Write Like a Comparative Mythologist

PhotobucketKath here. Please welcome back L. B. Gale to WU. The response to her first guest post with us was so positive, we asked her back for another, and happily, she agreed!   L.B. works in education as a literacy specialist in New York City.  She studied comparative mythology and fantasy literature for her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago.  While aspiring to become a fantasy author herself, she blogs about speculative fiction and writing at www.lbgale.com.  She’s sold a short story to Lightspeed magazine, and we’re certain more good things are in store for this talented writer.  Follow her on Twitter @lbgale.

Write Like a Comparative Mythologist 

Whenever I write something, someone inevitably tells me about some story I’ve not read that sounds an awful lot like the story I’m writing (the story I thought was unique).  Usually the same thoughts flash across my mind: Okay, it’s been done.  I’m an unoriginal hack!  All that work for nothing.  I’ve got to start all over.

William Gibson, author of the much celebrated science fiction novel Neuromancer, ran out of Blade Runner after watching ten minutes of the film, consumed with terror that his novel-in-progress was now no longer as original as he thought.

It happens to all of us.

After I let the initial terror wash away, I usually think back to my college years.  I once aimed on becoming a scholar of Comparative Mythology, but after receiving my master’s degree I decided that Ivory Towers were not for me.  Nonetheless, my years studying myth have helped me deal with this fear.

The lesson those years taught has now become something of a mantra I repeat to myself: any resemblance between your story and another story adds to your story—if you think about it properly.

Here are three steps to getting into the right frame of mind.

 

Three Steps for Thinking Mythically About Your Work

 1.      What’s the myth at the core of your story?

All stories can be boiled down to a core.  An essence.  A theme.  The Odyssey is the story of one man’s journey home.  So is Joyce’s Ulysses.  Same thing for Frazier’s Cold Mountain.  Depending on how you frame this ‘core,’ you can find multiple stories that share commonalities with other stories.  For instance, I could instead boil The Odyssey down to the story of a son seeking out his father.  Once I do that, I’ve got a number of other stories and myths to which I can connect The Odyssey.

As a writer, it’s worth examining what’s at the core of your story.  The stories that share your theme are all part of the mythology that your story is joining (here the word myth has a different sense from the familiar ‘a type of story that only ancient cultures told).  These stories aren’t your enemies.  They are not your competition.  They are resources.

You should never be worried about a story that only superficially resembles your work.  A story about a boy with round glasses will not necessarily be derivative of Harry Potter.  A novel about an orphan seeking out the truth of his parents’ murders—that’s a significant connection.

2.             Start a Conversation

Contemporary myth scholars tell us that world mythology is not a matter of finding commonalities (this was Joseph Campbell’s prerogative)—it’s about finding differences.

It’s interesting to say that A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life both are part of the same mythology.  This is the myth that’s about one character re-evaluating his life over the course of one magic-tinged evening.  We can add any number of other stories and movies to this mythology (Groundhog Day is a favorite).

Seeing the similarities between versions of this ‘Christmas Carol myth’ can be intriguing, but it’s far more interesting to study the essential differences that show what each new artist is bringing to the myth.  I find It’s A Wonderful Life to be diametrically opposed to A Christmas Carol.  If anything it’s Frank Capra saying, “Bob Cratchit is the one who needs the epiphany—not Scrooge.  He needs to realize that Scrooge (Mr. Potter) is a miserable old bastard who will never change, and he needs to defeat him.”  This is far more interesting to me.

And that’s the point.  Even if you are telling ‘essentially the same story’ as someone else, you are not ‘ripping off’—you are adding to the conversation.  Myths show us a history of conversations where we can see cross-cultural, historical answers to the same issues and problems.  If you view your story as another answer to the same issue, then you will realize that as long as you are sincerely dealing with the issue, you cannot ‘rip someone off’ just for having a similar premise. 

3.  Return with confidence. 

Some people refuse to read stories they fear might be similar to theirs.  This is foolish to me.  Once you find the mythic ‘conversation’ your story belongs to, I’d advise reading up on other writers’ answers to the same questions and issues at the heart of your story.

Reading up on thematically linked stories will force you to clarify exactly what makes your story unique.  Once you understand how your work functions as a new answer to the same essential ‘myth,’ then you can return to your draft and write with far more confidence than the writer who fears that his or her work is unoriginal.

More than that, you shouldn’t be afraid to reference these other works.  You can tease them, honor them, join them in parts, argue with them, or even beat and bruise them.  This is how literature, mythology, and the storytelling tradition work.  Don’t fear it: embrace it.

Image by AZRainman.

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Comments

  1. says

    I know my family is so sick of me freaking out, during a film or while reading a new novel, and saying– oh, no! I have that in my story. Oh, no! Thanks for a great post that makes me laugh at my fear. I’ll try very hard to remember this before the next melt down. :D

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  2. says

    I actually had a friend who had beta read my trilogy text me from the theater while he watched Avatar, when it first came out and before I saw it, to tell me that James Cameron should send me a check.

    It’s ridiculous, as my story is not even scifi, but historical fantasy rooted in the culture clash of the Germanic Tribes vs. the Roman Empire. But at their heart both stories have indiginous folk being displaced in the name of greed. There are many more similarities (forbidden cross-cultural romance, a soldier trapped between his duty and his sympathy for his people, kickass warrior chicks, etc.) but these too are all common mythic story elements.

    I’ve come to embrace the similarities. I see all the time now. Most recently, and closely, in movies like The Eagle and Centurion. The way I see it, they can only help me. Thanks for the excellent examples and for validating my new view, L.B.

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  3. says

    Add me to the chorus of folks who cringe when I see a movie or read a blurb about another book that resembles the one I’m writing. I’ve had all those “oh my gosh, what an unoriginal hack I am” moments too. But your post gives me new perspective on my tale, which I already know is based upon a myth. Thanks for the change in viewpoint.

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  4. says

    So I have this idea of an old sea captain who sacrifices everything to kill his old nemesis, the great white whale. Oh, and my character’s name is Ishmael.

    Would it be a good idea to maybe punt on this one?

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  5. says

    Glad to hear that others share this fear!

    Vaughn: I think you are definitely working on something ‘mythic,’ and your spin (Germanic tribes vs. Roman Empire) does sound entirely fresh. What’s interesting is that when Avatar was released it was criticized for being a ripoff of films like The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, even Ferngully (by people who care more about ripoffs than mythic retellings!). If you read up on the types of things people compared Avatar to, you’ll get a good idea of all sorts of other different versions of the myth that are out there. All of these versions can you help you clarify your own.

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  6. says

    This is absolutely wonderful advice, not to mention consolation. There have been several times I’ve read novels that made me fear that I’d be accused of plagiarism, even though I didn’t read them until after I wrote my own story.

    I love the idea of identifying the myth that underlies the story and then playing with it. What a golden opportunity for enriching the use of metaphor!

    Thank you!

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  7. says

    Interesting post. I love looking at stories and finding the myth in them and when I write I am always influenced by my knowledge of myth. I would recommend all writers to read myths from all cultures, and Shakespeare for the fascinating stories in them.

    On two occasions I have had colleagues knowing that I write tell me they have a fantastic original plot for a book/film but they are not going to tell me in case I steal it. Both times I showed indifference, to their obvious annoyance, and both cracked and told me their original plot on pain of being sued up to my eyeballs if I ever told anyone. In both cases I was able to point to numerous books and films that were very similar, and also point to the fact that one was almost a direct copy from Shakespeare and the other was a Greek Myth.

    Maybe it’s true what they say, nothing is totally original.

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  8. says

    Great reminder! It’s also worth pointing out that audiences actually seem to enjoy a degree of familiarity in stories they read and watch. We reread our favorite books again and again, and genres-divisions in the bookstore exist because we want to know where to find books just like the ones we have already enjoyed. Sure, we enjoy new twists on old themes and plots, but it doesn’t always have to be revolutionary for us to appreciate a good yarn.

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  9. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Thank you for this post, it was a fascinating presentation with a lot of food for thought–seems that certain basic themes for stories resonate not only in a universal sense but an eternal sense. Studying these cores could be a great way to get ideas for stories…

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  10. Shelley Schanfield says

    One of my writing teachers told me that there are only two mysteries, sex and death; and only two stories: 1) a stranger comes to town, or 2) someone goes on a journey. When I first heard that, I thought, “Naaa, no way,” but it works.

    “Once you understand how your work functions as a new answer to the same essential ‘myth,’ then you can return to your draft and write with far more confidence than the writer who fears that his or her work is unoriginal.”

    Great advice, and it can helps to think of how many retellings of the Arthurian legends there are, T.H. White, Mary Stewart, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Bernard Cornwell, just to name a few.

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  11. says

    The Cauldron of Story has been bubbling away since the first story was told around the fire thousands of years ago. You put stuff in (fresh ideas, motifs, insights) and you dip some of the fine old soup out every time you tell a new story. Hence the many versions of the Arthurian legend mentioned by Shelley, and hence the many variations of traditional fairytales and folk tales, which often crop up in opposite corners of the world sounding remarkably similar in their essentials. Because we writers/storytellers keep adding to the brew as well as borrowing from it, it gets richer and richer all the time. This is especially true of fantasy writers, of course, but is applicable to all writers of fiction. It’s how creatively you use that existing material, and what you add that’s all your own, that makes your story new and appealing.

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  12. Robin Miller says

    I love your post. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen the exact words from one of my stories in another book. I just recently saw an advertisement for a new children’s picture book that was almost exactly like a story I had just written. My thoughts were, “Why didn’t I get my story in before hers?”. Silly

    Thanks for your vote of “confidence.”

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  13. says

    I love what you say about differences. Think about mysteries. A body. A detective. Whodunit.

    It’s been done 10,000 times, probably more. What makes crime fiction a literature are its variations on the themes, their reflection of the times. Red Harvest. The Talented Mr. Ripley. Gorky Park. The Silence of the Lambs. Mystic River.

    Science fiction ought to see future, but in fact it reflects the present. That’s why the SF of outer space, colonization, first contact, etc., today sells so poorly, while dystopian YA is huge.

    I suspect there are more story types than two. (Rags to riches? Cinderalla? Frankenstein?) Truth is, whatever you’re doing it’s been done…except that it hasn’t. Not your way.

    One of the questions I ask in workshops is, what does your genre get wrong? What’s one big fat cliche you’d like to dnynamite? It’s beginning of making a familiar story type uniquely your own.

    Love this post, thanks for it.

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  14. says

    “Truth is, whatever you’re doing it’s been done…except that it hasn’t.”

    I think this is a good way of putting it. Myth loves paradox, and this is the essential paradox of storytelling: what’s old can always be new.

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    • says

      Exactly, L. B., what you say and write is different than what I say and write. Even if they’re both explaining our visual and perceptual view of the color green… The two end results will be nothing alike, maybe not even similar at all. :)

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  15. Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

    Thank you for this! I grappled with this a while ago and it’s nice to be reminded of this truth. The beauty of literature is that it does play on several common themes. But those common themes are so popular for a reason – they resonate with people!

    I like to think of that “core” theme as a foundation on which I am going to build a house. As I build on that underlying theme (such as a man seeking his true identity) and build up plot and structure, events, secrets, revelations, it is as if I am setting up the beams, adding walls, adding plumbing and electricity. And yes, even though other houses may have that same type of foundation, maybe even nearly identical blueprints, this particular house is still unique because of the people that live in it – or, for stories, the characters that inhabit it and life that you the unique author breathe into its essence.

    How many times has the tale of Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast been retold? And yet no two tales are the same, even with roughly the same story line. You are a unique person and you bring to your story, no matter how many times the core themes have been played out through history, a special quality and point of view that no one else in the world has.

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    • says

      The architectural metaphor is spot on. I live on a block of houses that are all exactly the same in design, but each time I’m invited into a different house on the block I’m stunned to see how much people have changed to make it their own. Some have added on, broken down walls, replaced, renovated, etc. I easily recognize the basic structure of the house as being essentially the same, but I still feel like I’m in entirely different places each time I enter a new house. They feel nothing like my house. I think that’s how we have to view stories. Same basic structure, but the ‘feeling’ and essence are entirely different.

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  16. says

    Love love LOVE this post. Love the idea of looking at a shared core as a valuable thing, instead of a feared one. Love the idea of adding to a conversation, instead of repeating what’s already been said. So much here to love. Thank you!

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  17. says

    I have been there! Thinking my ideas weren’t good enough, because they resembled the premise of other stories.

    But You Nailed It!

    While there will be similar concepts, the story one person writes in comparison to another is totally different. There will never be another you. So write your story the way you will write it.

    Write for you. Readers will follow.

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