One of the things which bothers me the most in speculative fiction is how the folklore and mythologies are constructed. I love mythopoeia (constructing mythology) and I love folklore, but there’s one thing I see a lot of which drives me so far up the wall that I make friends with the ceiling.
That’s the assumption, by writers, that anything folklore that they write in – fairy tales, myths, legends, ancient prophecies, tall tales, jokes, etc – are basically like little stories in the main story which all work on the same rules. Yes, a focus on the numbers three and seven will appear – along with a few other ‘staples’ of the fairy tale – and the language will take on a more pretentious ‘old fashioned’ air, but other than that they are written as if they are working on the same rules as modern fiction writing. That they have the same sense and polish.
They aren’t polished. The ‘rules’ of writing a story are rules for polished, planned, stories written at once by one person for the purpose of telling that story. Folklore isn’t. Myths, legends, folk tales, fairy tales, etc are the mish-mashed amalgams of many generations telling what they can remember of incidents, jokes, and stories, to each other and themselves, and twisting with each new teller – none of whom save the last (the one who writes it down in what comes to be the ‘final’ or ‘popular’ form) will be professional story-tellers and none of whom will know the craft.
No one who created folklore (as opposed to setting down on the record) set out to write a story. If you want your fictional folklore – your fairy tales, or mythopoeia, or legends for your heroes to go in search of – to ring true, to actually sound like they are folklore and not the author slamming a massive infodump down on a culture it doesn’t mesh with, you have to do one thing:
Take everything you ever learned about how to write a story or write correctly and THROW IT OUT.
Myths, fairy tales, and other folklore do not obey the rules of fiction writing. It’s not just a stylistic tone change. You know the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Doesn’t apply here. Truth is stranger than fiction because truth involves the actions of humanity as a group. Fiction, in the modern sense, is not written by humanity as a group – it is written by one or two individual humans. Folklore, like truth, comes from humanity as a group. And humanity as a group is batshit crazy.
Folklore is not neat and tidy. Fiction is expected to be neat and tidy (tie up loose ends, not have plot holes, have characters who aren’t acting like they’ve been slapped half to death with a stupid stick, have a message or theme, etc). Most folklore, for all that there are some very ‘logical’ things within it (like how most vampire’s weaknesses are anti-septics), makes no sense. Consider the modern meme. No one can explain why certain things suddenly become hugely popular and get quoted and remixed to death, but they do and they are – for the most part – nonsensical. Nevertheless, they become a common theme amongst large swathes of the population – and while most fade from existence as rapidly as they occur, others linger …despite there being no rhyme or reason to which or why. The same is true of folklore. The myths and fairy tales which we have had passed down to us are the ones which lasted best – the funniest, or the least confusing – but if you actually read them (not their many retellings and adaptations) you find that they make no sense and that all of the ‘rules’ of fiction writing appear to have been ignored.
They weren’t ignored. They just aren’t applicable. And this is what modern writers creating folklore for their works need to understand. Fiction is orderly, but folklore is chaotic. If you are trying to neatly categorise your gods by what they are god of and your myths follow modern writing structures …well, then, you’ve failed to understand what real mythology is like.
Folklore – myths, fairy tales, the like – should feel alive. The clear, plot-relevant, modern-structured ‘myths’ and ‘fairy tales’ seen in modern speculative fiction don’t. The heart is missing from them. The myths and fairy tales – all the folklore, in fact – that writers create for the world’s they build work very well as little modern stories, but not as myths and fairy tales.