The Hero’s Journey or I Need A Stronger Main Character!

Luke Skywalker did it in Star Wars.  Simba did it in the Lion King.  Heck, even Frodo and Harry Potter were in on it.  What is it?  The Hero’s journey.

Joseph Campbell first published his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in 1949.  Campbell looked at a vast number of classic myths and fairy tales, and from those he found there was one grand schematic that applied to virtually all of them.  This schematic has since been referred to as The Hero’s Journey.  Campbell summarised the journey as;

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

In describing the “monomyth” Campbell lays out several stages.  Not many myths or stories contain all of the steps, but may skip some or focus exclusively on one.  Giving thought to multiple book stories, book one might focus on the first third, book two on the second, and book three on the final third.  The steps Campbell lays out are;

  • The hero starts in the ordinary world.
  • An event occurs that draws the hero into an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure).
  • Accepting the call to enter this world, the hero must face challenges (a road of trials).  The hero may face these trials alone or with help s/he has earned along the way.
  • If the hero survives, the hero might receive a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge.
  • The hero must then decide whether to return with the reward (the return to the ordinary world).  If the hero decides to return to the ordinary world, s/he will most likely encounter more trials on the way back.
  • If the hero succeeds in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).

For more in depth, you can visit this page for the Hero’s Journey Summary of Steps.

When we talk about a shared human experience, the Hero’s Journey is certainly present in all people.  Looking at the modern films that have found worldwide success, almost all of them follow this general schematic.  It is perhaps because we see this journey as a metaphor for our own lives.  After all, I think we all have moments in our lives where the world feels strange and alien.  How we cope with the trials life gives us lead to insight.  Our myths, books, movies, even video games, are the everyday struggle of people blown to fantastical proportions.

However, there is something pretty key about the Hero’s Journey.  Something so vital and instrumental that without it, your tale is certain to fail.  That is, naturally, the hero.  Without a hero there is no story.

This past weekend, I started reading two books on writing.  One was Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life and the other was Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life.  Both of these books emphasised the importance of creating in depth characters and allowing the plot to organically grow from them.  I’ve never been a fan of sitting down and filling out forms.  I suppose that’s why I’ve shied away from character sketches in the past.  Also, I’ve always been more of a concept person than a character writer.  Actually, I can’t think of a single time that I started a piece because of a character in my head.  This presents a problem when your story is following the Hero’s Journey.

So, something Elizabeth George suggested, which I think sounds fun and still allows me to flesh out my main character, is to free form write about the character.  Instead of a rigid set of questions regarding the character, you allow yourself to freely write about who they are, what their motivations are, etc.  Noah Lukeman’s suggestion is to think as different people.  In one sense of describing your character, imagine you have witnessed them do something and you need to describe every physical detail about them to the police.  Next, imagine you are their new family physician and you need to know everything about their medical background.  Now you’re their psychiatrist and so forth.  Both ideas work better for me than a strict form where you detail name, height, etc, etc.  I’m a creative person and these approaches speak to me more than a mathematical approach.

In order for the Hero’s Journey to be effective, you have to know your hero.  You have to know where your hero starts, what they want to accomplish, how they will respond to the adversities that come, and what personal insight they will come away with.  By establishing all elements of your character early on in the writing process, you stay true to that character throughout the story.  This means, your audience never questions why the character did this or that, they know because the ground rules exist and have been followed.  It also means that the character might guide decisions.  Having a character who is multi-dimensional, no maybe even real, means that when you get stuck in how to get out of something, you have someone to ask.  You just turn to your character and say “How are you going to deal with this?”  By knowing them, you might even be surprised by the answer.

Now, both George and Lukeman suggest doing this for all your characters.  I don’t know if I have the patience.  I understand that by doing this for more characters the possibility for deepening the relationship amongst the cast of the story grows.  It also means more ideas for subplots present themselves.  But the first time through, I think my main goal is to know my protagonist the best.  The story is largely told from his point of view (read that as almost entirely) and it is his journey.  I’m thinking for myself, I’m going to do this for my main character and see how the rest of my first draft goes.  Then, to take a break before editing, I’ll do more of these for some of my other characters and see how that aids in my second go through.  I might end up learning it makes more sense to do them all from the start.  I’ll let you know.

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3 Comments

    • I’m only familiar with Gilgamesh in passing, never really looked into the epic itself. Thanks to your recommendation, I’m going to check it out, thanks!

  1. Pingback: Two fabulous posts about plot | Justus R Stone

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