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I'm compiling in-world legends for my built world, and would like them to feel like established legends from our own human experience.

What should I keep in mind while writing these legends? What elements, styles of prose, turns of phrases, structure, length, and so on are more likely to be found in legends than in a more routine work of fiction? What makes a legend sound like a legend?

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Legends are defined by the cultures who created them

Legends reflect the values of their culture. Sacred hospitality and the inevitability of fate were popular themes for the Greeks. The Norse Eddas focus on personal sacrifice for power and knowledge several times. Russian fairy tales celebrate kind fools. Some cultures revere tricksters, other demonize them.

Legends often have poetic forms

Legends generally begin life as oral traditions. Poetic forms make it easier to remember long stories, so they're very common among the large epics. But it depends on the type of story being told. An epic tale told by a master storyteller will be poetic - a fairy tale told by a parent won't be. (Although there can be a certain rhythm to children's stories as well).

The exact forms will be different from culture to culture, and will be shaped by the nature of the language.

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    As a collector of fairytales/legends, I'd like to add to this fine answer. The further we look from Western tradition, the more bizarre and un-Hero's Journey the legends are. There's a fake myth attributed to generic "Indian Tribes" about 2 wolves, good and evil, and which one you decide to feed. The story is Christian dogma dressed up in native hokum. The indigenous legends I've read are not about a "struggle between light and dark". Inuit legends are more about fart jokes, than morality heroes – probably because they were meant to entertain kids trapped indoors through months of winter…. – wetcircuit May 12 at 16:31
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Apart from Campbell's "The Hero's Journey", another source of archetypal knowledge is folktales. You could take a look at the work of Vladimir Propp and his analysis of Russian folktales.

Both Campbell's and Propp's works describe a structure common to many stories of each category: the repetition of three, leaving the normal world, the appearance of a guide or mentor, being sent on a quest by the king, etc. Using the same structure will enhance reader recognition.

Many myths and legends have a religious source. It can be both myths from "old almost forgotten" religions (e.g. ancient Greece/Rome) or legends from more recent religions (e.g. Christianity, Buddhism), and gods, prophets and heroes from these religions may give your legends a backbone.

Folktales usually don't have that kind of source.

Myths are also, sometimes, used to explain natural phenomenon:

Persephone was forced to live in the underworld for half a year so her mother Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, harvest etc, mourned and there was winter, and then when Persephone returned Demeter was happy and there was spring, summer, harvest...

Both myths and folktales belong in the oral tradition, so they usually have more psychological and symbolical depth than they seem at first glance. Many people (and their minds) have bent, twisted and adjusted the story to fill it with archetypal symbols.

I suggest looking for these symbols in psychology (Jungianism), dream analysis, and symbol lexicons.

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    "used to explain natural phenomenon" - that's if it's a myth; like Zeus shooting lighting bolts. A legend never conflicts with the current understanding of science, or at least it never exits the realm of possibly; I've met people like Hercules, with 'the strength of ten men'. Dragons were a myth until (or because?) we found dinosaur bones... and then they became legendary. Legends have incidental supporting evidence. Myths are incidental, in and of themselves. – Mazura May 12 at 3:12
  • @Mazura: "A legend never conflicts with the current understanding of science". I quote: "A legend is presumed to have some basis in historical fact and tends to mention real people or events." Never is a strong word. But sure, I am not distinguishing enough between legends, myths, and folktales. I'm not even 100% on what their differences are... hence the "read further here". – Erk May 12 at 16:41
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I think of legends and mythology (I took a college elective on it) as being about black-and-white extremes, like writing for children too young to process nuance, too young to appreciate flawed heroes or sympathetic villains. Hercules is the good guy. Heaven and Hell, Mount Olympus or the Underworld, are polar opposites, it is either 100% good or 100% bad. God is great, Satan is completely evil.

Other than that, the story structure is much the same. Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey applies; he derived it from studying myths and legends. It fits neatly into the Three Act Structure, but contains more detail.

Myths and legends are used to teach idealistic life lessons (now and always have been), in particular to young children, in an entertaining and memorable way. Hence the demand for simplicity and extremes in motive; and a lack of nuance, a streamlined plot structure without side-trips or dithering. By "idealistic" I mean the hero is brave, intrepid, and puts himself above others. If he acts selfishly, he is punished until he makes amends. But he doesn't give up! Evil gets vanquished. The Wizard helps the hero because the hero is righteous, or has a good heart. Heroes may be clever and outsmart the monster or villain, but only the villain's actually cheat or break their word.

Now I suspect you may find exceptions to that in actual myths or legends. Aladdin may win the princess by employing clever lies; but in the end Aladdin has a good heart and a true love so this is forgivable; he is not lying to trick the princess into a romp in the hay.

But the principles hold. Think of the legend as an idealistic story for prepubescent children, in which the hero has (or develops) several traits of the best mankind has to offer: In particular bravery and altruism, self-sacrifice to do what is right or to punish what is wrong. They protect and defend good women and children. The gods are on their side.

Make sure the villain and obstacles have the worst traits of man or nature. The villain is a duplicitous liar, cheat and fraudster. A trickster. Perhaps they will kill without compunction, mercy or regret. The storms are ruthlessly violent, the desert is blistering hot. The obstacles are literally lethal monsters that must be killed for the greater good.

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    If Aladdin had a good heart, it is completely non-evident in the (non-Disney) versions of the myth that I've read. He never takes any actions that aren't strictly for his own benefit. – Arcanist Lupus May 11 at 20:31
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    Somehow it sounds to me like you are more talking about the modern commercial adaptions of various myths, because the originals rarely seem black-and-white, and oftentimes are just straight confusing. – xLeitix May 11 at 22:47
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A story is usually ordinary, believable, interesting only to the extent you care about the characters or the happenings in it. A legend is bigger than that. It lasts, it is passed down, and as it passes from mouth to mouth it shifts a little. "This chair was made by my great grandfather for his first child and has been with us ever since" is a story. "This axe is the one my great grandfather used to clear this land and build this house" is more epic, but still just a story. "This axe is the one Eric, from a time before my great grandfather, used to kill seven wolves in a single night, we keep it over the table in the council hall to remind us of his bravery" is getting on to legend. When the wolf story gets longer, more dramatic - perhaps a few dogs or even children are taken, then night after night the pack is circling the village howling, no-one dares travel alone even in daylight, children are growing thin because nobody can go to the next village to trade for food, "until one night brave Eric hoists his axe, the only weapon he has, and..." now you're headed to legend. A legend can be inspired by a real story, but that brave team of three becomes just one person who can personify the bravery (or the intelligence, innovation, loyalty, faith, obedience, etc.) The work of an entire season now happens in one night. The recognition of the feat is immediate. And so on.

A legend has to be physically plausible though. If Eric is 40 feet tall, or that mountain was formed when a spirit lay down to rest because it was happy with the way people were turning out, or a single woman's anger burned that pass between the mountains, then you're into the myth zone. You can have myths, but if you want legends it has to be believable that a single man outperformed the steam-powered machine that was supposed to beat him or that one child's words ended a war or whatever.

Legends should also be sparing with details other than those that matter. Nobody can remember what colour Eric's eyes were or the names of his children, but the words he said when he came back with the wolf pelts, those are famous. Or perhaps the number of lace-holes in his boots. One or two tiny details make the legend shine, especially when surrounded by a vague fogginess about how old the person was or what they usually did.

In a story, the best legends are incomplete because the characters know them. Just as we might refer to the boy who cried wolf without telling it on the spot, a character can say "oh, look who is Eric of the Axe now" when somebody considers using an axe as a weapon, or says they will save the village, or whatever. You could do that a few times before a small child or someone new to the world asks to be told the story. That way the reader feels like they know part of it before they even hear it.

  • My bad for skimming. – RonJohn May 13 at 7:48

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