An interesting question arose in the comments section of Rob Thurman’s guest blog a few weeks ago about how far a writer can take something from mythology away from its roots and still call it by its name of origin. In other words, are vampires still vampires if they can walk about in the sunshine and don’t need to drink blood to survive.
I gave this a lot of thought, and I realized that there are certain things that readers identify with various mythical beings that will lead to certain expectations no matter what you call them. In other words, a rose by any other name would still bear thorns. The flipside of that brings immediately to mind Lynn Flewelling’s Aurenfaie—the beautiful, long-lived magical race that claims her hero Seregil—think a fusion of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Sherlock Holmes—from the Nightrunner series. (Okay, they don’t so much claim him as send into exile, but you get the picture.) Something about the Aurenfaie leads readers to identify them with elves or The Fair Folk, liley the second half of the name.) And that leads them to the impression that the Aurenfaie have pointy ears, even though they don’t. In other words, faie=fairy, fairy= elf, elf=pointy ears.
I wondered what other preconceived notions writers might be confronted with when they create new worlds. Do fangs without fur automatically mean vampires? Do fangs with fur equal shifter (mammalian, of course)? Are there other expectations, like with vampires and blood that without which are non-starters for the reader? I’ve seen books with vegetarian vampires and energy vampires which would lead me to think that this is not necessarily the case. Sure, as you get away from the source material, you may lose some readers, but you may pick up others intrigued by the novelty.
As I mentioned in my Myth is Bendy blog, even source materials can’t seem to agree on definitive versions of any myth or creature. For example, in Chinese mythology, vampires are more comical than frightening and can only move by jumping up and down and with arms outstretched. Even within the same culture, attributes of gods and other beings may vary. Myths largely developed before written language, and thus were often recorded after centuries of oral tradition had played telephone with them. Not to mention, contact with other cultures through invasions, interbreeding or proselytizing changed various stories as history marched along its petty pace.
I’m not sure it’s possible to go too far with something when nothing about that thing is or ever was set in stone. No matter what you do, some will love it. Some will hate it. Worse, some will be completely indifferent.
But that’s my two cents. I want to hear yours. How far is too far?