Writers have long used mythology as fodder for their stories, and fantasy writers in particular rely on the gods, demi-gods, heroes, and legendary beasts of civilizations long since passed. The biggest obstacle in drawing from this common inspiration pool is how to make it unique, how to make it into something entirely your own. How do so many stories inspired by the same source material differ so greatly?
It’s not an easy question, but the answer lies in interpretation. Most writers don’t cut and paste mythological creatures or races from what we read in textbooks. Take vampires for example; they are widely used in literature and pop culture, but their attributes and weaknesses differ between depictions. The vampires from the movie Blade segregate between those born vampires and those turned. Being Human has vampires that walk around in daylight. Twilight‘s vampires avoid sunlight not because it kills them but because it exposes them as something other than human. True Blood shows the struggle of vampires living openly with the rest of society. However prevalent a race or creature is in pop culture, there is always a new way to spin it.
Another way to create something distinctively your own is to focus on less popular source material. If you draw upon Greek mythology, consider some of the lesser known figures and creatures. Use cultures less familiar to the majority of readers. Above all, use your own imagination to integrate it into your story in a way only you can. I personally love Greek mythology. My grandfather was born in Greece, and I have always had a fascination with their ancient pantheon. When I decided to include some of their lesser deities in the Animus Saga, I tweaked them to suit the story. Naiads are traditionally female water spirits who would fall in love with mortal men and were often prone to jealous rage. But I wanted a male villain from a race not often seen as warriors, so I decided to make my naiads of both genders but retained their beautiful visage and deadly fury.
Not all inspiration need come from mythology. For the Animus Saga‘s lokivi race, I simply took the best qualities of the common house cat and gave them abilities befitting a fantasy battle companion. Another race was inspired by an extinct animal I saw on TV. Sometimes the best fantasy creatures are based on something from our own world.
Above all, make your races, creatures, and deities fit the stories you write. The story itself should make them unique.