Today’s guest is Bruce Holsinger, 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, 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, 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.
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 [Read more…]