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Write Like a Comparative Mythologist

Photobucket [1]Kath here. Please welcome back L. B. Gale to WU. The response to her first guest post [2] 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 [3].  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 [4].