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.

First, a little note saying “Thanks!”

I just wanted to take a moment here to publicly acknowledge a whole community that I consider myself fortunate for discovering.

Under different names and websites, I have been active on the net for twelve years or more.  In that time, I felt largely ignored and monumentally alone.  Seeing as how website creation, blogging and writing poetry & fiction have been my hobbies over the years, it can make for a solitary existence.  It’s so easy to give up on a project or not bother to blog for months on end when you feel that all you’re doing, all you’ll ever be doing, is talking to yourself.

A month ago, I decided to join Twitter as Justus R Stone (my chosen pen name).  I started doing some research and through useful hash tags such as #amwriting started connecting with other writers.  Some of these people are already published, many more are hard at work getting there.  Universally, they all pass along outstanding advice and support.

This blog is new.  This will be the 14th post.  And yet I have had more people make comments on my articles here than I did on any other blog or website I have owned in the past 12 years.  It is so much easier to sit down and write my work in progress, or do a blog entry, when it feels like there are people pulling for me.

Now, I do have a loving wife and kids who are always in my corner, but none of them are writers.  It is an entirely different experience to receive support and encouragement from those that share your passion and understand the trials that passion brings.

So I just wanted to say thank you to all those who have come to visit, to those who are following the feed and to those who join me on Twitter.  You have all made this new step into realising my dream much easier and made obtaining that end goal seem all the more attainable.

Learning the tools of the trade

To be human is to be a storyteller.  Whether it be simply answering the question of “What did you do today?” or telling a joke, we all tell tales.  If we look at our modern media, what do virtually all of them have in common?  They tell a story.  Movies, books, comics, television, even video games, all tell us stories that could be our lives or something entirely fantastical.

So then, if all of us have this ability, even desire, to share our stories, why do writers who get paid seem such a rare breed?  Why is the idea of being a published author romanticized so heavily?  Why do we treat our storytellers as though they have some great and mythic ability?

I spent the day reading Write Away by Elizabeth George.  Reading her detailed breakdown of how she constructs her novels, it struck me that what truly separates those who create and those who spend time at the water cooler is one part imagination and another part education.

Imagination is something that you have, or you don’t.  I can’t teach someone to have an imagination.  Which is too bad, because it is wondrous!  But on the flip side, what if you can imagine dozens of tales, yet lack the technical ability to express them cohesively.  Can this be taught?  Given the volume of books on writing, clearly someone thinks the answer is yes.  And based on my experience of today, I’m inclined to agree.

See, I have had dozens of ideas over the years.  So many that my wife rolls her eyes when I say “I came up with a really great idea for a story!”  She rolls her eyes not because she doesn’t want to hear it, but because none of my great ideas have turned into great, finished, stories.  When I wrote earlier about how not letting myself suck killed a number of projects in the past, it wasn’t a lie.  But what I have figured out today is that I never really knew what was wrong.  After years of reading, I instinctively knew my writing was sub par, but I lacked the education to determine why and how to fix it.  So do I possess that after reading half a book?  No.  At the same time, yes.  See, having given myself to this current work in progress, I have finally broken through my personal glass ceiling.  I am open to new ideas.  I am open to being educated.  I am surprised at how quickly I am recognizing my own failings.

Ms. George talks about using your gut.  She discusses how she has a very real physical reaction to the right idea.  I had that a number of times reading her book.  A number of times my gut said, “this is why you’ve failed in the past.”  Having now recognized this, I am determined to not fail again.

So, education time it is.  I need more tools.  I have imagination, I have a skeleton of a story, now I need the tools to put the pieces together.

So, do you have a favourite book about writing?  I would be very interested in checking it out.

Blame it on the Rain (Yeah, Yeaah)

I walked my kids to school today in a torrential downpour.  OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it was a good hard rain, the likes of which we haven’t really seen yet.

It got me thinking, just how much consideration do I give to weather in my writing.  Surprisingly, I realised the answer was very little.

Shocking, when you consider that movies, and heck even Shakespeare, use weather all the time to try and create a certain mood in a scene.

If a character dies in a manner that is heroic, their funeral could be during a beautiful sunny day.  If their death is tragic, rain seems more appropriate.  Or does it?  It strikes me that rain is very tricky when it comes to scenes in fictional works.  I mean, rain can seem dreary and depressing, but without it, the world would die.  Rain is cleansing, life-giving, and in many ways is beautiful.  After all, rain gives us rainbows, which have inspired just how much joy and poetry through the ages?

Weather is something we take for granted.  If I had $5 for every time I told my kids I can’t control the weather, well, um, I would have enough money to build a machine to control the weather!  Thing is, as writers, we do control the weather.  Weather can play a factor in our work (i.e. it’s raining, so our protagonist crashes their car while fleeing the bad guy creating a new situation & more tension) and it can also be used to illustrate hidden meanings (your main character says they are happy while rain is splashing on the window outside could be very effective, especially when your audience knows your character is secretly miserable).

Walking through the rain today, I realised I had mentioned weather once already in my work in progress, yet I had no idea why the sun was shining at that moment.  It was a throwaway detail that I put in for no real purpose.  Now, had I started with that sun shine and had it then get overcast after a certain event occurred, that would create a nice foreshadowing.

Just as I consider what my characters look like and why, I should give the same level of consideration to their environment.  Not just floor plans or street layouts, but the weather as well.  Used right, it can really help give some “fresh air” to the story! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist)

Doctor Who Love-in, or, Passin’ on the genre love

Everything I’ve posted so far has been about writing advice.  To be sure, as I discover new and wondrous things on this writing journey, I will pass it on.  But my six year old son (my youngest) did something today that just inspired me to make this a personal blog entry.  He came up to me and, word for word, quoted the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who.  I asked my wife how many times he had watched it.  She responded that he had seen it three times, as well as three times for the second episode.  My youngster’s greatest ambition at the moment is obtaining a sonic screwdriver.

This brought to mind the scene in my household only a few days earlier, when all four of us sat down in the living room and watched these latest episodes of Doctor Who.  Myself, my wife and my two boys (who rarely can be in the same room let alone watch the same show) all enraptured by a tale of a mad man and his box.

When I was a boy, this same scene played out with my Dad and I.  It is my Dad that I have to thank for my healthy love for science-fiction, fantasy, reading, movies and yes, Doctor Who.  I recall when Star Trek The Next Generation premiered, we planned our whole day out to ensure we were front and center when it began.  He took me to see all the Star Wars movies when they were in theatres (the originals).  He read me the Wind in the Willows when I was a boy and passed on his complete collection of Hardy Boys novels.  As a child I was ignorant to the many hours he spent putting stickers on and assembling various Transformers, GI Joe and other toys.  In short, everything I love today, I can trace back to those earliest times I shared with my Dad.  And now, I am doing the same with my own boys.

When I lost my Dad to cancer in September of 2009, I don’t think I realised this as strongly as I do now.  As I plunder through my work in progress, pouring all the thoughts and desires of a sci-fi/fantasy, anime loving geek into it, I pause to think that it is my Dad who helped me find these things.  When the day comes that I write “The End” it will be in no small part thanks to him.

I’m particularly blessed, because I found a woman who loves all things geek perhaps more than I do.  I never drag her to see The Matrix or such, it is she leading me.  And now we sit with our boys, cuddled on the couch, watching Doctor Who.  My role is reversed.  My boys look to me with wide eyes and ask about the past Doctors, or about the shows and movies I watched when I was younger.  As they get older, I’m sharing more and more of these with them.  I understand the bond it creates between us and I realise how much I miss my Dad.

Is Doctor Who the greatest TV show ever created?  Well, I suppose that’s debatable.  In our household, greatest or not, it certainly is magical.

It’s OK to suck

While I have never been diagnosed, I believe I have a number of ADD tendencies.  I tend to move from one task to another, leaving various tasks only half complete.  It’s hard for me to sit in one place doing only one thing for too long.  Obviously, you can see how this makes being a writer difficult.

I can cope with this.  When I write, I listen to music, which makes me feel like I am doing multiple things at once.  I also will take breaks to check Twitter, get a drink, dance the hokey-poky, whatever.  This said, the one trait that I have that makes writing hard, and has been fatal to other WIP in the past, has been my desire to have everything perfect now.

The “make it right the first time” demon has sabotaged many of my endeavors in the past.  Whether it be the three other partial novels I have, or my career as a sax player, I have been plagued by this monster that allows for no time.  It sits on my shoulder, insisting that I must do it right the first time.  Revision?  For fools it tells me.  It whispers its poisonous diatribe over and over in my ear.  It tells me lies  like “[Insert author name here] writes perfect stories in one sitting.”  So by the time I finish a chapter and things haven’t turned out quite right, I get easily discouraged and start to doubt the strength of my story.  This demon has me believing that the only time I will be successful is when I sit down and the words flow with no effort and I write a book in a matter of days that requires no editing and will be published a month later.  It’s taken me some time to realise the demon is in no way realistic.

Twitter has been a freeing experience.  It has allowed me to follow writers as they work.  You know what I found out?  They all suck at one time or another.  At some time, they all finish a chapter and call it complete rubbish.  Some have gone so far as to completely delete the whole thing and start again.

My demon still sits on my shoulder.  It still protests loudly when my writing sounds like the stunted first steps of a toddler.  But I am learning to ignore it.  I am learning that if I am ever to truly call myself a writer, I need to write.  And not just write, but finish.  It is not important to be perfect the first time around.  It doesn’t matter if the first draft is utter rubbish and breaks every rule of grammar and contains none of the plotting devices that create a page-turner.  What matters, is that it is finished.  What matters is that something exists that wasn’t there before.  By having completed a first draft, already part of the battle is won.

It’s OK to suck the first time around.  Heck, it’s OK to suck the second time around.  Maybe around the third or fourth time, you should suck considerably less, but there may still be room for improvement and it might require a great editor to help you realise where and how to fix it.  By letting myself suck, I am getting further ahead.  By focusing on the story and the ideas, I am creating something better and stronger.  The words will come.  The revisions will add the depth my first draft lacks.  By the time I finish the first draft, I’ll know my characters better.  I’ll know my world better.  Once I know these things, I’ll recognize places where I can let those things shine through where I missed them the first time around.  My demon is wrong.  Great writing doesn’t happen immediately.  It happens over time.  Revision is where the truth of your quality as a writer will be born.  A road doesn’t start out as being smooth.  First, there has to be the messy hacking through the forest, the churning of earth, the repeated flattening again and again.  A story is much the same.

I suck.  And that’s OK.

Sometimes Inspiration Makes Writing Harder

So you sit down to your work in progress.  In your brain, scenes are flashing that you are about to write.  You are inspired!  You know deep down that what you are about to write is the turning point of your novel.  It is this one spot where everyone hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until the mythic words “The End.”  Only, the words don’t come.  Despite your giddy high of inspiration, the scene is difficult.  It stutters and shuffles along at a lumbering pace.  You start to doubt yourself.  You start thinking ‘This is the wrong thing for me to be writing.’  Perhaps you scrap the story all-together.  Welcome to Chapter Two.

The above scene played itself out over my last several writing sessions.  I knew what I wanted, knew where I had to be.  Despite that, I couldn’t get the words out.  Looking at what I’ve written, I’m not satisfied.  Where did it all go wrong?  Was my idea too weak?  Am I just not up to the task of writing my own story?

Being an author is a solitary exercise.  Yes, we can have critique groups, we can tweet until our fingers bleed, but when it comes time to write the tale burning in our minds, we are alone.  Which I have discovered, quite painfully, compels me to play mind games.  I go from one moment loving my characters and believing fiercely in their tale to the extreme opposite.

My current work in progress stands at just over 10,000 words.  Guess what, it’s the third project to hit that landmark.  Funny enough, it has not even surpassed my other two projects that have found themselves shelved.  When I wrote the others, I was inspired, yet they’ve not been completed.  What’s the problem?

I think, and maybe this is just me, it is a fear of failure.  When I have only the vaguest of ideas where my stories are going, I write easily.  When inspiration truly takes hold, I stall.  See, I play the worst of head games.  Because of inspiration, because of ideas and direction, I impose an expectation that I will write something profound and wonderful.  As the words dribble out, I start to doubt myself.  In the back of my head, a nagging voice starts whispering “This isn’t how it’s supposed to sound.  This isn’t half as cool as it was when you were thinking it.  You’re lost, let it go.”  All too often, I have listened to the voice.

This time, I will not be denied.  This time, unlike so many of the others, I know my work is what I have to be writing.  I know that if I fail, my dreams of writing will perish.  I must finish this, regardless.  Besides, through my Twitter friends, I have learned that virtually no one delivers a grand novel the first time around.  The books we hold in our hands have been written, re-written, edited, and polished several times over.  What matters now is getting the thoughts on paper.  What matters is crafting the story.  Once the story exists, the rest is just choosing better words to express it.

So inspiration is both vital life and poison at the same time.  The antidote is a healthy dose of realism.  I need to talk to myself as much as my characters and story do.

To combat this, I suggest the following; when the greatest of inspiration hits, write down the ideas.  Sketch out what you have.  Then let it sit and percolate a few days.  Once it’s boiled and cooled, sit and write.  That was how I got through chapter two.  I let it digest longer.  The more time I gave it, the easier my stomach accepted it.  Once I sat down to pen the final thousand or so words, I had better ideas, a stronger sense of what I needed to do.  I wasn’t running on pure giddy inspiration, I was running on cooler-headed thinking and, most importantly, planning.

So what’s our single word that all the blah-blah takes us to today?  Planning.

Inspiration makes things hard.  It fills us with expectations, pumps us up to an almost drug-like high, and then kicks us when we realise that it’s just not enough to get the job done.  Inspiration is one part of the equation.  Working that inspiration into something more manageable, taking time to shape and mold it, yields results.  At least, that’s my experience.