The underworld is perhaps the most important motif in mythology and literature – tied up with ideas about life, the afterlife, belief, culture, storytelling, and the psyche, it’s the setting of humanity’s reckoning with the ephemeral nature of mortality.
As writers, we can use the motif of the underworld in two aspects:
- The underworld as world of adventure
- The underworld as world of the dead
Why write the underworld?
- Create an internal or external site for the change your character undergoes, and the wisdom they extract from their experiences in the story.
- Explore your character’s unconscious, and how the archetypes of the collective unconscious manifest in their life.
- Explore your character’s reaction to the unknown in themselves or in the world.
- Explore your characters’ reaction to the nature of death, and to the idea of their own death.
- Explore your characters’ relationships with the dead (both those they knew in life, and those they did not).
- Create an “underground” “sub-culture” that resists or subverts the ways of the ordinary world.
- Create the home world of the antagonist.
- Remove the character from the home world in order to challenge and change them.
- Develop the rules, customs, and aims of your story culture; in particular, how their perception of death shapes their perception of life.
- Explore the boundaries of the upper world.
- Deepen your story world by portraying its inverted, mirror, or dark side.
- Tap into a rich literary tradition.
When to write the underworld?
- The underworld as world of adventure is usually entered soon after the character begins their engagement in the story. In the Hero’s Journey, this is in response to the Call to Adventure, when the character crosses the Threshold of Adventure and leaves the Ordinary World behind. The rest of the story takes place in this symbolic underworld, until the character crosses the Threshold once again and returns home.
- A literal descent into the underworld is likely to take place much later in the story. In the Odyssey, the voyage to the land of the dead happens in Book 11, almost halfway into the 24-book poem.
- A journey to the world of the dead is best undertaken when the character reaches a mental, emotional, or physical standstill in the story. Their work with the world of the living has progressed as far as it can, and in order to seek deeper truths, uncover secrets about themselves or their world, or achieve greater mastery, they need to overcome more difficult challenges.
- A journey to the world of the dead is the ultimate challenge a character can overcome, which is why those who succeed in returning are revered in myths around the world. You can prepare your character for the journey by having them first undergo adventures that take them to locations symbolic of the underworld.
- In the One Page Novel, the character enters the World of Adventure in the Quest, and emerges back into the Ordinary World in the Power (thus the two stages can be plotted as mirror opposites). However, a literal trip to the world of the dead might best be undertaken when the character is deeper in the underworld, particularly during the Shift and Defeat. The Shift suggests an overturning or inversion, and no location better symbolises a sense of loss and Defeat than the depths of Hell.
How to prepare for the Underworld?
- In order to be ready for the underworld as World of Adventure, the character must acknowledge and respond to the Call to Adventure. This may be either…
- An external motivator (something or someone else), or,
- An internal motivator (the character themselves),
and their response may be…
- Willing (they are convinced of the need to respond), or,
- Unwilling (they are forced to respond).
- In order to prepare to enter the underworld as World of the Dead, the character should be at a point in the story where…
- They have experience of previous symbolic descents to the underworld.
- They have tried their mental and physical powers and have achieved some success.
- They have a very strong motivation for undertaking the journey, and this motivation manifests both internally and externally.
- Additionally, the character may prepare in the same way they would when entering any dangerous situation. They may…
- Pack essentials such as food, drink, clothes, shelter, power supplies, etc.
- Bring protection such as bodyguards, talismans, or powerful creatures.
- Leave instructions behind with a trusted companion as to what should be done if they haven’t returned by a set date, as Inanna does in Sumerian myth.
- Complete a mini quest to win or collect a protective item, as Aeneas, who was told to obtain the golden bough.
- Settle their affairs, such as their duties to their people, or their responsibilities to their dependants.
- Say goodbye to loved ones.
What to do in the Underworld?
The character’s task(s) in the underworld may be to:
- Try to bring a loved one back to the world of the living.
- Commune with a loved one or a stranger who has died in order to:
- Seek consolation.
- Discover arcane or forbidden knowledge.
- Learn a secret about themselves.
- Parlay or plead with the gods on behalf of their world.
- Retrieve a valuable item or creature (perhaps as part of a mini quest).
- Bring comfort, or free the dead.
- Challenge their powers and abilities.
- Accompany someone who has recently died.
- Face the shadow self.
- Sacrifice themselves or someone else, perhaps as replacement for one of the dead.