Do vampire eyes glow green?
Do they sparkle or burst into flames in sunlight?
Can werewolves shift at will?
Or mermaids breathe air?
Your answers to these questions is defined by what versions of these myths you hold dear.
But, the myths themselves can sometimes take on a life of their own.
Not that long ago I was discussing my current project Bloody Tidings with another author.
In one scene, my main female character, a vampire has a nightmare. The other author’s response was to immediately point out that vampires don’t sleep, and thus can’t dream.
The absurdity of this statement was not lost on me. After all vampires don’t actually exist, so what they do, and don’t do is all an amalgamation of books, movies, and televisions shows that we have internalized. But it raised the question of what “RULES” exist in a fictional fantasy world.
We each have internalized a slightly different version of those rules, and they can change as we accept a new version of a myth.
The fore mentioned sparkly vampires, for example, were a HUGE deviation from the classic and modern vampire myth. Ask most adults, and we would tell you vampires die in sunlight, they don’t sparkle.
As a whole, that version may be the greatest departure from the classic myth in recent history, yet the books were and are hugely popular.
So, the question is what are the “rules” and when is it okay to break them?
What makes the creature what it is? The first thing that you would list when asked, what is a(n) “Insert mythical creature here”? That is its defining factor…
Vampires? Drink Blood.
Werewolves? Turn into wolves (or wolf”men”).
Mermaids? Live underwater.
Ghosts? Dead people.
Changing any of these will get you in trouble. It can be done, but only in a way that explains the deviation extremely well.
Charlie walked down the abandoned corridor. His forgotten flashlight dangling from his numb fingers. The apparition formed at the end of his vision, and he whipped his face around to examine the ghostly form. The wolf glowed a soft blue, each fur starkly defined, as its ears twitched and its tongue lolled between long sharp teeth.
Ghost? Well maybe. But you can see the problem. It wasn’t human. So if one of our defining characteristics is that Ghosts are dead PEOPLE…
Maybe the dead wolf is really a dead werewolf? Or maybe animals in our universe get to have ghosts too. But make sure to explain either way.
The wolf shifted as it walked away, form melting and reforming as a tall man with shaggy black hair. With each step the muscles under the ethereal skin tensed and relaxed, appearing more substantial. He stopped and turned. The man’s mouth twitched into a crooked smile, then he vanished.
Most of these rules cannot be broken or bent without a REALLY good reason. A vampire who doesn’t drink blood isn’t really a vampire any more. And a werewolf who can’t shift is just a person.
What is it NOT? Ghosts are dead people, but then so are zombies, and vampires, and ghouls…
So what makes a ghost NOT those things? They don’t have bodies. So they are defined by the LACK of it.
What the creature lacks can be just as important as what they have.
Vampires? Can’t walk in the sunlight.
Ghosts? Don’t have bodies.
Werewolves? Can’t avoid a shift on the full moon.
Mermen? Can’t live on land.
These are often their defining weaknesses as well…
Why can’t vampires walk in the sun? Can a ghost get a body? Do all werewolves shift on the full moon?
BUT here you can REALLY start to play a bit. This is where most of those big variations happen. Vampires that sparkle, werewolves that can shift any time, mermaids that can marry princes…
The strange dog gripped Charlie’s hand lightly between his teeth and pulled in the direction of the dark wooded path. The gloom that lurked down that trail felt like a physical weight on his shoulders, an intense tangible dread. No way was Charlie going in there. Yet, the dog persisted tugging, and growling while maneuvering Charlie towards the haunted wood. Annoyed, cold, and tired Charlie wrestled away from the persistent animal and turned back towards the cabin. A flash of blue light preceded the sudden weight on his back that forced him to the ground. The growling animal hovered protectively over Charlie’s prone form as a black shadow passed over head.
Can a were-ghost inhabit a dog’s body? Why not? But that doesn’t give us authors free rein to make things up willy nilly.
INTERNAL Mythical Consistency:
When writing any fiction, but particularly fantasy internal consistency is KEY! A contemporary novel that reflects the real world is easy to keep consistent, sun rises in the east, sets in the west, the houses, cars, and people are pretty much the same as all of us. Historical novels are the same to some extent, the author just has to research and stay true to the period. With science fiction you try to stay within the real physical laws and possible scientific development. Or stick with the handful of “Star Trek Taught Us So” little white falsehoods that make space travel seem plausible. Faster than light travel, artificial gravity, humanoid aliens.
But in FANTASY, literally anything can happen. Giant flying lizards? Blood drinking immortal dead people? Magical cars? If you can think it up, it can be done.
That is where the danger lies. If anything is possible, what is to prevent logical absurdity..
Charlie jumped as the ghost’s hand closed on his upper arm. The feel of warm flesh, the pressure of a physical touch. He spun to look and the man was gone, only the dark woods, and the blustering chill wind remained.
The obvious problem being a physical touch from a ghost should not be possible within the rules I have already established. Not when paired with a man’s form when he appeared as a dog earlier. Why bother with the dog if he could just do this.
These don’t have to be “Written” rules…one of my book club friends mentioned werewolves that take a long time to shift and where it is painful for them as an inconsistency in a well-known series. Because it makes them highly vulnerable, yet they are presented as big bad dangerous werewolves who no one messes with.
Charlie woke up flailing, his arms and legs tangled in the bed-clothes, those growled words still echoing in his head.
Not a real touch, so not a real inconsistency…but keep a list of your RULES and stick to them.
RULES of Creature building:
The classic Dracula vampire could walk in the sun, turn into rats and bats, and control the weather…but needed to sleep in the soil of his home.
So too, your version of any myth must have sufficient weaknesses to offset the strengths.
Vampires can walk in the sunlight? Maybe they can be killed by any blow to the heart?
Werewolves can shift at will? Perhaps they can’t shift back until they hunt and kill?
For each additional strength on top of the “established” myth, think of an additional weakness. Otherwise your fantasy creature can become overpowered and unbelievable.
Finally, don’t let people say something is impossible. Explain it, show it, and make it real!