Today and tomorrow, author Skyler White will wield the WU mic to talk to us about an interesting topic — using myth and fact to create well-rounded fiction. We’re thrilled she’s with us. Take it away, Skyler.
The opportunity to write a piece about craft at Writer Unboxed has given me a welcome respite from talking about my debut novel, and Falling, Fly which comes out this month. I’ve chosen to write about myth as a writer’s tool for several reasons: it is a topic in which I’m deeply invested; it does relate to the novel I’m supposed to be promoting by guest-blogging; and because more and more, at conferences and informal gatherings, I’m finding writers with a secret, private, life-long love of mythology, and I want to out everyone I can. It’s a bit of a crusade for me, really – to get people talking about the stories in and of their lives.
I’ve titled this post Myth: This Will Solve Everything as a bit of a joke, because I’m aware that my faith in the topic borders on the fanatic. But I’m only mostly joking. There are two ways to read this post, and although they’re opposite of one another, to me, they are both true, and that paradox pleases me. It is also my metapoint. So first, let me break my title into its two interpretations: “Myths can solve any problem a writer faces,” and “It is a myth that anything can fix all a writer’s woes.”
What does it mean to use the word “myth” that second way? It means the same thing my grandma meant when she asked me if I was telling her a story about something naughty I’d probably done. Myth = Story = Lie. And yet I’m a lot more comfortable with “storyteller” as a writer’s alternate job description than “liar.” And I actually do believe that myth can solve my problems. Myths are stories that have been around for generations. They swim in our cultural gene pool. They mutate and resurface, they bubble up in endless retellings, and they spawn innumerable offspring, from Shakespeare to Joyce to Clash of the Titans (coming to theaters near you in April 2010). So what do we make of the tension between these meanings of “myth?” I suggest we cultivate it. Tension, after all, is good for writers.
So is association.
If we define “myth” by the paradox we’ve found as “myth is a true story in conflict with fact,” we can start associating ideas with each node of the tension. I like to imagine a bisected box with Myth on one side and Fact on the other, and then populate each with associated ideas. A Myth is universal, timeless; it deals with the meanings of things. Myths are explanatory stories. Persephone’s abduction explains the seasons, but it’s a fine metaphor for cyclical descent into darkness of any sort. Myths are culturally given and are shared by members of a certain geographical or generational cohort. Myths are inhabited by monsters and heroes, by archetypes.
You can populate the Fact side of our imaginary box simply by finding the opposite pole of every idea from the “Myth” side. If myths are universal, facts are specific. Reality is made of facts. Facts take place at a certain time, in a given place. They tell “what” and “how” rather than “why.” They are individuating rather than integrating; they are personal rather than archetypical; they are detailed, specific and provable.
I believe novels are made along the line of conflict between these two poles. Pick any word we’ve placed on either side, find its inverse across the midline, and you’ve got the germ of a story. Possibly the easiest way to see this is borrow Debra Dixon’s familiar (and if it’s not, it should be) GMC method for breaking a story down into its building blocks of Goal (what a character wants) Motivation (why they want it) and Conflict (what keeps them from getting it).
Goals belong to the realm of Facts, and the more firmly rooted, there the better. Even if a character wants abstract things, they must pursue them in concrete ways. Frodo wants the Shire and his life in it to be safe and happy. He must destroy the ring. Specifically, he must return it to the fires of Mt. Doom. Good, clear story goals can be answered in yes-or-no judgments of success. Yes, the ring is destroyed. (Yes, the Shire is now safe, but no, he can no longer live in it.)
Motivation is murkier. Motivation belongs to myth and meaning. Why does Frodo love the shire enough to risk everything in its protection? What is Frodo’s – what is Tolkien’s – myth of home? How is it different for elves and orcs? What forces threaten it? Digging into these questions gives characters – and stories – their themes and power. And generation of grad students their dissertations.
This is interesting terrain, and if you’re at all philosophically inclined, this tension between what is true and what is real, between myth and fact, will entertain you for hours. But writers are by necessity also practical people, and I promised to fix things with myth, not just hold up some interesting thought experiments to amuse (or distract) you when the writing’s not going well. So let’s make the two-box Myth/Fact grid useful to writers.
For me, the easiest application is in character creation, but if you’re a plot-driven writer, you might start on the box’s other side. I start stories with the idea for a person I want to meet. I run across a snippet of dialogue floating in my head, or a quick sketch of a gesture; the guy at coffee shop who holds his cup in an interesting way. It doesn’t matter what it is, but something tweaks me and I’m curious. Character ideas usually start for me in Fact side of our box, but slide over into Myth easily where I begin to contextualize them. The strap of a shoulder bag across a man’s chest catches my eye; it carries a mythic resonance of an ammo belt slung over the shoulder, and he becomes a warrior and scholar. Why would a scholar feel embattled? I ask questions in Fact – what does he look like, what does he do for a living – and then slide over into meaning. Why does he look like that? What does his work mean to him? The one feeds the other and the character starts to take shape, with their motivations and backstories woven into their hair and commute from the very beginning.
Developing a character by creating their reality in tandem with their mythology may avoid problems down the line, but it still doesn’t fix anything, and that’s what I promised.
How’s that for a hook? Come back tomorrow for part 2 of Skyler’s post on myth and fact.