The trouble with writing portrayals of Death that are based on real-world mythological figures is that I am very limited on how much I can adapt them to fit the format of my novel. For the purpose of the book, I have had to make changes to their appearances and behaviors, but it can be a real challenge. If I go too far with my tweaks, they will no longer be recognisable and might as well be original characters, which would kind of eliminate the point.
Problems like this aren’t unusual in fantasy writing. When you are creating completely otherworldly creatures – either from scratch or from myth – they must be human enough for the reader to identify with them if you want them to stand up as a character, instead of a glorified prop, but at the same time you want to keep them unusual enough to fit the genre. I want to share the method that I have used in Chasing Shadows to try and overcome this problem.
When you think of some of your favourite fantasy characters, it’s likely that you can pick out the handful of defining features that make them unique and interesting. It could be a behavioral trait, a physical attribute, or even a piece of their back-story. Whatever it might be, these are the elements which are most important to preserve when the character is refined. For example, when you think of a three-headed dog, most people will immediately think of Cerberus from Greek mythology. It wouldn’t matter if that dog were fierce or gentle, sentient or animalistic; the fact that he is a three-headed dog is what defines him. When I am creating or adapting a character, the first thing I do is to think about the features of my character that are absolutely set in stone. Once I know my limits, it is much easier to start modifying the character in other ways, where necessary.
Last week, I wrote an article about a mythological figure called Giltine. She was one of the first to be added to my novel and refining her as a character was particularly challenging. In Baltic legend, she is portrayed as a deranged woman who kills everyone she meets. Perfect for a monster, but I needed her to interact with my other characters. After some consideration, I settled on a couple of things which were essential to the atmosphere of this figure. Firstly, she was once a young and beautiful woman who was transformed into an ugly hag and to maintain this element, I created an uncomfortable clash between her neatly kept clothes and hideous face. And second, she has a complete disregard for human life. Keeping this trait present without turning her into a monster was tough – the Giltine from legend is indifferent about death because she’s crazy and that wouldn’t work for this version of the character. In the end, I created some motivation behind her behavior, but that’s a post for another day, I think.
Anyway, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with humanising fantasy creatures. Have you found any techniques to guide you?