Elements Of A Good Mythological Retelling


Many apologies for the lateness of this post. Coming up to Easter is possibly the busiest time of year for me as a musician, so it’s taken a bit longer than I expected to finish this post. However, here it is at last, Elements of a Good Mythological Retelling. Thank you to everyone who let me know what subject they wanted me to cover next. Myths, like fairytales, are an amazing source of inspiration for books, and make for great retellings. Whether you retell a single myth, or you create an entire world based around mythology and weave them into that (think Rick Riordan, king of mythology, here), there is a universal appeal to myths. In many ways, the rules that apply to other retellings also apply to myths. However, there are a few extra elements in particular that need to be considered when retelling myths. Today I'd like to share a few of them with you.

Do Readers Understand The Myth?

Some myths are universally known. Most people have heard the tale of Hades kidnapping Persephone at least once in their lives. These popular myths make for great retellings. But there are hundreds and hundreds of lesser known ones out there, and plenty from mythologies and pantheons that aren’t as well known. Good mythological retellings situate readers well within the story, lay out the conventions of the world, and make sure that they can understand the myth being retold, even if they’re not familiar with the base story. It is important, when writing a retelling, for readers to be able to tell that it is indeed a retelling of a myth. It’s one of those strange paradoxes. You want the book to sound original, but at the same time you want people to know that it’s based in an awesome source. Be prepared to dig into the mythology around the myths and add in context and detail so that readers not familiar with the original story are still able to understand and appreciate what’s going on.

Which leads onto…

Expand On Common Myths

As mentioned above, there are some myths that everyone knows, and they’re really fun to retell. But because they’re so well-known and so often told, any new retelling has to have a something extra to make them stand out from the crowd. This is easier done when retelling them in another genres, sci-fi, say, or a dystopian (seriously, I’d love to see some more dystopian retellings of anything. I can’t remember have read any. Anyone know of some?). But beyond changing the genre, there are other things you can do to try and change things up. Explore new relationships between characters. In the Hades and Persephone myth, did they know each other? Maybe Demeter and Persephone weren’t as close as people though. Or experiment with new reasons for why things happen. Maybe Hades actually kidnapped Persephone to keep her safe. Play around with the base elements and see what you can twist or dig into deeper for a more rounded, unique story.

Which again, leads me onto another point…

Character Development Is Key

One of the problems with gods and myths is that the gods and other mythological beings are portrayed as huge, mighty, and very one dimensional. Good retellings of myths explore the characters in new ways. This is a really good way to get a different feel to your retelling. For example, each of the gods has a basic stereotype they portray. Think of that stereotypical high school. Every kid fits into a single characteristic. If you were to put the gods in this high school, what group would they fit into? Thor might be a sports jock. Zeus would probably be the captain of the football team. Ares could be the bully. Each god has one main characteristic that people recognise about them, if they know nothing else. This is the core.

But around this core, there is a lot you can do with the character to make them unique. Take Hephaestus for example (a chronically undervalued god in my opinion). His two big things are that he’s crippled, and he makes things. That’s what most people will remember about him. But around those two elements, you can base several vastly different characters. He might be a bitter, cunning foe, twisted like his crippled body and seeking revenge on the people who hurt him, from his cheating wife, to his mother. Or he could be a real introverted sweetheart, focusing more on his work than on people and relationships, maybe even a little scared to open up to people because of what has happened in the past. Or he could be a man with hidden strengths and ambitions, an underestimated power. Develop the characters in new ways and they can vastly change the dynamics of the story and add a lot of new interest.

Experimenting With Different Mythologies

This isn’t so much as an element of every mythological retelling, as something that I feel needs to be tried more. The most common mythology I see being retold is Greek, probably followed by Roman. You get a little Norse, mostly because Loki is quite a popular guy. Then most others get ignore, like Egyptian, Aztec, and the like. (Unless you’re Rick Riordan, in which case I have no doubt he’ll get around to them all in due course). If you want to write a mythological retelling that’s different from the rest, consider experimenting with less popular systems. Instant unique factor, plus we readers get introduced to a whole new world through your book. Win-win!

And finally…

Stay True To The Core Elements

At it’s very simplest, a good retelling is one that takes a new look at a myth or story, while still preserving and conveying the heart of the tale. Every story has core elements that make that it recognisable and familiar, no matter what form it’s in. For Cinderella, you could classify these core elements as: kindness, defiance, and a search for a new life. Within all the paraphernalia of balls, step-families, and shoes, it is this quest of a kind person striking out in an act of defiance to find a better life that we all recognise. Any retelling missing one or more of these core elements immediately rings false. Think of Cinder, by Marissa Meyer. It has all these elements, a kind, compassionate heroine, an act of defiance, a quest to find a better life. Now imagine if Cinder hadn’t been such a kind heroine. She wouldn’t be the protagonist that we expect to see and the story wouldn’t be as effective because one of its core elements is missing. Good retellings identify these core elements and preserve them amongst all the amazing new things they bring to the table.

These are just some of the elements of a good mythological retelling. Do you agree with any of these? Disagree? What would you add to this list? What mythology would you like to see more retellings from? Norse? Egyptian? Something else? And tell me, what are some of your favourite mythological retellings?

Missed any of the posts in this series? You can catch up on them all HERE

Tell me, what topic would you like me to cover next time?

Elements Of A Good Villainous Plan
Elements Of A Good Female Protagonist
Something Else (leave me a suggestion in the comments!) 

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  1. YES TO MYTHOLOGICAL RETELLINGS. I have a Persephone retelling in the works (it is the weirdest. like Persephone + angels + China which is like a terrible mix of cultures but I WANT TO TRY). And the core elements are SUPER important! I like to write complete reimaginings and I try very hard not to lose the important elements. *nodnod*

    1. Are you kidding? That sounds like an AWESOME mix of things. It have a feeling it's going to be a very interesting and unique retelling. I like to write complete reimaginings too, and it's so hard to make sure that you can be super creative without losing what made the original story so amazing and well loved in the first place, isn't it?

  2. Aw, yiss! I LOVE MYTHOLOGICAL RETELLINGS MOST OF THE TIME. Less from Rick Riordan on account of they are all on the same-plot-same-characters track atm, but you know, that is whatever. I myself have thought about writing something related to Greek Mythology... like an "after the fact" retelling... I don't know how it would go but I have been thinking about it for many years.

    Seriously though. This is a great post. ALL THE HEARTS.

    1. That's very true about Rick Riordan's books. I love them but I definitely can't read too many of them at any one time because they are rather a formula. He is so good at making a world and interesting characters though. Ooh, that would make for a great story. You should totally give that a try sometime. I think it would be so interesting!

  3. Yes, yes, and yes. I'm a huge mythology buff, so I love these sorts of things. Hephaestus sorely is unappreciated. I love him. He's really cool with his automatons. ^ ^


    1. No one gives Hephaestus enough attention or credit, do they? I've always thought that he would have such an interesting story if people bothered to tell it more often. Something to try in the future maybe?

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