Author’s Note: this post contains extracts from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series and some big spoilers, especially for the first book; Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, so read with caution if you are planning on trying these books out and don’t want to be spoiled.
If I had to sum up my original idea for starting to write this book, I would have gone for this: ‘What if British Folklore was based on real events?’ Folklore’s been a long-time fascination and is sadly under-explored in modern fiction.
Anyway, if I wanted this to work at all, there was something that I had to get right instantly: Gods. I suppose since this is fantasy, I should say The Old Gods?
If these characters didn’t feel both real and other-worldly at one and the same time, the whole idea would fall apart. Fortunately, there’s a really good example of the many ways you can go about achieving this out there: The Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.
If you haven’t read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series … just … treat yourself and go do that! Like, right now. It’s January, people, what else do you have to look forward to until The Thaw comes?
I myself found the series through what I have dubbed ‘reverse marketing’ in which the film is such a bad adaptation that people’s complaints over how much better the books are actively caused me to seek the books out. I had a couple of friends get so upset and vocal about how good the books were and how badly the films had mishandled what was great about them that I just had to find out what the fuss was about.
And, oh boy! I was so glad I did. They are funny, they are exciting, they are full of little quirky nods to the original Greek mythology that’ll make you smile if you’re all nerdy and into that. (Who me?) But they don’t assume you know everything about everything and set everything up properly, so you won’t get lost if Greeks and their beliefs was, say, twenty years ago for you.
More importantly for this post, Rick Riordan does an excellent job of making the Greek gods feel both completely alien, and also strangely human. They are clearly powerful, immortal beings, but they also embody everything good and bad about humanity too.
Author’s Note: I did think about looking at Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but there the old gods are weakened and diminished from their old forms and strength and facing off against new ones, and that’s a very different topic!
OK, so you need to establish characters who are god; they need to feel real enough that the readers buy into their existence, but they also need to be consistent with their legends that you are drawing from. For anyone playing the home-game with this series, this ties into a previous post I wrote about Why Villains need Rules to be terrifying.
It’s all about combining the human and the alien, relatable and unknowable. And there are many ways to communicate this balance in your character;
How do they look? Like us or like something you could picture being painted on the Sistine Chapel surrounded by thunder bolts?
How do they behave? Like an animal? Like a human? Like a force of nature? (Whatever that may conjure in your imagination)
What is their history? Many gods are described as being immortal, or at least as being far, far older than any human could ever be. They’ve watched over humanity for hundreds or thousands of years, so what kind of history have they built up and how does that affect them?
Now, the Percy Jackson series has loads of gods and goddesses in it, far too many for me to talk about in this post, so we’re looking at what Riordan calls The Big Three, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, who helpfully illustrate three main approaches.
In the series, Rick Riordan did something very interesting; he updated the appearance of the gods to modern fashions, but often had their clothes reflect their roles and thus personalities. For example Ares is dressed like a Hell’s Angels biker, reflecting his status as the God of War.
Hades is the first of The Big Three to appear in person however and he is immediately set apart from the other gods we’ve encountered already:
He was the third god I’d met, but the first who really struck me as godlike.
He was at least three metres tall, for one thing, and dressed in black silk robes and a crown of braided gold. His skin was albino white, his hair shoulder-length and jet black. He wasn’t bulked up like Ares, but he radiated power. He lounged on his throne of fused human bones, looking lithe, graceful and dangerous as a panther.
… When he sat forward in his throne, shadowy faces appeared in the folds of his black robes, faces of torment, as if the garment were stitched of trapped souls from the Fields of Punishment, trying to get out. The ADHD part of me wondered, off-task, whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way. What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hades’s underwear?
So Hades is immediately more imposing than anything we’ve seen before, and we’ve seen beings who have empty eye-sockets that fill with fire so far in this book, so that’s really saying something! He’s not changed his appearance like everyone else, suggesting that either he’s had no need to change, probably because Death is consistent in the human existence? Certainly he stands out and there is absolutely no way to mistake him as anything other than the god he is.
He’s also shown as being a very menacing presence; there are souls of the damned woven into his clothing, his throne is made of human bone. Many people find death and the afterlife a frightening concept and Hades really reflects this too. Hades at this point has always been spoken of as a pretty evil figure, semi-Satan-like if you will, and his appearance really reinforces this.
We meet Poseidon and Zeus right at the end of the first book, The Lightning Thief, and they have followed the trend of changing with the times, appearance-wise. However, they both have very different takes on this. Zeus, as the Lord of the Gods, has really taken to power dressing:
Zeus, the Lord of the Gods, wore a dark blue, pinstriped suit. He sat on a simple throne of solid platinum. He had a well-trimmed beard, marbled grey and black like a storm cloud. His face was proud and handsome and grim, his eyes rainy grey.
As I got nearer to him, the air crackled and smelled of ozone.
So Zeus dresses like most world-leaders, successful business-men and crime-bosses; sharp suit and well-groomed. Everything about him reinforces his status as the God of Thunder, and as the God In Charge. It’s hard to show in short quotes, but Zeus as a character is incredibly touchy, even for a god in this series, and he flaunts and reinforces his power at every possible moment. Zeus is in charge and he doesn’t want anyone to forget it for even a moment. He is always listening out for people being disrespectful:
“But I’ve never even been to Olympus! Zeus is crazy!”
Chiron and Glover glanced nervously at the sky. The clouds didn’t seem to be partly around us, as Grover had promised. They were rolling straight over our valley, sealing us in like a coffin lid.
“Er, Percy…?” Grover said. “We don’t use the c-word to describe the Lord of the Sky.”
“Perhaps paranoid,” Chiron suggested.
The interesting thing about Poseidon is how he sits at the opposite end to Hades on the ‘How Much Do I Look Like A God?’ range:
The god sitting next to him was his brother, without a doubt, but he was dressed very differently. He reminded me of a beachcomber from Key West. He wore leather sandals, khaki Bermuda shorts, and a Tommy Bahama shirt with coconuts and parrots all over it. His skin was deeply tanned, his hands scarred like an old-time fisherman’s. His hair was black, like mine. His face had that same brooding look that had always got me branded a rebel. But his eyes, sea-green like mine, were surrounded by sun-crinkles that told me he smiled a lot, too.
His throne was a deep-sea fisherman’s chair. It was the simple swivelling kind, with a black leather seat and a built-in holster for a fishing pole. Instead of a pole, the holster held a bronze trident, flickering with green light around the tips.
Poseidon couldn’t possibly look less like a god if he tried for a century, which he very possibly has. His throne’s a folding chair, he’s wearing Bermuda shorts, I mean in a later book he even comes with this:
He wore a battered cap decorated with fishing lures. It said, Neptune’s Lucky Fishing Hat.
I am not making this up. And the strange thing is that, at least to me, the effect is that Poseidon is actually the most intimidating of The Big Three. Zeus and Hades have had this huge rivalry for hundreds of years and flaunt their power as much as they can, albeit in very different ways. But Poseidon gives the impression of a god who is so powerful that he doesn’t need to remind everyone.
It makes sense in a way: Hades is the Lord of the Dead and Zeus rules the gods and thunder, but Poseidon is the god of storms, earth-quakes, the sea and horses. That’s all the seas in the world, and a portion of the land and air under his control. Poseidon effectively knows that he has ‘It’ in spades and can afford not to flaunt it, which considering the company he keeps is kind of terrifying.
And speaking of terrifying…
Interactions with Percy
(Percy is our point-of-view character throughout the books. How much he relates to the characters he encounters therefore shapes how much we, the readers, can relate to them too.)
So a lot of the gods Percy encounters for the first time need to identify themselves to him as gods. Usually this is because they are cloaking their powers to blend in and it works. Percy could easily mistake them for other magical beings or totally normal humans.
The Big Three, however, have no such first-impression reveal; they are immediately identifiable as gods, giving off a god-like aura of power and menace:
I immediately felt like [Hades] should be giving the orders. He knew more than I did. He should be my master. Then I told myself to snap out of it. … The Lord of the Dead resembled pictures I’d seen of Adolph Hitler, or Napoleon, or the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers. Hades had the same intense eyes, the same kind of mesmerizing, evil charisma.
And then the other two:
The gods were in giant human form, as Hades had been, but I could barely look at them without feeling a tingle, as if my body were starting to burn.
So the Big Three are united in the aura of power they emit, which links them together when they are distinguished by their appearances. Makes sense as they are very much presented as three brothers, and for all their differences they need something in common.
So that’s first impressions done, but then they start talking and once more the differences between them are stark.
Percy is talking to Hades in an effort to convince him not to start a war with his brothers. We’ve already had the price of failure presented to us at the start of the quest:
“And do you know what a full-fledged war would look like, Percy?”
“Bad?” I guessed.
“Imagine the world in chaos. Nature at war with itself. Olympians forced to choose sides between Zeus and Poseidon. Destruction. Carnage. Millions dead. Western civilisation turned into a battleground so big it will make the Trojan War look like a water-balloon fight.”
“Bad,” I repeated.
So there’s a lot on the line and everything in the book has been pointing to Hades starting this mess while framing his brother Poseidon for it, to anger his other brother Zeus. And we all need to appreciate that this feels exactly like to original Greek myths, right here. It’s all egos and pulling ridiculous stunts over absolute nonsense because Greek gods apparently cannot be trusted to talk to each other…
Anyway, Hades so far has been totally alien in appearance and presence and then Percy suggests that the war would benefit Hades because people will die and he’ll have more subjects to rule over and this happens:
“Have you any idea how much my kingdom has swollen in this past century alone, how many subdivisions I’ve had to open?”
I opened my mouth to respond, but Hades was on a roll now.
“More security ghouls,” he moaned. “Traffic problems at the judgement pavilion. Double overtime for all the staff. I used to be a rich god, Percy Jackson. I control all the precious metals under the earth. But my expenses!”
“Charon wants a pay raise,” I blurted, just remembering the fact. As soon as I said it, I wished I could sew up my mouth.
“Don’t get me started on Charon!” Hades yelled. “He’s been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits! Problems everywhere, and I’ve got to handle all of them personally. The commute time alone from the palace to the gates is enough to drive me insane! And the dead just keep arriving. No, godling. I need no help getting subjects! I did not ask for this war.”
I have never related to a character so fast in my life! I mean, yes, Hades is talking about ruling the world of the dead, which I cannot say I have any experience in at all, but c’mon… We have all had commuting issues and trouble at work, right? Hades suddenly became so relatable, I totally forgot for a minute that he’s dressed in woven souls and sitting on bones!
Now contrast this with Zeus, who continues his desperate efforts to be the most commanding and intimidating thing ever and therefore can barely say ‘thank you’ properly:
[Zeus] rose and looked at me. His expression softened just a fraction of a degree. “You have done me a service, boy. Few heroes could have accomplished as much.”
“I had help, sir,” I said. “Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase –“
“To show you my thanks, I shall spare your life. I do not trust you, Perseus Jackson. I do not like what your arrival means for the future of Olympus. But for the sake of peace in the family, I shall let you live.”
“Um … thank you, sir.”
“Do not presume to fly again. Do not let me find you here when I return. Otherwise you shall taste this bolt. And it shall be your last sensation.”
Thunder shook the palace. With a blinding flash of lightening, Zeus was gone.
To be fair, I don’t think we’re ever meant to relate to Zeus especially, except insofar as we all know at least one person who’s just trying so hard. I always loved Poseidon’s take on the same moment:
“Your uncle,” Poseidon sighed, “has always had a flair for dramatic exits. I think he would’ve done well as the god of theatre.”
See, Poseidon totally knows what’s up…
Anyway, then again there’s Poseidon, who on first impression is the most relatable and normal-looking of the three, and as a character therefore compensates by being the most removed from human understanding of the three. And this is Percy’s own father here, so that’s really saying something:
“Perseus,” Poseidon said. “Look at me.”
I did, and I wasn’t sure what I saw in his face. There was no clear sign of love or approval. Nothing to encourage me. It was like looking at the ocean: some days, you could tell what mood it was in. Most days, though, it was unreadable, mysterious.
I got the feeling Poseidon really didn’t know what to think of me. He didn’t know whether he was happy to have me as a son or not. In a strange way, I was glad that Poseidon was so distant. If he’d tried to apologize, or told me he love me, or even smiled. It would’ve felt fake. Like human dad, making some lame excuse for not being around. I could live with that. After all, I wasn’t sure about him yet, either.
And there’s the way that Poseidon actually relates to his own child:
“Your mother is a queen among women,” Poseidon said wistfully. “I had not met such a woman in a thousand years. Still … I am sorry you were born, child. I have brought you a hero’s fate, and a hero’s fate is never happy. It is never anything but tragic.”
I tried not to feel hurt. Here was my own dad, telling me he was sorry I’d been born. “I don’t mind, Father.”
“Not yet, perhaps,” he said. “Not yet. But it was an unforgivable mistake on my part.”
“I’ll leave you then.” I bowed awkwardly. “I – I won’t bother you again.”
Although I do have to say that, in this series, Poseidon is actually one of the best parent-gods in the whole cast, which says terrible things about everyone else… And Poseidon actually does tend to make an effort with Percy, by which I mean that he does clearly care and he tries to show his son affection as best he can. The fact that he’s so weird and stilted about it, however, continues to highlight how very not-human he is too.
Like, this is Poseidon telling Percy he’s proud of him:
I was five steps away when he called, “Perseus.”
There was a different light in his eyes, a fiery kind of pride. “You did well, Perseus. Do not misunderstand me. Whatever else you do, know that you are mine. You are a true son of the Sea God.”
And this is Poseidon relating to Percy having a birthday several books later:
“I couldn’t miss Percy’s fifteenth birthday,” Poseidon said. “Why, if this were Sparta, Percy would be a man today!”
“That’s true,” Paul said. “I used to teach ancient history.”
Poseidon’s eyes twinkled. “That’s me. Ancient history.”
And speaking of ancient history…
History with Fellow Gods
So, I would argue that the main difference character-structure-wise between gods and, say, super-heroes is their age. Superheroes grow old and die (Maybe. Technically. Theoretically. If the comic books will let them.) Gods go on and on and have been around essentially for forever. And the challenge for writers is in how to showcase that longevity without constantly having to outright say These characters are immortal and really old, guys!
Rick Riordan is very good at making use of the original Greek myths to give a sense of the gods having lived and interacted, both with each other and with heroes, for hundreds of years. They speak of ancient myths as if they happened recently, and that helps us as readers get a real sense of how long they’ve spent developing rivalries and grievances and grudges.
“Husband, we talked about this,” Persephone chided. “You can’t go around incinerating every hero. Besides, he’s brave. I like that.”
Hades rolled his eyes. “You liked that Orpheus fellow too. Look how well that turned out.”
And those long-past interactions also directly affect the plot as it is happening in the present too. Remember that war in the first book that we were worrying about? Well, it’s not just Zeus being all paranoid:
“Then again, Poseidon has tried to unseat Zeus before. I believe that was question thirty-eight on your final exam…” He looked at me as if he actually expected me to remember question thirty-eight…
“Something about a golden net?” I guessed. “Poseidon and Hera and a few other gods … they, like, trapped Zeus and wouldn’t let him out until he promised to be a better ruler, right?”
“Correct,” Chiron said. “And Zeus has never trusted Poseidon since. Of course, Poseidon denies stealing the master bolt. He took great offence at the accusation. The two have been arguing back and forth for months, threatening war.”
In fact throughout the whole series, the whole pantheon of gods are mostly at each other’s throats far more than they ever can manage to work together. They’ve all stood on each other’s toes and made life difficult for each other, and clearly relished doing so. Even in the face of a bigger threat they can’t work together for a long time. They’ve spent centuries falling out and hurting each other and it’s nearly impossible for them to put all that aside. As we saw in A Very Potter Case Study 2, in a well-written plot, the consequence of an argument is that the next argument is worse and the characters less likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
So by establishing a long history between ancient beings, we can relate as an audience to the many layers of challenge throughout the series, with enemies attacking from without and rivalries weakening the group from within. And because we can relate so well, we also feel more tension; in the same position, could we put our differences aside for someone else?
In Part 2, we’ll be looking at how I converted some figures of folklore into living, breathing characters; where I drew inspiration from for their appearances, their personalities and their powers.
If this was helpful, let me know and as always, if you’re new then check out the rest of the series here. See you next week!