Friday, October 26, 2018

The Thousand Masks of God (A Writing Trick For Fantasy)

If you're a fan of fantasy, chances are good you've noticed how crowded the field of the divine can be. This can be particularly problematic in this genre because deities are assumed to be real forces in a lot of fantasy stories (particularly when their servants are the ones standing in as heroes or villains, and drawing their power from that divine source), and thus they represent a major force within the world.

There is an old trick regarding the divine, though, that you can use to clean up the field. I call it the Thousand Masks of God.

For who truly knows what the divine is?

What Is That?

The Thousand Masks of God is a simple idea, and it's one you've probably seen before if you're a fan of fantasy. It's the idea that there is only one set of gods (or sometimes only one god), and that these divinities appear to different cultures in different ways. Sometimes this is done on purpose (a divinity that appears as an old, bearded man to one culture, but a young mother to another), and other times it's human error (due to cultural differences, two very different people received two very different interpretations of the same being, and the same event), but the point is that there is actually a small number of divine forces at work in the world no matter how many different gods people think they're worshiping under different names.

Let's take a real-world example. Many cultures have a patriarch god in their pantheons; the Greeks had Zeus, the Norse had Odin, and so on, and so forth. Under the Thousand Masks of God, those patriarchs would all be the same divinity. While each might capture an aspect of him, they are just a hint of the true nature of that god. None are false, but each is only a singular aspect, seen through the lens of that particular culture.

What's The Purpose?

As a writing/world-building tool, this trick offers you a couple of different advantages. First and foremost, it means that you only have a handful of divinities to keep track of in your world's events and struggles. Secondly, it allows you the opportunity to give your characters (and through them your reader) a peek behind the curtain at pivotal, important points in the story (assuming you're going to reveal the true nature of the divine, which is a necessity if you're going to use this setup). Most importantly, though, this trick allows you to hand-wave away multiple pantheons or deities existing when their doctrine expressly says they're the only gods, or the only true gods.

That escape hatch comes in handy if you want to portray something like angels, demons, rakshasa, etc. in a way that seems to run counter to their presented mythology. Because if these beings, and those who control them, are only glimpsed through a mirror darkly, it's not always possible to understand their true motivations. Especially if you throw in Orange and Blue Morality on top of flawed human understanding.

To Be Clear, You Aren't Blowing Any Minds

That's your prose's job.
Every writer discovers the tools of the trade in different ways, and one of the most frustrating experiences you can have is thinking you've discovered something new and unique that's actually been done a thousand times before by writers you've never heard of. This trick is one of those things I thought most writers knew about, but there are always new folks coming into the fold who think this idea is groundbreaking.

Let me be clear, it isn't. Also, if you're concerned with being new, unique, and original, then writing may not be the career for you. Every story has been told before; the best you can do is hope to tell it in a new way that everyone really likes.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. If you liked it, and would like to see other examples of my work, then check out my Vocal archive. Also, don't forget to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get all of my recent updates and releases. If you'd like to support me you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, become a patron on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly tipper, or you could go to my Amazon author page to Buy My Books!

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