… begins with a single step. Or something like that. Originally, I was going to write today about the difficulty of adapting a newspaper’s print edition to late-breaking news, but I just don’t have the heart for it this afternoon.
Rather, I’ve spent a little bit of off-time playing with concepts from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which traces the journey of the archetypal hero. Basically, it says that all epic heroes, whether Luke Skywalker or Gilgamesh undergo a similar journey of magic and self-discovery.
If you’re a writer, the so-called “Heroic Journey” is a useful template — take your hero along the path, make him vaguely memorable, and Presto! you have a book. But as this practical guide to the hero puts it, this paint-by-the-numbers storytelling doesn’t always result in quality work:
As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Following the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural structure, and there is danger of being too obvious.
The HERO MYTH is a skeleton that should be masked with the details of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention to itself. The order of the hero’s stages as given here is only one of many variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically reshuffled without losing their power.
So how does one create a quality work?
First and most important, I think, is to create memorable characters with whom a reader can identify. Luke Skywalker is a memorable character. Tristan, the hero of Robert Newcomb’s putrescent Chronicles of Blood and Stone, is not.
But after reading some good fantasy (A Song of Ice and Fire) and some lower-quality fare (the first volume of Shadow March), I think the best way to hook a reader, beyond the obvious elements of plot, setting, and character, is to take your reader’s expectations and twist them.
George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire, for example, is satisfying in part because characters who would be “safe” in lesser novels can and do die, while other characters turn out to be such mixtures of good and ill intent that they (gasp!) resemble real people rather than literary archetypes.
Where am I going with this? I wanted to brainstorm a little bit with ways to fool with a reader’s expectations in a story that would ordinarily be a “Heroic Journey.” I’d like to write something creative some day, so these little meditations are a way for me to orient my own thinking and, hopefully, spark useful feedback or ignite ideas in other aspiring writers.
The rest of this post is going to be a little stream-of-consciousness. If you’re interested in what amounts to a limited-interest topic that’s rather self-indulgent on my part, go ahead and … ahem … indulge me. Otherwise, thanks for reading this far. And if you haven’t read it yet, check out the multivolume Song of Ice and Fire, probably the best-written fantasy series of the last decade or so.
The heroic journey has several steps. Since I’m lazy, I’ll shamelessly piggyback on somebody else’s summary of it … the Practical Guide looks promising. It advises:
The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama. It grows and matures as new experiments are tried within its basic framework. Changing the sex and ages of the basic characters only makes it more interesting, and allows ever more complex webs of understanding to be spun among them. The basic characters can be combined, or divided into several figures to show different aspects of the same idea. The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of its magic.
So let’s get going, shall we? The Practical Guide outlines 12 steps in the heroic journey. To keep this post manageable, I’m going to ruminate on the first six steps today, then ruminate on the final six steps next week.
Step 1: The Hero is Introduced in his Ordinary World
OK, we’re talking Bilbo Baggins in the Shire, or the children of Stephen King’s It as grown-ups. Everybody’s an accountant or a network administrator here, or if it’s a fantasy world, we’re all princes and princesses and nothing bad ever happens. So how do we change this?
My first thought is that the “ordinary world” doesn’t have to be that ordinary. What if the hero lives in a fantasy kingdom and he has to journey to the “ordinary world?” This rather simple reversal creates a fantasy world that is alien to us, but where the hero takes such things as crystal balls and fire-breathing dragons for granted.
My favorite variation on this may be a hero who’s vaguely dissatisfied with his ordinary world, but doesn’t realize how good he has it there. In this kind of story, the hero is a reluctant type who gets dragged through his special world and comes back changed. (Think Bilbo Baggins). Baggins, however, embraced his special world in the end. What if the hero spends the entire story wishing he were back in the ordinary world, and never, ever embraces the special world?
Step 2: The Call to Adventure
The Practical Guide advises:
The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure. Maybe the land is dying, as in the Arthur stories about the search for the Holy Grail. In STAR WARS again, it’s Princess Leia’s holographic message to Obi Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the quest. In detective stories, it’s the hero accepting a new case. In romantic comedies it could be the first sight of that special — but annoying someone the hero or heroine will be pursuing/sparring with the remainder of the story.
The wizard shows up. The world explodes. That sort of thing. I’m not sure how I would vary the call to adventure, as something has to happen to get the story rolling. In the first place, though I would avoid having the old wizard/mentor show up for tea with a bunch of dwarves. That’s been done in already, wouldn’t you say? Same goes for the Stranger Mysteriously Dying and Leaving Behind a Mysterious Artifact.
On second thought, however, there are less obvious ways to put together a call to adventure. The Guide posits that perhaps the land is dying around the Hero, or something in his ordinary world is changing. What if the “call to adventure” comes in the form of an aha! moment for the Hero? Perhaps a relative is imprisoned or harmed, or his crops fail, or the object of his affection touches him briefly on the shoulder in an office romance?
The Hero is Reluctant at First
This is a fun one. Basically, the Hero doesn’t want to fly into space, take on the Empire, or put the ring in the bloody volcano at the other end of the continent. Rather stay in the ordinary world, right?
So, how would I invert reader expectations? First off, I might set it up so that the Hero isn’t reluctant, but rather that somebody near him is reluctant to let him go — a loved one of some sort. But that doens’t really invert expectations, does it? For a little more oomph, I would have the hero be reluctant, period. He leaves the sword in the stone, doesn’t bother with the visions, and generally tries to keep ordinary. Terry Brooks actually played with this concept in A Knight of the Word with the tale of a hero who consciously sets aside his heroic duties and returns to the Ordinary World.
But what if we try something else? For an extra, added twist, I would set up somebody as an obvious hero in Chapter 1, then savagely pull away from him in Chapter 4. The Obvious Hero will refuse the call to adventure, then be punished for that refusal, and the Real Hero would step forward in Chapter 5.
The Hero is Encouraged by the Wise Old Man
The wise old man is my favorite character — the Gandalf, the Zedd, the Good Witch, or the Dumbledore. In most stories, the Wise Old Man provides advice and encouragement, then goes off-screen for a while so the Hero can do some Heroing. Personally, I think the Wise Old Man is rather irritating, as he has a tendency to be a deus ex machina or else divulges cryptic advice even though he knows the whole truth. Annoying old git, isn’t he?
You do see some interesting variations. In Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the Wise Old Man inconveniently dies early in the first act, but gives proxy advice throughout the story via the manuscript for his upcoming book.
In my little story, the Wise Old Man wouldn’t encourage the Hero. If we’re going to upset the mythological applecart, perhaps it would be best for the Wise Old Man to betray the Hero to his enemies. Imagine the Hero goes to the Wise Old Man for advice, and the Wise Old Man smiles, tells of the prophecy … and the Evil Ninjas of Death jump the Hero as the Wise Old Man laughs maniacally.
I rather like the idea of immediately transforming the mentor into the enemy.
The Hero Passes the First Threshold
We all know this one. In The Hobbit, Bilbo deals with the trolls. In other stories, the hero buys the horse, hits the road, et cetera. The problem with inverting this is that it’s traditionally the beginning of the story, which you really can’t avoid. I mean, the hero has to set up somehow. How do we change this or make it a little more interesting?
First off, recall that there’s no guarantee that he hero wins his first battle, or even that the first threshold will necessarily be obvious. Second, nobody says that the story has to begin with the hero leaving his ordinary world, etc.
If the story begins int he middle, when the hero is already in the middle of his adventure, things change. The author can fill in the backgrond — mentors, passing the first threshold, in flashback form, rather than going linearly from one station on the Heroic Journey to the next.
Robert Heinlein used this technique in Starship Troopers, where the story opens in the middle of a routine combat operation. In the ensuing chapters, we know that Rico eventually ended up in the Mobile Infantry, but the author fills in the ordinary world, the call to adventure, the wise old man (a drill sergeant) and the first threshold in flashback form, keeping the story somewhat non-linear, but satisfying.
That’sone idea, but it’s almost “been there, done that,” and doesn’t really inver the reader’s expectations that much. What if the first threshold isn’t that obvious? In stories as diverse as The Wizard of Oz and Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth, there is a literal gathering of tools and setting out on the journey, whether on the Yellow Brick Road or through the rather obvious “barrier” between the worlds.
In other words, this is generally a physical as well as spiritual journey. But what if the journey is merely spiritual? What if there is no real journey? What if the Hero adventures in his Special World without ever leaving the Ordinary World?
The Hero Encounters Tests and Helpers
Again, this one is difficult to change. Tests and helpers — obstacles and other characters – are part and parcel of every story, whether you’re talking Dude, Where’s My Car? or The Catcher in the Rye. Misdirection seems to be the watchword here — make it seem that an eventual helper is actually indifferent, or that the obvious test is actually not essential to the story.
Actually, I draw a blank on this one. Anybody got anything else?
Thanks for sticking with me this far. If you have some better ideas, or soem other ways to customer the Heroic Journey or to play with the reader’s expectations, then please, leave them below. Next week, I’ll tackle the other six steps.
When he doesn’t write, Pennywit sits in the Inmost Cave, ruminating on the reflections of the real world.