Creating a Believable World
If you are going to make a mythic story as we have defined it, you are going to have extra burdens as a world creator. You have to consider how the mythic elements change the physical reality of the world that you are creating. And perhaps more importantly, you have to consider how the mythical elements change how people in your world think and act.
But many myth creators seem to think the opposite. They think the inherent unreality of myth mean that they have less of a burden when it comes to making a world. After all, if it is all make believe, then why can’t I make the world anyway I want? This kind of altitude will destroy the effectiveness of myth. More than any other kind of fiction, myth requires a believable world.
For example, imagine “Harry Potter” being set in school built and operated like a normal school. Envision Mr. Potter walking down broad hallways well lit with florescent lights. Imagine him answering his teachers while setting in chair made of plastic and metal attached to a desk made of the same. Imagine him flying on a broom stick over the roof of a modern school. He could doge and weave around all the HVAC equipment typically found up there.
Such a series of books would have a setting that was not believable. The setting would be at odds with the characters. You would not expect magical humans to be normal or to have a normal school. What you would expect is something like Hogwarts. The believability of Harry Potter depends on Hogwarts being weird and wonderful and having lots of magical things about it.
For this reason, the character of Hogwarts is more important to the success of “Harry Potter” then the character of Harry Potter. Shorn of Hogwarts, Harry Potter is nothing. But any number of different heroes/heroines could have successfully shined in a setting like Hogwarts.
The importance of Hogwarts is something that Harry Potter has in common with all myth. In every myth, the success of the mythical elements rests or falls on the strength of the world that is created. You can’t have the “special” without a world that supports them. Gods need a Mount Olympus, the elves need Lothlórien, King Author needs Camelot. The characters without the setting would not be believable. And a myth must be believable in order to be successful.
But what does this word “believable” mean? It clearly does not mean “in accord with commonly accepted scientific principles.” That definition would rule out the core of what myth is. In myth, believability and realism are not synonymous. A created mythical world can be more realistic and less believable at the same time. There are many myth creators who have created worlds that were more realistic then that created by J.R.R Tolkien but were still less believable and so less successful.
Why is this so? How is it that authors who have created worlds with detailed political structures, well thought out economies, and logical magic systems lose out in believability contest to a world like Middle Earth were we know next to nothing about its politics, economics, or how the magic works?
To answer this question you need only think about the difference between reading about a foreign country in a book and actually going to visit one. In reading about a country, you are going to find out all about its politics and economics compare to other countries politics and economics. If you go to the country instead, you are going to be experiencing different values, customs, dress, and architecture long before you get around to understanding the politics and economics of the place. More importantly, everything in a foreign country is clearly interrelated. In other words, different values and different forms of dress and architecture go hand in hand.
It is that feeling of going to a new place that Tolkien is most concerned with imparting to his readers. In order to create this feeling, Tolkien puts a great amount of effort into making the values and architecture his world mesh seamlessly. So the very first pages of The Hobbit are devoted to introducing the values of a hobbit and their architecture as an expression of those values. In a similar manner, elves have their own values and architecture and the dwarves have their own values and architecture. Everywhere you go in Middle Earth, you find that Tolkien is more concerned with internal consistency between the values of the place he is portraying and its appearance then he is with being consistent with external political/social realities of how humans in similar technological periods behaved.
By contrast, many myth creators who strive for realism are taking “realistic” things and slap them together without regard to internal consistency. You have lovingly detail late medieval political structures in a world populated with people whose values and outlook are indistinguishable from 21 century humans. You have powerful mages who can shape the elements living in castles indistinguishable from those that would be built by crusaders in the Middle East. These authors often times seem oblivious to how they are destroying the believability of their mythic elements by their efforts to make things more “realistic”.
A mythic world that is “believable” is a world that seems to exist on its own terms and for its own reasons. And unbelievable world is one that does not seem to exist on its own terms and for its own reasons. What separates “mythic” world creation from “normal storytelling” world creation is that a “mythic” world has to conform to its mythic elements where as a normal story needs to conform to our understanding of reality.
So if consistency is more important than realism in a “mythic” world, how do we go about insuring that we make our mythical world “consistent?” In part of the answer to this question depends on the world being created and so cannot be answered in a general fashion. But there does seem to be two general types of errors that aspiring myth makers make. The first is that they fail to consider how the mythic elements affect the physical realm of their world and the second is that they fail to consider how the how the mythic elements effect how people believe and act. We shall consider both of these problems in more detail.