Fables, Legends, and Myths: Building Your World's Folklore

“There's always a story. It's all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything's got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” —Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

As readers and writers and book-lovers, we know that stories are important. Stories and legends and myths are how we make sense of the world around us. They help us define ourselves and what is important to us, both as individuals and as a culture. Stories are everywhere around us, and whether it’s Greek Myths or Star Wars, history or fables, we reference them every day.

When you're building your fantasy or sci-fi world filled with different customs and history and cultures, it makes sense that it would have it’s own mythology and legends and lore as well. Stories that show what traits and elements these new societies value versus those that are considered wrong or taboo. Things for the characters to reference and to make the world a deeper, richer place.

I would recommend focusing your efforts here. Make any legend or lore you include do double, or even triple, duty in your story. Don’t add a myth solely for world-building purposes, or just because you like the idea of stories inside of stories. That is a trap that I’ve seen many authors fall prey to. There’s only so much space in any given book, and if you try to include too much mythology or lore, it can easily overwhelm and take over your story. Think of lore as a spice. Adding some lore to your fantasy story can give it more flavor and make it a more unique and memorable dish for you readers, but a little goes a long way.

If possible, tie the legend to the plot in some way. Maybe a valuable clue is hidden inside it, something that the character’s can remember at just the right moment to unlock a particularly knotty plot problem. Or perhaps it can provide inspiration when they need an idea of how to act in an important moment, or conversely, a warning against some course of action that is logical for the characters, but is doomed to fail.

Legends are also incredibly useful for character building. As the great Sir Terry Pratchett says in Witches Abroad, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” How has your legend affected your characters? How do they respond to it? If the story is important to one of your characters, sharing the story with another could be a wonderful bonding moment. Or perhaps, as the character grows and changes, their relationship with the legend changes. Rejecting the messages in a beloved story can also be a very powerful character moment.

Putting together the perfect legend for your story can be a tricky balance, but when done properly, it can be a very strong tool in your arsenal. Here are a couple examples:

In The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, the first movie opens with a prologue that contains the story of the One Ring, and how Isildur managed to get all the way to Mt. Doom, but then couldn’t destroy it. Not only does this history tell you a lot about the world and give the reader hints about the type of story this is (full of action and magic and worldwide conflict), but it also sets up the main plot of the book, gives instructions for how to solve the main conflict, and illustrates how difficult Frodo’s job really is.

In our own Rogue Princess, B.R. Myers was not only inspired by existing fairy tales like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty, but she also created her own legend/creation myth for her world. This myth was much more poetic and less action packed than the last example, full of symbology, but it also told you a lot about the world of the book and the problems that it faced, and contains blueprints for the characters to follow as they struggle to solve those problems. And the impact isn’t confined to the story itself. The moment when Delia chooses to share something as personal and important to her as this legend about her ancestor with Aiden really shows how much she’s come to trust him, and value his opinions.

What other examples do you have of stories that use legends and myths in a memorable way?

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

See More