Worldbuilding 101: Building a Mythos

I did a post before on Mythology and Religion, mostly as a broad overview. While there might be some overlap between that post and this one, I believe there is enough for a separate post. How do you develop a mythos?

At its’ core, a mythos is the stories people tell each other, mostly about why. Why do the seasons change? Why is that rock shaped like a man? Why does no one go near that one old house at night? As you can see, there is a lot of ground to be covered, because in a way, every story, particularly every speculative fiction story, has room for at least a minor mythos.

Sword and sorcery style fantasy? Where did the magic come from? How come some people can do it and others can’t? Religion and monsters and quests, oh my. Urban fantasy? Well, what makes it a fantasy? Magic users? Werewolves? Vampires? Zombies? Whatever the case, there are going to be stories told of how it works and why it works. Maybe they even have their own religion.

Okay, what about Science Fiction? Do you need a mythos there? Sure! Meet aliens? What does there culture have as far as stories and beliefs? Okay, what about a near future Hard Science Fiction story about the first lunar colony? Surely that wouldn’t need a mythos would it? I argue it would. You don’t need to invent a religion for one or more of the astronauts to have, and could even have them all atheists if you like. But I strongly suspect they won’t be. Not all of them. Not on the moon, thousands of miles from Earth, away from any help. I’m certain that at least some would have some religious background they would contemplate, some superstitious rituals they would follow. Not to mention claims and jokes that they would share as a community. Like how computer three in science lab two is always a little slower than the others. Maybe that’s the one the aliens are scanning…

Does every story absolutely require a mythos? No. But I think almost any story can be enriched by at least a touch of one. A good rule of thumb is that the further a story is to what your readers currently know, the more you need to know about the mythos involved. On the other hand, you can easily bog a story down in details no one cares about. Okay, the Sly Ferret cult is holding a secret ceremony to unleash the rodent apocalypse. Finding out why they want that and how they plan to go about it, is good. Maybe a few details about the ceremony. All the priests wear red and the priestesses wear white, except the leader who wears purple. They lit one hundred candles, and are chanting, ‘Here, mousey, mousey, mousey.’. Great. We’re good.

The readers do not need to know that the cloaks were sewn from sheets purchased at Sears on fifty percent off, the candles were also purchased at Sears for twenty percent off. There was some debate on whether there should be a hundred candles or two hundred. The details of the ritual were found in the old spell book, the Ferretasia, which has been copied by hand every year for the past two hundred years because two hundred years ago the great priestess known only as Minnie got hit on the head with an apple and tried to lick the ink of the book…

Consider your mythos a spice you are adding to the main dish, your story. Some like more spice than others, but ideally you taste the whole dish, not just that one spice.

Okay, what is in a mythos? I made a list while trying to develop a mythos for my current project. A complete mythos (and not every story requires a complete one) includes the creation of the world and people, along with an explanation for why we die and what happens afterwards. There are stories about who’s in charge, both on a universal scale (gods and goddesses, etc.) and on a smaller scale (kings and queens, warriors, priests and sages). There are explanations for natural phenomena (why does the moon change, why are there seasons, why is that mountain shaped like that) and explanations for culture (why do we celebrate this holiday, why do we avoid this taboo). There are stories of love, of betrayal, of both great and terrible deeds. There are heroes and villains. Monsters and helpers. Kings becoming peasants, and peasants becoming king. And of course, the great hero (or king, or god) who was once and left but will return again probably at his kingdom’s greatest need. That was in a few myths around the world.

So, where do you even start?

Good question. It will probably vary both by writer and story. Two of my works in progress are alternate earth approximately middle ages fantasies. Probably they would be described as low fantasy, maybe Sword and Sorcery. Not sure. One of them, I started with the gods. The whole premise is they main characters are on a quest to find a jewel that, legend has it, was so coveted by the various gods that the main god in charge got sick of it and hid the jewel someplace only a mortal could go. Then he gave each god or goddess a clue on how the jewel could be found. One clue is in a temple to each deity, so the crew have to go around to the various temples collecting clues.

I came up with a pantheon for that story. How many gods, what were they god of, and what was their name. As they reach the various temples, I develop a bit more of the lore (yes, I’m a bit of a pantser, I make things up as I go along) about each god and how they are worshipped in their temple. As the group travels, they eventually start telling stories to each other around the campfire. One of those stories was about how two of the gods invented the javelin after they tried competing for who could get the most followers. Another time a character considers the time of year by the placement of the constellations. Just little details as I continue on.

For my current one, I started with the magic. Why do boys have one magic and girls another? At least, up until the story starts. I came up with a story. Two characters, Ideara and Hosaz, who were the first to have magic. I decided to make them a brother and sister, and they will probably be central figures in the mythology. While I do have ideas of a creation story for this world, I think more of the focus will be on heroes of old.

So, how do you start yours? First, research, research, RESEARCH. There are some fascinating parallels in world mythology. But even if you want something completely different, it helps to know what’s out there. Then pick either the most important part, or the most interesting part for you. Is it the deities? The monsters? The epic love story? The great heroes? Start somewhere, and remain open and flexible to new ideas. Who knows, the next one might be just the seasoning you need.

What is your favorite part about developing a mythos? What would you like to see me cover next?