Last week we talked about keeping a deep and varied reading list as a great way to get inspiration for a story. Today, we’re going to drill into a specific type of inspiration: the ancient classics. Suzanne Collins is great, but have you read your Aristophanes lately?
In “All Right” (my current work-in-progress), I pull liberally from Greek myths. The entire premise of a life repeated, comes straight from Prometheus, who was doomed to be killed and resurrected every day as a punishment for stealing fire from the Gods. Throw a single twist in there — coming back to life in a different storyline — and bam, inspiration achieved. It’s rare that you’ll be able to use the myths wholesale — they’re just too familiar and too strange to copy exactly. Even so, well-placed allusions will give your story a rare depth that roots it in thousands of years of storytelling.
I’ve also taken liberal inspiration from Homer’s Ulysses in this story. A hero, searching for home, overcoming obstacles, returning to his family: it’s a great hero story that’s endured for thousands of years. Sprinkling Greek myth into your own story is more than just authorial double-dipping, it’s bringing in elements that have been part of storytelling in culture for a long, long time. With a few exceptions, these elements are around because they work. You’ve seen the Oedipus story recast into a thousand different stories. The Odyssey has seen many different forms. Both the Aeneid and the Iliad are the original legends that nations rise and fall on.
Finally, you can reward your readers with hidden allusions. Most readers would recognize the three fates on sight. But would they recognize three gabbing grandmas, swigging ice-cold Cokes in rural Georgia and gossiping about the postman? They might not, but if they do, you’ve rewarded them for being perceptive. They’ll have an additional angle on those characters that someone else might not get, and that’s exactly the experience you’re hoping to cultivate in your readers.
The possibilities are endless. Perhaps Sisyphus is a demoralized factory worker in 18th century England. Narcissus could be a vain fantastical centaur, drowned in a lake by an evil lord. The twelve Greek gods could be twelve bickering siblings in backcountry Appalachia. Whether you’re building your entire story around a Greek myth retold (C.S. Lewis did this, with great results, in Till We Have Faces), or simply incorporating a few elements in your story (as I am doing, hopefully to great results), Greek myths are an excellent place to dig for inspiration.