As cultures develop and change, they inevitably create myths and legends along the way (whether these are old style myths, like a creation story, or something more along the line of modern urban legends, like Slenderman). Brainstorming these myths adds a depth to the culture you’re designing, and no matter the stage of your culture’s development, there are bound to be myths and stories associated with it. So basically, you are brainstorming stories within your story.
I’ll be covering two kinds of myths in this article - old style myths (the kind that cultures create in their early development to explain things they don’t understand), and urban legends (basically, modern folklore, or perpetuated memes in pop culture). Both kinds of myth are important, and they can say a lot about your society, especially when you give the myths meaning.
First of all, let’s cover old style myths. These are myths created early on in a culture’s development, usually to explain things they don’t understand or have answers for (like death, the weather, seasons, creation, etc.). That’s the basic idea, but here are some types of old style myth you may want to brainstorm:
- Explanation of death/afterlife/life cycle
- Origin of species
- Justification for human (or whatever other prominent species) superiority (like how some people say humans are special and above animals because a deity they believe in made it that way)
- Archetype myths (basically, myths about a certain type of person, and the ideal model of that individual. Archetypes could include things like a hero, a parent, a child, a warrior/soldier, a wise person, youth, lovers, intellectuals, highly religious people, magicians/wizards, kings/queens/other leaders, peasants, despots, undesirable people, etc.)
- Abstract concepts (the Greeks, for instance, had a number of deities representing abstract concepts like love and chaos, and there were myths surrounding these)
- Important Lessons (or whatever society deems “important,” be that good or bad. Lessons perpetuated in society might not always be good)
And here are some things to think about when creating an old style myth:
- Why was this myth created? What does it explain?
- Are these myths taken literally, and are they part of a religion? Do they concern deities?
- Do people respect and try to learn from their myths, or do they think they’re stupid?
- Do these myths carry messages that marginalize a certain group of people, or certain species? If so, why?
- Have people made art or music about these myths?
- How dated are the myths? Are there things that explain natural phenomena now, for instance?
- Are they accepted in general society, or are they something the fringe came up with or still uses?
And now for urban legends/modern folklore, which is a bit different. These myths may not necessarily explain things, but they still say something about a culture and what it values. Modern folklore can also include memes (if you’re talking about a society similar to today’s society), or little stories/pictures that have become popular for no real reason, but everybody knows. Here are some things to think about when brainstorming modern folklore/urban legends:
- Does the myth concern some sort of frightening creature (Slenderman, Greys, etc.)? If so, why? What does that say about society?
- If it’s a meme, what is it and why did it become so popular? Was it because it was funny? Poignant? Shocking? Critical?
- Do these myths play on or enforce stereotypes?
- What do the people of the society consider these myths? Do they just call them pop culture? Memes? Popular phenomena? Most modern societies don’t call these myths, unless they’re fairly dated.
- What kind of people like this sort of myth? Conspiracy theorists? Gullible people? People who can’t resist cute things? People who like satire?
- What was the purpose of this myth? Was it to illustrate the problem with something, and criticize it? Was it to perpetuate a particular idea? Does it enforce the status quo, or does it make people think?
- Who created it? Did it come from the internet? Did the government/people in power create it, to calm the masses or enforce a particular idea? Does it come from a religion or particular group of people?
- Who was the intended audience, and was there an intended effect on the audience? Is the intended audience the same as the people who actually like it?
- Does it hurt or slander any particular person or group? If so, why? If it does, is there any action being taken against it, or is it seen as a good thing?
- What’s the general opinion about this myth/meme? Do people think it has no purpose, and just popped out of the woodwork (i.e. Nyan Cat)? Do people find meaning in it, or miss the meaning (if it had any intended meaning)?
- How long did it last, when it was popular? Is it something that sticks in your mind, or did it have fleeting popularity, like when something goes viral on the internet?
- If you believe this myth, do people take you seriously? Are there negative consequences for believing/liking this sort of thing?
Making myths, memes, and legends can be a lot of fun. I know I’ve had fun with them in the past. Hopefully these are some starting points you can use. Good luck!