This last week, I started a new WIP (work in progress) about Hades and Persephone. This isn’t the first time I’ve used characters from myth or folklore in fiction. My first published book, Red and the Wolf, which should be rereleased this year if all goes well, took the story of Little Red Riding Hood and asked the question, “What happened after Happily Ever After?”
Characters from myth and folklore can be fun to write. They’re something readers easily identify from their own childhood. There’s a catch though: such characters can also be a bear to write.
In Red and the Wolf, I had the most fun writing Karl Kaismann, one of the villains, because he came purely from my own imagination. I found Little Red herself more challenging because I had to meld the image I’d developed as a child reading the fairy tale with the woman I conjured for my own writing.
In the sequel to Red and the Wolf, Gretel and Her Ghost, also to be released in the near future, the characters of Hansel and Gretel once more had to meld my childhood impressions with dynamic individuals that could carry an interesting story. They were a little easier, but perhaps that was because I figured out how to manage it with my first book.
So how do you write characters that have graced firesides for a thousand or more years? How do you bring to life legends when almost everyone who picks up your book will already have their own impression of what they should be like?
First thing, accept that you will never fit your readers’ stereotypes of these characters. Everyone has a different image of Zeus or Little Red Riding Hood. Readers are picking up your book in part to see what your image looks like. My image of Little Red Riding Hood was a traumatized girl who had to rediscover the strength she’d lost when she saw a werewolf try to eat her grandmother. My image of Gretel was a tough girl who had had to learn to fight her own battles and stand up to the world to survive. And as for Hades, well, I’ll just say that he’s my favorite of all the Greek deities. He’s noble in a dark way and a lot of fun to write.
These may not be your images of these characters, but that’s okay because for my stories, they work. Your own images of these characters will work best for your stories. Own this fact. It’s the most crucial step to allowing your imagination permission to create something spectacular.
The second key to writing mythical and legendary characters is to come at them with respect. These stories and characters have touched mankind for generations, and they will continue to sharp our impressions of the world, even in small ways. That shape may be a distaste for high school English when you were forced to read The Odyssey, but it still impacted you. As a writer, it’s important to respect our readers and their impressions. Most likely, if someone picks up a book about a certain mythology or folktale, it’s because they enjoyed the original. While satires like Shrek are all well and good and absolutely hilarious, we should still strive to treat the memories of those original tales in our readers’ minds with some level of sensitivity. This doesn’t mean we can’t play and make jokes--LIke I said, I do love Shrek--but don’t trash a story or characters just for the fun of it.
Third, beyond all that, your limit is your imagination. King Arthur will eventually make an appearance in an epic fantasy series I’ve been fiddling with for years. He isn’t the stereotypical regal man of legend. He’s undergone a lot by this point and is now half mad. Hades is my hero in my current WIP, whereas in most stories, he’s the evil villain. Just because the original source says something doesn’t mean you have to keep it. Look at Disney. They make fantastic movies that only tangentially payed homage to the originals.
Last, make yourself at least somewhat familiar with the original source and its variations. Before I wrote Red and the Wolf, I read a number of early versions of the fairy tale. I took a class in classical mythology in college and picked Latin as my foreign language, so I’m at least somewhat familiar with Greek and Roman mythology. Yes, I did have to go look up exactly how each deity was related to the other and what the geography of the underworld looked like, but I knew enough for my earlier studies to know what to look up. I knew enough to go, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” As much as possible, make yourself familiar with the originals so you can pay them respect and use them for inspiration to jump off in your own direction.
Do you enjoy reading retellings of fairy tales or mythology? Do you write them? What tricks do you suggest for tackling these well known and beloved characters?