Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Hero's Journey for Writers in Retrospect

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

The hero's journey was most succinctly characterized by Bilbo Baggins when he titled his memoirs (which we know as The Hobbit), "There and Back Again."

Because of the overriding urgency of the impending crisis that impels the hero to undertake the journey, we tend to think of a linear progression from problem, through attempts, to the ultimate solution. When painting with broad brushes, we use quest as a task-oriented synonym for the hero's journey: obtain the goal or meet the conditions of the quest and you're done.

In doing so, we lose sight of the fact that the hero's journey is a mythic cycle.

Myth is not history. History is what happened in a particular time and place. Myth is what happened (and is happening) in many times and places.

And the important thing about the pattern is that it is a cycle: the hero's journey is really about coming full circle.

Consider the outbound and inbound parallels:

It begins in the The Ordinary World and ends there when the hero Returns with the Elixir. Called to Adventure, the hero Refuses the Call because of fear--the very fears he must confront in the final conflict and transcend in his Resurrection as a new man. One or more Mentors help the hero Cross the Threshold into the unknown world, just as hard-won Rewards give the hero the knowledge and the wherewithal to take The Road Back that leads to the final confrontation. The middle of the journey is about discovering Allies and Enemies, attempting to resolve the crisis by Approaching the In-most Cave, and enduring Ordeals.

There and back again--because the hero's journey is an archetype of personal transformation.

This all may seem overly academic.

Why can't we just say, "Stuff happens," and be satisfied?

Because when there's a recurring pattern, stuff isn't simply happening.

The twelve phases of the hero's journey are not simply labels that Joseph Campbell found convenient for his purposes. Each represents a point of failure:


The Ordinary World
If the hero is too comfortable, there is no journey. If the writer is too comfortable, there is no book.

Called to Adventure
If nothing threatens the village, there is no need to undertake the journey. If there's no moment of inspiration, no, "Hey, I could write a book," there's no need to fire up the forge and begin hammering out words.

Refuses the Call
If the threat is easily dismissed, there is no need for a hero. If the idea is only strong enough for a blog post or an essay, there is no need for a book.

Without guidance, would-be heroes generally flounder and fail. Without guidance, or at least support and some kind of positive feedback, would-be authors generally flounder until their enthusiasm for the project peters out.

Cross the Threshold
If the hero stays with the mentor, to prepare a bit more or hone another skill, and never sets out on the journey proper, the village will not escape the peril. If the writer is forever studying the craft and keeping up with the industry, going to conferences, taking courses, participating in critique groups, and all the dozens of ways in which one can feel like a writer without actually writing, the book will never be finished.

Allies and Enemies
If the hero fails to distinguish between the allies and enemies he encounters in the special world, his journey will end badly. If writers don't know who to trust, if they follow bad advice, or get impatient and rush to market, the book will end badly.

Approaching the In-most Cave
If the hero never attempts to carry the fight to the enemy, he'll never learn what he needs to know or acquire the item that will make the difference in the final conflict. If the writer never puts their work out for others to see, they'll never learn about their strengths and weaknesses, who their audience is and what resonates with them, and where they need to improve.

If the hero succumbs to the ordeal or loses his nerve, he fails. If the writer is overwhelmed by rejection and withdraws, they fail.

If the hero fails to claim the reward for surviving the ordeal or the hard-won knowledge it has to offer, he will not have what he needs to win in the final battle. If the writer doesn't learn from and grow stronger through the rejections from agents and editors, they'll stand no chance against the merciless one-star reviewers who will pounce on the published work.

The Road Back
If the hero turns aside from the road back to the final confrontation, the battle is over before it begins. If, in the seemingly endless rounds of revision, the writer loses faith, interest, or even the vision that carried them to this point, the book will die before it's been born.

If the hero isn't transformed by the final conflict--if he doesn't transcend his foes--he will win, at best, a hollow victory and stands a good chance of becoming the new enemy. If the writer doesn't transcend the painful, grinding process of publication, and find a pure and unsullied joy in their work, they go down a path of bitterness and cynicism, in which writing becomes a Sisyphean chore.

Return with the Elixir.
If the hero doesn't return with the elixir, the village will not be made whole and the hero betrays everything for which he has suffered and fought.. If the writer never gives back to the readers, to the writing community, or even to themselves and those nearest and dearest, they are headed for irrelevancy, perhaps even ruin.

It's no accident that Campbell discovered the archetype of the hero's journey in myths from around the world. It's a powerful pattern that can transform you both as a person and as a storyteller.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Character and Archetype, book 6 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: Simon Howden /

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