeniable: a difficult journey home after a long war. Yet the epic tale it has become is full of fantastical elements that are clearly not historical. This leads us to the reason behind why these exaggerations happen in the first place: entertainment. Legends are the excellent tools for teaching things like values and ethics that they are because, at their heart, they are meant to be entertaining.
Using Legends in World-Building
Much like with myths, legends lend themselves to giving you a unique lens into the societies in your world. The beloved legends of a society, the stories that children ask to be told again and again, and the tales spun by bards in taverns all give insight into what a society values in regards to entertainment as well as behavior and traits. What heroine(s) or hero(es) did your protagonist look up to the most in the stories they grew up hearing? Maybe they never liked the “old stories” and rebelled against the social values presented there. Why does a society use a particular formulaic salutation when they are saying goodbye? The possibilities are nearly endless for adding depth to your characters, your plot, and your world.
In summary, legends are stories about the past that are told to entertain. They have been exaggerated over time, yet also contain kernels of verifiable fact. They give glimpses into what a society values and lifts up heroes as exemplars.
When it comes to world-building and getting ready to write a story, legends can give excellent insight into the cultures of your world and add a good deal of depth to them as well.
Want help creating myths and legends for your fictional world? That's something we can focus on in Advanced World-Building coaching! And for more on building societies and cultures, check out our Society-Building Toolkit.
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