Worldbuilding 101 — Creating your own myth

Worldbuilding poster
We all create our own myths.
I don’t mean, at least not here, creating your own mythology – as in, creating a pantheon for a world of your own making, raising your own gods and monsters. That’s something for a whole another post. But this is a sideswipe which was occasioned by a conversation I had with a family member round about Christmas time.
There is a shared event that happened many years ago at which both myself and that family member were present.
I have a very clear and specific memory of that event and what happened and how it happened, where it happened, who was involved and even, up to a point, what words were spoken in the moment.
My relative has an equally vivid and specific memory.
The trouble is, The memories are not the same.
They are of the same thing, in which we were both involved, but she remembers it one way and I remember it another.

Which is true?

Is there, in fact, such a thing as an absolute empirical truth? Can we trust ANYTHING that we are told – seeing as we could turn around, seeking corroborating evidence, and meet another witness of the event and get a completely different account of what transpired?
Do we each, in fact, live in a world of our own making, only marginally intersecting with other people’s? Can we ever have a real and true SHARED truth?
Everything depends, at its root, on our perceptions. I may remember certain details from the event and my relative may remember others because those details were more important to her than me and vice versa. In our memories is it simply a matter of shaping a reality in which those important events held center stage?  Is our reality shaped by our character and worldwiew… or does the world form our character in a certain way so that we can perceive in a particular manner?
This is a real-life chicken-and-egg question and it is one that is worth pondering as you launch into a life of creating fiction – because you have to make those decisions for your characters. It is easy to see – in overwhelming circumstances – that something like, for instance, a shooting war might shape a person’s perceptions in a certain manner – it might give that person PTSD, it might make them trust or mistrust certain people or certain ideas depending on which faction of that war was shooting AT them and which faction was “on their side”. It might give the character in question certain specific tics, like a violent response to certain words, acts, or items which might have hurt or harmed them in some way. But then you circle back and you ask the question – how would that war have affected a person if they had not gone into that war carrying a certain set of conceptions, beliefs, views of the world? Would somebody “different”, under the exact same circumstances, have taken away entirely different lessons and responses?
In one sense, as you live your own life, you are building up your own personal myth, the myth of your self. That myth involves a certain set of memories, a certain set of values and beliefs, a certain set of responses and reactions to given stimuli. You will perceive that myth from within, and for you that will be your own truth, and that is what is going to make you into the person who you are.
Is it possible that you will have embroidered the story in order to fit the myth? Of course. If you base your passionate animal rights activism, for instance, on a story where you once rescued a dog from abuse – you may have embellished the tale in order to give more weight to your convictions, or your convictions, seeking a root, might have found a rather humdrum little event and blown it up into a full generation event because all of us need a REASON to think or believe something. The truth of it is, it may or may not have happened exactly that way. In fact, that’s almost guaranteed.
In these days of ubiquitous camera and video equipped smart phones, it’s possible that any given event might have been recorded. So many are, but of course, so many aren’t. But even if there is a digital record, that to will have been shaped by our perceptions and expectations. What happened the moment before you start recording? Or the moment after? Where did you aim the camera?
And if there is no recording anywhere, we are back to a memory of a moment that is past, gone, irretrievable except for within biased and fallible mortal memory. Your memories may or may not be RELIABLE.
There are photos in boxes in my spare room which show me in places and circumstances which I have no conscious recall of at all. There are other photos which instantly bring me back to a particular moment in my life. Then there are others which I have to seriously think about because they ring a distant bell but I couldn’t immediately, or ever, tell you anything about them. There are generational photos which pose unanswerable questions once a certain generation has passed.
I have a sepia photo of three children dressed in sailor suits and even my grandparents were uncertain about who these children were. My grandmother thought one of them might have been a cousin of hers. My grandmother has been dead for thirty years now, my mother has no clue about the photo, nothing was written on it, all that we who are still here know about the photo is that somewhere somehow these children were of our blood, else the photo would not have been kept and treasured for so long. I suppose we can make up any story we like to fit those children in sailor collars. And we can make any story we like a part of our own foundational self myth.

There’s your beacon.

It doesn’t have to be ABSOLUTE TRUTH. It needs to be YOUR TRUTH. You need to create a world – and people inside that world – which is real… to you. The only truth you can ever swear to, is the one which you carry inside you.
Take that into your writing, into your worldbuilding, into the characters you create. You’ll be amazed at the spark of life that will suddenly start burning in all of these children of your mind. Your gift to them, as their creator, can be neither more nor less than their own truth… and that will make them live and breathe.
This… if you will forgive the abysmal pun… this is the mything link.


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