This post will contain a few minor spoilers for the Percy Jackson book series, so beware of that.
Gods, titans, centaurs, demigods and all the fun problems this creates for your narrative. Percy Jackson is a wonderfully created story about what impact these creatures would have on modern day America. I’ve always liked mythology and religion from a conceptual point of view. I am not religious myself, although I am quite fond of the idea that karma and reincarnation are a thing in some sense. I don’t know exactly what I think of it, but I think the lesson should be to treat yourself and other people well, and just be a good person, and you will eventually get rewarded. Or we turn into nothingness, and then at least people will remember you fondly, so there’s that. I wouldn’t mind turning into nothing after we die, life is kind of exhausting sometimes, if I’m honest. But this text is not about my beliefs or lack of energy, this text is about mythology in fiction.
I think there are two ways to go about writing gods or other characters of the sorts. I’m approaching two stories I’m writing with either one or the other way, so I will break down both methods and talk about what I think is good about them, and where I think they could fall flat.
The first way of writing mythology in fiction is the method that Rick Riordan used in Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It’s quite a popular method, in which an author takes existing mythology and builds on it. It seems almost pointless to think of an entire new pantheon when there’s interesting ones ready with a mountain of lore to accompany them. Not only does it do part of the work for you, it even reaches beyond that. It adds an air of predictability to the unpredictable. Taking Percy Jackson as an example, it tells the story of demigod Percy, son of Poseidon and Sally Jackson. We know Poseidon is the god of the sea. We also know that Hades is the god of the underworld, and Zeus is the father of the gods with the lightning bolt. Not only that, if you know a bit about mythology, you’ll also know about the titans, and Kronos. I will admit, my knowledge of Greek mythology is not particularly impressive, and I definitely added a lot to my knowledge when reading Percy Jackson’s story. But there were some things that were predictable in a good way. I knew who Atlas was, from the stories and the stones used in heavy weight lifting competitions. So when characters are forced to hold up something like a roof, collapsing above them, I eventually made the link before the book ever told me that Atlas was involved. And that hits the best part of using existing mythology. You don’t have to tell the reader everything they need to know to have them come to the right conclusion. They already have some of the information that you’re leaving out. You don’t treat the reader like they’re dumb, you assume they have knowledge. It’s a great way of writing a story that leaves readers satisfied, since they figure out plot points themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed it for that reason. In my upcoming story, Zodiac Ascending, I’m planning to make full use of this by basing a lot of my core plot points around the Chinese Zodiac, and the Jade Emperor. Look forward to it later this year.
The second way of writing mythology is less predictable, but leaves more room for crazy things. It’s arguably a lot more work for the author, because it involves creating your own pantheon, gods, mythical creatures and creation myths. A great example of this is Dungeons & Dragons, which has a huge pantheon, which players and dms have often added to. You can create a god for almost minor things, and have them become powerful because enough people pray to them. For The Necromancer’s Daughter I’m using this method. And to give credit to the method of taking from mythology, I’ve even based my god of the underworld on the nine-tailed fox. Even some of the names are from Japanese Mythology. What can I say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But there is enough difference between my gods and existing myths to call it it’s own thing. I’m in the midst of creating different gods right now, and I’m thinking of what gods my people would pray to. I have a few, and when creating them I quickly found that some of them are rightfully similar to existing myths. Every world needs a god of harvest, war, knowledge, travelers, oceans etc. It wouldn’t make sense to ignore those just to be original. What I find fun in creating a new pantheon, is their origins. Where did they come from? What are their powers? Do they interact with people or not at all? Are they immortal or can they be toppled? If so, how?
I think you get where I’m going with this. Gods that are original are also unpredictable, you’re not bound by existing rules. The problem then is that you need to not only create believable gods, but also make them interesting enough for your readers to care. And that’s a lot of work. But hopefully, that all pays off in the end, and you end up with an original story.
If there’s something to take away from this post, it’s that Percy Jackson is a fantastic series of books, and I urge anyone reading this to give it a try. I’ll be buying the series that follows it soon and read that as well. And let me know if you’re creating gods for your own stories. Maybe it’s a new god of arcana to get your players to follow in D&D, or maybe it’s an entire pantheon for a book you’re writing. Believing in something greater than ourselves can be a beautiful thing, and creating the things (fictional) people believe in is very fun to do.