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Finding Your Mythic Theme

bruceholsinger [1]Today’s guest is Bruce Holsinger [2], an award-winning fiction writer, critic, and literary scholar who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His debut historical novel, A Burnable Book [3], won the John Hurt Fisher Prize and was shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Best Crime Novel of 2014, while his scholarly work has been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship and other major awards. He has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, and other publications, and appears regularly on National Public Radio. His new novel, The Invention of Fire [4], imagines the beginnings of gun violence in the western world.

As a teacher of literature to university students, I often lecture about the power of myth, which shapes so many of our greatest stories, whether in ancient epics or contemporary fiction. Recognizing the mythic element of my own novel in progress a couple of years ago was a huge boost during revision, helping me see the book’s larger theme and the ways I might draw it out more effectively during final rewrites. I wanted to share this sense of “myth as craft” with the readers of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s been a great resource for me in recent years.

Connect with Bruce on Twitter [5] and on Facebook [6].

Finding Your Mythic Theme

“Myth,” Italo Calvino wrote, “is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored.” Despite the ubiquity of myth in fiction of all varieties, most writers would likely have a hard time identifying the mythic narratives, devices, and archetypes informing our novels and stories. Fantasy literature, of course, is built on myth, yet these elements can be difficult to discern (let alone exploit) in other fiction genres, whether romance, mystery, or suspense.

In this post I want to talk about the potentially galvanizing effects of myth as an element of craft, and particularly of story and character. As a writer of realistic historical fiction, I work in a genre that seems naturally predisposed against myth. But the narrative structure and thematic power of myths shouldn’t be regarded as resources only for writers of fantasy or science fiction. The history of mythology contains enduring elements that can help writers in all genres shape their plots, identify their underlying themes, and infuse character arcs with the same sorts of aspirations, challenges, and dark twists found in the stories of Orpheus, Persephone, or Isis.

It’s no accident that Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, emphasizes myth as Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 11.12.05 AM [7]an invaluable component of story and character. Discussing Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Maass comments on the novel’s portrayal of Clarice Starling as an “Everywoman” trapped in a story with the highest stakes imaginable: “Harris makes her so not by wishing it but by setting her a task that is truly impossible, one akin to the tasks set for the gods of mythology, then pushing her to extremes of effort. Her role becomes truly heroic.” Myth has a darker side as well, showing us fallible human beings who succumb to temptation, lured by boundless riches or the promise of immortality.

Even in fiction set in decidedly non-mythic environments, myth can give writers a compelling toolkit for assembling stories with universal appeal—and this is true even of that most doggedly realist of genres, historical fiction. Some of the most influential works of historical fiction in the nineteenth century enlisted mythic stories of past eras that nevertheless spoke to the concerns of contemporary audiences. Walter Scott’s Waverley novels drew on popular myths of the Scottish Highlands but transformed them into stories praised for their realism. Gustav Flaubert’s Salammbô plays throughout with the myth of Persephone, represented by the titular character as she moves from camp to camp.

[pullquote]The role of myth in contemporary historical fiction is often less explicit, though some of the most respected historical novelists enlist their own mythic elements to tremendous effect.[/pullquote]The role of myth in contemporary historical fiction is often less explicit, though some of the most respected historical novelists enlist their own mythic elements to tremendous effect. Consider Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which, despite its gritty setting in a Europe experiencing the ravishments of war, centers around the myth of a shimmering gem that promises immortality to its possessors—and dreadful misfortune to their loved ones. Writers of realistic fiction shouldn’t shy away from myth as a creative element in the difficult process of world building.

This point came home to me as I was revising my second novel, a historical thriller that imagines the beginnings of gun violence in the Western world. One of the book’s central themes concerns the consequences of technological revolution. A London smith, Stephen Marsh, is commissioned to develop a more efficient version of the handgonne, a new form of gunpowder weapon, and his secretive crafting of this new gun leads him down a dark road of lethal ambition and moral compromise. During revision it became increasingly difficult for me to discern the novel’s larger theme. The plot and main subplot weren’t coming together, and I was struggling with the development of Stephen’s character. The epiphany came during a long conversation with my agent, who made an offhand observation about the subplot’s central character. “So Stephen Marsh is a bit of a Prometheus,” she said. Prometheus, of course, was the Titan who stole fire from Olympus as a gift to mankind, earning himself an eternal punishment chained to the side of a mountain, tormented by birds of prey. Thinking about the myth of Prometheus not only allowed me to recognize and develop the book’s theme during revision, but also gave the novel its final title: The Invention of Fire. Just as Prometheus brings fire to mankind, Stephen introduces a new kind of gun into the world, with all the disturbing implications this technological transformation carries with it.

And there it was: my whole novel in a mythological nutshell.

I hope these reflections will encourage fellow writers to find and exploit the myths underlying their own novels and stories—and look to other myths for inspiration. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice rewritten as a contemporary thriller? An FBI agent rescues her lover from the clutches of kidnappers, only to lose him when she flaunts the ethical codes that made the attempted rescue possible. The myth of Persephone recast as psychological suspense? A man’s wife disappears without explanation for months at a time, only to return from the dark world she inhabits filled with horrible secrets she refuses to divulge.

These are rather glib suggestions, and I don’t mean to propose such a mechanical relationship between existing myths and new fiction. But if Calvino is right that myth is the “hidden part of every story,” we writers should be taking every opportunity we can to nurture and develop the mythical dimensions of our own stories before sending them out into the world for readers to discover.

What mythic elements can you see in your writing? How can you see using “myth as craft” to help you fully draw out your writing projects?