How to Write Your Own Creation Myth
If there is one thing I’ve learned about writing fantasy, it’s that you need to know absolutely everything about the world you create. This ranges from the forest your main character walks through to the ‘old war’ that your mentor frequently refers to. The reader may not ever know the scope of what you created, but you need to know every detail. This is an exhausting process and I admit that creating the perfect world will probably elude all of us because we simply cannot think of everything, or we don’t have the time to create a fully realistic world. At some point we have to stop creating and start writing a story. But one of the most important, and certainly the most fun, historical aspects of your fantasy world is the creation myth. Most, if not all, fantasy stories have a creation myth. Sometimes authors use it prominently to describe a religion or historical account to the reader/main character, and sometimes they don’t but it’s unquestionable that making one will enrich your story and solidify your world that much more.
Influences and Examples
Tolkien’s name always comes up when discussing fantasy and sure enough, he had his own creation myth for middle earth. It centered around a deity known as Iluvatar who wove the world out of a song with the Ainur (similar to angels). It was through the efforts of Melkor, who decided to change the song based on his own whims, that evil was allowed to exist in the world that was created. The whole story is considerably more detailed than my summary and it can be read in its entirety in the Silmarillion (usually right next to the lord of the rings trilogy in book stores). From that brief description, however, one can see that Tolkien borrowed from more recognizable religious mythologies. For example, with Christianity, the patron deity is just called God, and he has his angels below him, of which Lucifer defected. There are certainly deviations that Tolkien took and the result was an original creation that fueled the events of his famous novels.
However the Christian creation myths are not the only sources one can use for inspiration. Greek mythology is particularly popular, opting instead for multiple deities ruling over the Earth, with Titans being their predecessors. In that regard, many creation myths revolve around pieces of supernatural beings creating parts of the world (like an arm becoming a mountain or blood becoming rivers). Just recently I began learning more about Norse mythology and Yggdrasil; the world tree which has branches in all aspects of the cosmos. But, as you can see, there are a great deal of influences from which to draw. Whether it is a more traditional deity, or alien beings with powers beyond our imaginings, there is a wealth of material to help influence how your creation myth comes about. That isn’t to say you have to use any of these examples, but we’re all influenced by something, and these creation myths offer a framework from which to get started.
Where to Start
When writing my fantasy novel, the creation myth was not the first thing I wrote. In fact, I don’t think I came up with it until after I had gone through several drafts. So don’t feel bad if you’ve started writing your book and don’t have a creation myth yet. You could probably get away without writing one, but like I said above, having one, even if no one sees it, will positively affect your work. So, whether you’re deep in your story or not, it’s never a bad time to get started. First you’ll need to figure out what your world ‘is’ and what created it. Most people think of worlds in terms of planets but Terry Pratchett proved that you don’t need the traditional globe to make it work (his fantasy world is disc shaped, sitting on the backs of four elephants, who are standing on top of a giant flying space turtle). So brainstorm about what you want yours to be. Maybe it’s a realm that exists outside of traditional space and time; you’re not restricted to a solar system, but don’t feel bad if you do use the traditional planet structure as it is a good fallback. (You don’t need to be totally original on every aspect of the story. Trying to do so will only exhaust you.) So, once you figure out what your world is, now you need to figure out who, or what, created it. If you’re not a huge fan of the whole deity thing, then using scientific explanations (such as the big bang) are totally acceptable as well. A number of fantasy stories use the modern world as a jump off point, saying that our lust for technology and war led to our destruction and from the ashes rose up an entirely new fantasy world. You may be wondering how it is a creation myth if you use scientific explanations or a post-apocalyptic Earth, but regardless of how it is created, you still will have some work to do.
Why is there magic?
There are a lot of questions you’ll need to answer when creating your myth, but none as important as the existence of magic. This is, of course, assuming you have magic in your fantasy world. Many fantasy novels don’t incorporate magic at all, but there is something that sets your world apart from the Earth we all know and love, otherwise you’re just writing historical fiction. So you need to figure out why it is different. Did the deity that created your world see fit to give magic to humans? Did a council of deities kill one of their out-of-line comrades and their body/blood seeped into the world, inadvertently giving the humans magic? Did cosmic rays break through the atmosphere and give everyone radioactive superpowers? The explanation you come up with will influence your story. For example, if the gods didn’t want your characters to have magic, then those who use magic will be despised and the gods might work in opposition to them. As opposed to a world where the gods want the humans to have powers, and thus would help those with abilities. But it’s most important to explain why your world is different because all the things that are similar can be assumed by you, and/or the reader, with far less description.
Where are they now?
Another way that creation myths influence your story is the question of where the creators are now. If it was a deity, what happened to them and why aren’t they still influencing this world? If they are still around, then maybe that will introduce a new character. If they’re not, then the reason why they aren’t could influence the narrative. For example, what if the gods left because the humans became corrupt? Then, maybe a religion your character encounters seeks to fix that corruption in hopes that the gods will come back. Or, on the opposite side, another religion doesn’t want the gods to come back because they were so quick to ditch the humans. These beliefs will heavily influence your cast of characters and potentially give more backstory to some you hadn’t fleshed out yet. If your creation story is more scientific, then maybe the way it influences your current story, is by how the ‘differences’ are affecting your characters. Like I said in the example above, maybe your world has magic because of cosmic radiation. Well, does that radiation cut short the lives of the people on this world? Are there people trying to protect themselves from the radiation? All of the answers you come up with to these questions will influence your story without even describing the creation myth to the reader. You may find that it is beneficial to describe that myth, but everything you create in the background, enriches the foreground.
Is evil necessary?
A lot of creation myths also involve the creation of an ultimate evil, the most obvious being the devil. But I wouldn’t say this is a requirement of all creation myths. It is a requirement, however, that there be some form of conflict. If the god that created your world is super nice and sticks around to help the humans, then you run the risk of losing the sense of potential doom. The conflict doesn’t need to come from an external source. Like I said above, maybe the gods didn’t want humans to have magic, so they left. The conflict then is that the gods aren’t necessarily going to help you and you can’t be certain which way they’re going to swing. Or, like in the radiation example, the creation of magic comes at the cost of the peoples’ health. Some sort of balance must be struck, otherwise your story will be one sided. Conflict is the lifeblood of any good story.
How do I know when I’m done?
Unless you’ve published every book in your series and a prequel novel that describes your creation myth, then you’ll never really be ‘done’. Most fantasy worlds continue to evolve even after parts of it are in print. But this isn’t a bad thing. The purpose of a creation myth is to strengthen the framework of your fantasy world, and be used in conjunction with histories and legends already enriching the present. Focus on answering the big questions and the rest will fill in as you go. These mythologies might also work for other genres of writing, but since I am most familiar with fantasy, that’s really the only one I can vouch for. But hopefully this guide gets you thinking about the nuts and bolts of the world you thought you knew and turns it into something that much more interesting.