For SF&F Writers: Adapting Mythology

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Ancient myths and religions are an endless source of ideas for the science fiction or fantasy writer in search of inspiration. The belief systems of cultures long gone, or sometimes still in existence, provide fertile ground for the author’s imagination to run wild. Be it Frank Herbert’s Dune, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or the many diverse and well thought out fictional religions that populate George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, so much beloved speculative fiction draws on the real experiences of other cultures trying to explain the universe in their own way to create still new worlds for our enjoyment. It’s just good storytelling. Religious practices in speculative fiction add new depths to societies imagined by authors for their readers, making them more relatable.

My problem as a First Reader is that so much fantasy and science fiction I end up evaluating draws on the same few mythological systems for material. Norse and Greco-Roman Gods, Native American creatures and creation myths, and too-often absurdly loose understandings of Eastern philosophies like Taoism and Shintoism are the most frequently read and rejected sources I encounter. I don’t discriminate against writers who draw from these or other well known religions, after all, they’re writing their own universes based on their own interests. I would simply caution such writers that it’s difficult to cover such subject matter in new and original ways. Unless of course you’re Neil Gaiman.

But since you probably aren’t my personal idol and kung-fu master of literary fantasy, I’ll offer a word of advice. Western fantasy fiction tends to go through fads, and as such can suffer from a sort of creative tunnel vision. The antidote is to research and explore the lesser used mythologies.

Writers interested in catching the eye of a prospective reader or publisher should keep this in mind. The goal of incorporating an existing mythology in one’s work shouldn’t just be to add further fantasy elements. It should draw the reader in, excite their curiosity, make them think in new and interesting ways, and maybe even want to learn about a people or mythical being they might never have heard of before.

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