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The Power of Myth in Fiction

Photo by Flickr's Carl Black

After the recent death of Gene Wilder, I heard several moving tributes and interviews from the early 2000s. But it was Wilder’s words about his childhood that struck me: after his mother had a heart attack, the heart specialist took eight-year-old Wilder gently by the arm and said, “Don’t ever get angry with your mother. Because you might kill her. Try to make her laugh.”

I imagine Wilder held tight to these words, this myth: If I don’t get angry with my mother, if I can make my mother laugh, then I’ll still have a mother.

I also imagine this myth propelled the young Wilder on a quest to use his wise and gentle humor to get others to laugh, to keep people well, to keep people alive. How fortunate that so many of us have been the beneficiary of Wilder’s humor and dramatic talent. But believing that the expression of a particular emotion could kill one’s mother? What a burden for a child to bear! At what point did Wilder realize the doctor’s words were hyperbole? What impact did this realization have on Wilder? Was he grateful for the doctor’s words that set him on a particular trajectory, or did he chafe at the doctor’s well-intentioned manipulation? 

The myths in our families–the false stories, claimed and perpetuated, that influence our relationships and behavior–are powerful forces that truly can alter our identity and our path. The creation and establishment of family myths are usually not intended to deceive or manipulate, but to protect and edify. But they are always untruths. And they are fascinating in their power.

Myths can establish who or what a family is (or is not). We are Johnsons! Sure, Johnsons like to have a few drinks, but we aren’t alcoholics. We hold our liquor!

Myths can serve as cautionary tales. You’re pushing thirty, Susan, and you’re still single. You don’t want to turn into a lonely spinster like Great Aunt Lorraine. You know what happened to her …

Myths can protect ourselves and others from a difficult or upsetting reality. Your great grandfather died in an accident on the train tracks, but it was just that–an accident. 

I didn’t appreciate the power of myth in our fiction until I got my hands on Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius [1]. Buy this book. It’s brilliant. It has saved my writing life. I’m not exaggerating.

In it Cron raises the idea of misbeliefs—how we (and our characters) are guided and propelled by at least one important misbelief. Yes!

Let’s look at some examples in fiction:

These characters’ paths are carved by a misbelief, and it’s the reality of this belief’s wrongness that causes one of two things: Utter and paralyzing despair (and tragic endings for Romeo and Gatsby). Or growth and change (on the day that the Grinch realized Christmas could not be stolen, his small heart grew three sizes). Dear Wile E. Coyote isn’t destroyed nor does he grow and mature; as a result, his story is predictable and silly.

We must build a story around a character’s desire to attain or achieve something, and as Cron states, we must understand how a misbelief drives this character. And we can enrich a character’s life and desire when we understand how a family or childhood myth established and solidified that misbelief. This family myth might not play an overt presence in the novel; it may be mentioned only briefly. But a novel will be even richer when the author understands and communicates how and when a childhood or family myth established a character’s misbelief.

Jay Gatsby, for example, is interesting for his desire to buy love; he becomes even more compelling when we see how his father’s pride in Gatsby’s wealth might have edified Gatsby’s misbelief that wealth garners attention, respect and love. Romeo’s quest for love is interesting, but it’s the myths that arise from the family feud that help us understand what Romeo is really up against. I don’t know about the Grinch and Wile E. Coyote, but I’d bet good money that they had rough childhoods, during which they came to feel like big fat nothings. Wouldn’t their stories be more compelling if we understood the myths that cemented their misbeliefs? Doesn’t a reader feel more sympathy or empathy when she can see the myth that planted, watered and fertilized a particular misbelief?

After an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Gene Wilder retreated from the public eye, and in an interview with his nephew [2] after Wilder’s death, his nephew explained that it was not for vanity that Wilder preferred not to be seen in public. Rather, Wilder did not want the news of his decline, along with the details surrounding an illness like Alzheimer’s, to make children sad. Wilder, his nephew explained, “could not bear to be responsible for one less smile in the world.” And children did recognize Wilder in public, seeing him as the magical Willy Wonka, the one who saved Charlie and Charlie’s family from despair. “They always recognized [my uncle],” his nephew explained. “[T]hey always had that smile, that look of wonder. And he would never want to take that look of wonder away from them.”

Gene Wilder understood the power of myth. He wanted to protect children from sadness and disappointment, so he created a myth of his own, keeping himself tucked away, knowing that if he did not appear in public, children could continue to believe that Willy Wonka would never age, would never grow ill, would never become anything less appealing than his magical, marvelous, mythical self.

As Willy Wonka sings to his visitors, “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination [3].” Yes, sometimes our imagination, and the myths we can create in our imagination, feel like a beautiful place to reside.

Your turn! Will you share an example of powerful family myths in a work of fiction? How do these myths mold and propel both the family and individual family members? Now think of your WIP. Will you share an example from your WIP to illustrate how myth guides your protagonist along a particular path? And finally, if you grew up believing that Willy Wonka was nothing short of magical and changeless, are you grateful that Wilder chose to keep his particular to himself? I believe I am. 

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Carl Black [4].

About Sarah Callender [5]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.