Folklore Makes the (Fictional) World Go Round

I’ll get back to the more academic folklore-blogging in a bit, but first I have to ask you all to pardon me for being distracted and going on a semi-tangent.

See, I have a new book out. As in, this very week. It’s called A Natural History of Dragons, and it has a fantabulous cover by Todd Lockwood, and as I type this I’m on Baby’s First Real Book Tour to promote it.

Which means, of course, that I have that book on the brain. So I want to talk a bit about how folklore is relevant even to a story about a very science-minded heroine who studies totally non-magical dragons.


Tolkien is the usual gold standard for thinking about folklore in a secondary world. (Man, Tolkien would haaaaaate my dragons. Oh well!) He not only thought up an entire mythology for his world, he not only wrote it out in full, he put in all kinds of smaller stories of a non-mythological sort, and then had his characters stumble across ruins or sing songs or otherwise reference those stories, so the world became much deeper and more complex than the actual story he was in the middle of telling at any given point.

But I want to bring up a less-frequently-cited example, which is Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths — the series consisting of Melusine, The Virtu, The Mirador, and Corambis. I’ve read the first three of those so far, and one of the things I find incredibly striking about her world is how many stories there are in it.

There is history. There are folktales. There are plays and popular novels and songs and I don’t even know what all. Mildmay, one of her two protagonists, adores stories of pretty much every sort, and peppers his narration with enough allusions and references to impress a Renaissance poet. (Monette’s Ph.D. is in Renaissance drama: the similarity is no accident.) When people ask her about those references on LJ, a remarkable percentage of the time, she can tell you the story behind a six-word throwaway line.

I don’t have Monette’s facility for inventing that kind of stuff in such quantities, but she did a great deal to make me think about those elements in my own short stories and novels. After all, I allude to things I’ve read all the time; why shouldn’t my characters? If there’s no history but what’s directly relevant to the story, if they never mention the myths and legends and folktales and superstitions and classic literature and popular culture of their own setting, then the world they live in starts to seem very flat.

So I made a specific effort in A Natural History of Dragons to flesh out the setting in that respect. I didn’t make everything up wholesale; some of the things Isabella references are pretty much name-swapped versions of tales from our own world. (The Terrible Thirst of Var Kolak, for example, is their rather tawdry answer to Dracula, and several of the other allusions come from Jewish folklore.) But I stopped to think about what Isabella would read, and what she would know well enough to quote or at least recognize, and what she would think about those stories. It made her richer as a character, and it made the world exist beyond the single story she’s telling to the reader.

In short, I put my money where my mouth is. Folklore is a cool thing in our own world; it should be a cool thing in the worlds we make up, too, and not just when we’re retelling those stories directly. It takes additional effort, of course — much easier to just invent that one myth about how the evil god was imprisoned — but it’s fun, and the payoff is worth it.

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Folklore Makes the (Fictional) World Go Round — 4 Comments

  1. Throwing that background into a world makes it richer, I think.

    If a character in a book is exposed to story, be it oral or written, they *should* connect to those stories, reference them in their real life. It can be done in a heavy handed fashion, but it should be there. Why can’t immersive readers (or those who get story in other ways) not express that in the work of fiction?

    In the forthcoming Karen Lord novel Best of All Possible Worlds–she does do this, Grace does talk about stories and works in the course of the novel, and applies them to herself.

  2. I’m spending a great deal of time researching the folklore and histories a 500 year old character would have been exposed to. He figured out early on that to blend, he had to know the stories children learn — and then he figured out that he could understand a people if he learned their Stories.