Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Hero's Journey

It always amazes me how deeply we are connected to stories that we see or read. Something enters our mind and sticks with us. We want to be that protagonist, to live through their experiences and see the world through their eyes. Why is this? What compels us to be so drawn to the hero of the story?

I remember as a kid, I loved watching movies and cartoons, and often pretended that I was the hero, the "good guy" of the story. I remember wanting to be Indiana Jones, to go on his adventures and discover the things that he did. Sure, he had to deal with snakes and melting Nazis difficult tests, but what an awesome hero! He got to find treasures like the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant. He traveled the world. And best of all, he had a whip. While my parents didn't let me have a whip, I found the next best thing: a jump rope sans handle on one end. With my baseball-hat-as-fedora, I would run around using that whip, often with unfortunate consequences. But at the time, I was Indy.

Now, as a writer and a teacher, I understand why we gravitate toward heroes so much. I don't know how I discovered the Hero's Journey, but once I did, I saw how so many of our stories fall into that structure. I don't believe it is intentional, nor is it a cookie cutter method for molding a hero. But I believe there's a reason our heroes face the same kinds of struggles in their journey.

I've used the Hero's Journey as a guide to examining stories, and have not only examined my own writing in light of it, but I've also taught it to my students. It's fun to see the realization wash over them as they start discussing their own favorite films or books, seeing how the pieces all fit together.

Of course, Joseph Campbell is most famous for his The Hero with a Thousand Faces examination of the power of myth. But one book that has been instrumental to me as a writer has been Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey.  In it, he details the stages a hero goes through, and while not all stories fit this exactly, they come pretty close.

Heroes often start out in the Ordinary World, receive a Call to Action through some life-changing event, and usually undergo a Refusal of that Call. They have a Mentor of some sort, and finally decide to take action, entering the Special World, signifying that life will never be the same for them. As they Cross the First Threshold, they gain Allies and make Enemies. They face Tests. They undergo training and go through more minor events as they Approach the result of their call to action. The preparation enables them to face an Ordeal, an event that will make them confront their fears and define who they are, often putting their journey into life-threatening jeopardy. They succeed, and earn a Reward of sorts for their actions, whether it be physical or not. But the reward is fleeting; the journey is not over. The hero must stay committed as they travel The Road Back to the Ordinary World. It is on this road that they will face their biggest challenge, dying in some form (sometimes physically, sometimes, emotionally, and other times spiritually), ultimately ending in their Resurrection as a new person, having demonstrated all that they've learned on the journey. Now, they can Return with the Elixir, some new knowledge or treasure that is the result of their journey.

If all this sounds familiar, that's because it's the way we tell stories. Writers don't sit down with a "Hero's Journey Outline" and plan their stories that way. But through the telling, the story comes from deep in our psyche and forms itself this way. It feels right. I think that's why so many stories are very similar at their innermost core.

I love the Hero's Journey. It's powerful. It resonates with us. In coming blog posts, I will apply this structure to books and films, not to show that stories conform to a pattern, but to demonstrate why these stories are so powerful. And while I still embrace new heroes, I don't try to swing around like Spider-Man or shoot webs. But as I watch Indiana Jones, even today, I often wonder what it would be like to be in his shoes.

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