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Myth: How Far is Too Far?

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.

Interesting that.

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?

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dolly Garland
Jul. 11th, 2011 06:50 pm (UTC)
If a story is good enough, I don't think I would stop reading just because it doesn't meet my expectations of a myth - HOWEVER - the story has to be good enough. But even with that, and even if I enjoy the story, some things do annoy me.

Vampires are at the top of that list. Vampires who sparkle; vampires who manage to get rings that lets them walk in day light; vampires who don't have to drink blood. So essentially, they are ripping away everything that we think a vampire is, and basically giving some dead, human dude super powers. So call him a super-hero for crying out loud.

I don't mind little variations. Some creatures have more room than others. Like shape-shifters for example, there is a lot of room for creativity there, because it's quite a broad myth. But vampires have been around for a while and at least in the western world, we do have a certain notion about them. I also feel that it's cheating. When authors take away all the stuff about vampires that we don't like, they are making it easy for them.

So after that rambling, my conclusion is that there is not a need to stick absolutely to common myths, but if you are going to change practically everything about a specie then at least come up with a different name for them, or some logic that explains why they are different than our notions about them.
Jul. 12th, 2011 12:51 am (UTC)
I like my vampires with bite, but that's a preference. The first time I encountered vegetarian vampires (I think the explanation involved fruit bats), I thought it was adorable. It was a middle-grade book, and I wish I could remember the author or series title so that I could pass it along.

As I mentioned, though, vampires already =are= completely different from one culture to another, so I'm not sure any one tradition has the market cornered on their attributes. Of course, to your point, they're called different things in the different languages, but in translation....
Jessica Day
Jul. 11th, 2011 10:45 pm (UTC)
how far is too far
As long as it's explained why a vampire doesn't need blood or that it's the ring that makes ot okay for him to walk in daylight, I'm okay with most of the variations on paranormal romance creatures I've read (and there have been a lot).

I'm with Dolly on the good-writing thing. If a story's good and the writing really grabs me, I'm more than happy to lose myself in a paranormal world with an author's unique twist.

One of my favorites is Lara Adrians New England-based vampires who have genetic links not from this planet. I actually liked the sparkling, hard-as-diamond skin of Stephanie Meyer's day-light-is-okay-as-long-as-it's-not-direct sunlight vamps. I thiought it was a unique twist that helped her world stand out. Another favorite of mine is Nalini Singh's weres who are so environmentally-conscious and who have vast holdings in the environmentally-responsible construction industry.

I'd go so far as to say that each author must have a unique twist to their paranormal world. Otherwise they won't sstand out from the crowd. I agree with Lucienne that folks are going to love or hate it, but at least you're being original and letting your creativity shine.
Jul. 12th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
how far is too far
It goes back to telling a good consistent story. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro had a vampire who could walk around in daylight as long as he had grave earth in his shoes, Anne Rice's vamps needed to feed less as they aged and there are stories with vampires who are born. I like a twist on the myth otherwise we're going to get the same stories over and over.
Jul. 12th, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)
Jessica and Julie, I'm with you. I think that as long as the author can pull it off and keep it consistent, variety just adds spice.
Jul. 12th, 2011 01:13 am (UTC)
I too like the new twists on an old story. One of the things I liked about Twilight was the Native American spin Meyers put on the werewolf legend. ( i was always team jacob)

Like vampires, the myth of the Fae spans the globe and that's what makes it so fascinating to me- are Fae tall or small, winged or not, good or bad. Even within a culture the fae's character will vary with the particular tale, sometimes they help humans, sometimes they're the enemy as if, like humans, they can't be stereotyped.
Jul. 12th, 2011 10:03 am (UTC)
And there are so many fae creatures that you can find one for any occasion!
Jul. 12th, 2011 12:08 pm (UTC)
I like my myths to stick fairly close to traditional beliefs. If the writer can give me a logical explanation as to why the vampire doesn't need blood or can walk around in daylight, that's fine, but if they just start making things up for the sake of being different...sorry, don't call your creature a vampire. Vampires, zombies, werewolves...all are rooted in historical myths and legends and though there's always wriggle room, certain basic foundational beliefs should be followed.

Now when you're dealing with the fae, there are so many different kinds, a writer should have no problem finding one to suit their stories requirements.

Of course, this is just by personal opinion and no matter what someone writes, there are people who will love it.
Jul. 13th, 2011 08:56 pm (UTC)
I think having read a lot of mythology, I'm more flexible about what constitutes a particular type of paranormal creature. I don't mind vampires who don't drink blood, especially if they have other ways of draining and/or controlling humans. I don't need my therianthropes to have forced shifts with the moon, either. I rather like when canon is flipped around, as long as it comes with a good explanation about why everyone was mistaken about the way things are.

What I do insist upon is that the monsters have some vulnerability or disadvantage that gives humans a chance to prevail, whether in combat or love. I have serious concerns about people who fall in love with those who consider them food.
Jul. 13th, 2011 09:55 pm (UTC)
Totally agree! We all have weaknesses, and those supernaturally gifted should be preternaturally vulnerable. It's only fair. Plus, there's no tension if there's no real question of who will win any given cage match.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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