In the Un-Real World: About Those Old Stories….

The world isn’t what you expected it to be. Things, generally supernatural, are pretending to be completely normal and hiding everywhere from the sewers to your neighbor’s preschool. And you’ve just figured this out and are trying to figure out how to make sense of it. Grasping at straws in the process is a perfectly reasonable part of the process, and what better straws to grasp at than existing fiction and folklore?

The first layer of this, of course, starts as “Is this story applicable?” While people in created worlds can often get away with skipping this step, as the fantasy genre or an equivalent thereof never seemed to take off and the legends are nearly always real, it actually matters in the un-real world, where no two people can even agree completely on what constitutes a vampire beyond that whole draining something that translates symbolically to energy in order to survive and some level of issues with the sun. In essence, the litmus test for applicability is generally “does this story seem to describe the situation I am in right now or the creature with which I am dealing?”

Is this story accurate? It’s easy for some people to conflate applicability and accuracy, and stories often seem to fit with the idea of taking them together. Many versions of the un-real world, for instance, operate on the idea that at least one mythology (most often some flavor of Celtic) is Very Definitely True, in the main if not necessarily in all the details, and I’ve seen several un-real worlds in which Stoker’s Dracula can be and often is used as a testbook/case study.

But some canny characters go beyond that and ask how accurate a story is. Yes, it’s quite possible that the legends are an old folklore passed reliably down to protect against whatever the supernatural flavor of the week is. And it’s certainly reassuring when just about everything that’s popped up in a situation so far fits the prevalent lore/most common version of the story, and the genre savvy character’s easiest conclusion is to assume the rest is true as well. But what’s to say, particularly with the really old tales and the oral histories and the like, that the entities the story warns against haven’t themselves been at the story and changed one or two really vital details? So sure, it’s dead-on in how to identify them, but the weakness is switched with something else’s, or worse, that thing it claims is the answer is the one thing you should absolutely not say under any circumstances and I mean it. Sure, it might not actually be a result of malevolence; if you’ve got two species of five-letter d-things with weaknesses to two different obscure alchemical materials, it wouldn’t be that surprising for someone to get them mixed up. And coming up with what exactly caused the change in the extended game of cultural telephone can be a fun exercise in its own right. But when you’re dealing with a very intelligent and very articulate foe, particularly one that’s lived quite a long time, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they might have modified the stories deliberately. Just because the funny little man who spins straw into gold is trying to suppress That Story doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to waste a guess if you assume his name is Rumpelstiltskin.

Why look at it this way? For the creator of characters, it’s a chance to say more about the grounding of the characters in the un-real world in question and its lore—a characterization opportunity that might not even require any homework beyond dredging up memories of old stories. (Granted, fewer people are teaching the fairy tales these days….) For a worldbuilder, on the other hand, it’s a way to introduce ambiguity, and even to mess with people’s heads a bit. My Rumpelstiltskin example, for instance, actually was what set this piece off; I was thinking about fairy tales, and next thing I knew I was in a game of “you know I know” trying to figure out whether it would be safer to assume the story false or true. (And yes, I enjoyed it immensely.)

What are the old stories to your world? And what are they to you?


  1. Michael says:

    I’ve never liked the idea of incorporating the supernatural into a world simply by saying that a particular mythology happens to be true. It raises too many uncomfortable questions: the most blatant being, how and why did this particular group of people gain access to the facts about supernatural creatures, when no other people did? It also comes across as a bit of a lazy shortcut. If these supernatural creatures really existed — and I’ll confine myself to “urban fantasy” worlds where the majority of humans are unaware of them, as those are the worlds I myself write — some people would occasionally get glimpses of them and stories would get passed down, but there’s no reason to think they would be an accurate description of the creatures — just look at how, in the real world, explorers’ tales of real creatures ended up as the most fantastical descriptions! And then, there might be further layers, realms that humans have never seen, and so the only source of their descriptions in human legends is what the spirits themselves have told us. Considerations like these make it possible to develop a fantasy world that has your own unique stamp on it while at the same time offering a sense of familiarity by being visibly grounded in a particular mythology (such as one story idea I’m working on at the moment, which is inspired by Japanese mythology).

  2. Ravyn says:

    There’s developing, and then there’s surviving in an existing one, and there is a lot of existing un-real world in which having a decent grounding can come in semi-handy. Sometimes, something’s technically applicable without even being true; one of the things that got me on this topic was a conversation I’d had with my boyfriend regarding the Call of Cthulhu (yes, seriously, this will make sense in a moment) game he’s running for me. My character’s about to be hitting the Dreamlands, and there was one point in which he was commenting that the “be polite to the guardians” thing was a guideline and not a requirement (she’d been treating it as a Very Definite Part of the Routine) and I explained, “She’s going into a highly metaphysical realm, been deciphering a spellbook hidden in a collection of fairy tales–of course she’s going to be polite to anything that isn’t obviously trying to eat her, that’s Rule #1 in these sorts of stories! If she had my grounding in children’s literature she’d be using Gaiman’s Instructions as a reference book!”

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