Drawing on the stories of the past is nothing new. Fairytales, legends, folktales, and mythologies have their hands in many stories across a variety of genres. Dracula, a personal favorite, has been adapted a thousand times and has come to practically define vampires in fiction ever since its creation. Beauty and the Beast has been retold just as many times in many different ways. Characters are lifted straight from mythology and put into modern day stories, like the Greek pantheon in the Percy Jackson series.
I find the innovations to old stories and tropes incredibly valuable to the evolution of storytelling. Even Shakespeare based his Romeo and Juliette on the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Each writer brings a little something new to each adaptation or retelling – a personal flair that is woven into the tapestry of literature. When making an old original your own, bringing that flair to it is important.
I am no exception to the flocks of authors borrowing from past stories. In particular, I’d like to talk about my experience with mythology. I could write about vampires and the influence that works such as Dracula or The Vampire Diaries had on how I created my world, but there’s something older than Dracula that I drew on for my upcoming paranormal vampire romance novel: ancient mythology. I’ve always loved mythology, and so if I were to write a story that included ancient and immortal beings, I would of course need to incorporate that love.
The story I chose – rather, the character I chose – is of CuChulainn of Ulster, a sort of Irish Hercules figure. But drawing on mythology is not without its challenges. I want to provide a story that is free of things I find problematic, such as men who have old fashioned ideas that a woman ‘belongs’ to him in the way chattel does. Reading the Ulster cycle stories showed me that I would have a few challenges as to how to adapt this legendary figure in a way that is palatable to modern sensibilities while not completely dismissing the original works. So what to do?
Something that works in your favor if you choose to write a story with a character borrowed from an old or ancient story is the game of telephone. How does a story look being retold and passed down for a few thousand years? If we grant that for the sake of a story we’re telling that the character was real, what sort of events would happen to influence their tale being told? Who in that world wrote it down and what bias or misunderstandings might they have had? This distance turns any tale into clay you can mold.
By taking advantage of the game of telephone, you can alter almost any myth to suit your story, within reason. Let’s take a look at CuChulainn of Ulster as an example of how this works. In his legend, he kills his son Connla due to a misunderstanding. When I read this story, it didn’t make much sense to me. Connla comes to meet his father and CuChulainn does not recognize him because they’ve never met. Connla has made a promise not to identify himself to anyone, and so is killed by his father when he refuses to say who he is. To me and my modern sensibilities, I don’t understand why someone would be killed for refusing to say their name. Being suspicious of their intentions, sure. Sent away, perhaps, but murdered? It’s a little bit of an extreme reaction, even for a character with a penchant for violence like CuChulainn. As such, I felt that this particular story is one to which I wanted to apply ‘telephone’ rules.
This sort of violence isn’t part of any character I would want to write, so it needed to change. I wanted to take the essence of the story and rebuild it to better fit my novel and the character that CuChulainn needed to become to fit the world of witches and vampires I was crafting. What is the essence of the tale? CuChulainn kills his son. That was my base. I decided the already dramatic story could use a little more drama. So what if he *did* know who Connla was? What if CuChulainn killed his son on purpose? If so, the reason for Connla’s death would have to change. CuChulainn is not a villain in my story, so the reason would have to be legitimate. As such, I had to create a situation where Connla would have done something or behaved in such a way that his own father would have no choice but to kill him. DRAMAAAA!
This change fixes the issue I had with the original story and makes this version of CuChulainn more mine rather than simply lifted straight from someone else’s story. And since the story takes place ages ago, it makes complete sense that passing it down through the generations would lead to it being changed, or possibly even purposefully lied about. The character is not the same and it is not a copy and paste, but injects originality into a very old story in a way that will hopefully capture the imaginations of my readers. By utilizing the game of telephone, you can use old stories in just the same way.
I hope you enjoyed reading this snippet of my process of adjusting inspirational material! Follow me here or on Twitter @EternalEvelyn or Facebook for more content and for updates on my upcoming novel, The Bloodline Chronicles (in which CuChulainn is featured as an immortal vampire). Subscribe to my newsletter to keep up with new developments here.
2 thoughts on “Adapting Mythology – How I’ve Used ‘Telephone’ to Enhance Characters”
you packed this article with great advice on character-building and world-development! i always love a good in-universe mythology!
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