The Hero’s Journey Part 5 – Crossing The First Threshold

To recap: Our hero started in his ordinary world.  He received a call to adventure.  Initially, he refused the call.  Then, a mentor approached and provided the hero with tools and insight he needed.  It is time for the hero to fully commit to the other realm.  In order to do so, the hero must cross the first threshold.

Approaching the Threshold

Our hero has had much of his fear and doubt alleviated by the intervention of his mentor.  This doesn’t mean he is going to readily accept all of it and plunge head first into action.  The adventure might not be personal enough for the hero to journey forth.  This is the final precipice.  What will finally push the hero onward?  That’s up to you, but it could be the kidnapping of a loved one, or a force of nature might force the hero forward.  In the end, at this point the hero needs a shove.

Threshold Guardians

Making the cross to the world of adventure is not going to be easy.  Often the path is blocked by a Threshold Guardian.

Guardians are not always obstacles that need to be tackled.  Often, they are only emotional blockades to the hero that need to be acknowledged.  Defeating the challenge they represent can deliver important insight to the hero that will aid in later steps of his quest.  They can present physical, mental or morality types of challenges.  A threshold guardian could be as simple as the hero’s father telling them they are not allowed to go out.

The Leap of Faith

The hero has defeated the guardian.  Now, they stand with one foot in their ordinary world and the other dangles over the cliff into the next.  They must now make a leap of faith and plunge into the other world.  By finally crossing the threshold the hero commits himself entirely to the quest.  There is no turning back.

Charting the hero’s transition could be as simple as climbing out a window, or as treacherous as crossing a desert.  In either case, the hero has finally accepted his destiny and made his move into the realm of adventure.

Entering the Other World

The hero’s entrance to the other world does not have to be a smooth one.  Maybe he falls out the window, or perhaps his initial thoughts of the other world are shattered by its realities.  In either case, he is now here, and the adventure truly begins.

Next, our hero is put to the test, meets new allies and new enemies.

The Hero’s Journey Part 3 – Refusing the Call

In the last of these series, I talked about The Call to Adventure.  We had established our Hero’s Ordinary World and the call was going to start shaking him loose from it.  Before our hero commits entirely to his quest, he gets reluctant and often refuses the call.

Why would your hero do that?  The most simple answer is it’s because it is the human thing to do.  The refusal of the call is mainly about fear.  Not only fear of change and the unknown, but also fear of failure.  By showing fear, the hero becomes more relatable to your reader.  Why they refuse the call, and also what will lead them back to it, can tell the reader so much about your character.

Harry Potter initially is in disbelief that he would be a wizard.  It tells us about his character that he doesn’t immediately accept his fate and instead doubts himself.

Hiccup, in How To Train Your Dragon, folds under the pressure of his father and joins the training course to kill dragons.  It tells us that he wants to please his father, even at the risk of his own life.

Luke Skywalker initially turns down Obi-Wan’s invitation to fight the empire, believing himself nothing but a simple farm boy.  This gives us a true vision of Luke.  Initially, he complains to his uncle that he wants to get away, join the academy, etc.  When the opportunity comes to flee, he refuses because of all the obligations he has previously complained about.  It is a character trait we all recognise and it shows that despite complaint, Luke is reliable and trustworthy.

The simple fact is, a hero who can do no wrong, never shows fear or doubt and overcomes all odds with ease, is boring.  A hero like this only belongs in the realm of caricature.  Your audience is made of real people.  By allowing your hero some weakness, you bring him closer to your audience and increase their sympathy to his plight.

This refusal, while integral to the development of a believable and sympathetic hero, creates a problem; how do you get your hero to accept their quest?  There can be a number of ways, but one of the most common is due to the intervention of the next step I’ll discuss, The Mentor.

The Hero’s Journey Part 2 – Call to Adventure

In my previous post, I discussed the Hero’s Ordinary World.  Since I’ve defined the Hero’s foundation, I now need to shake him loose from it.  Welcome to the Call to Adventure.

The Call to Adventure can literally be a call, but is in general the thing that draws the hero away from their ordinary world.  In fantasy, it could be the day the dragon attacks and kills the hero’s parents. In Romance stories, it could be the first time two lover’s meet.  In short, it doesn’t matter what it is that happens, it is the singular event that ensures the hero will be drawn away from the ordinary.

In Twilight, the call occurs when Bella first sees Edward.  From that point on, her growing obsession with him informs and alters her world, finally culminating in the revelation that he is not human.

In the recent movie, How to Train Your Dragon, it is when Hiccup realises he can’t kill the dragon.  From the start of the movie, he has informed the viewer that all social life within his village revolves around prowess at killing dragons.  When he has the opportunity, he can’t bring himself to do it and his world is forever changed.

In Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, it’s debatable whether the call to action is Harry’s literal invitation to go to Hogwarts, or maybe it’s when he inadvertently releases the snake.  In both instances it is clear that he is being drawn away from his ordinary world.

The Call to Adventure can be grandiose or it can be subtle.  Both ways work, depending on the context of your story.  Remember too that the call doesn’t have to be something that happens directly to the hero.  In most revenge tales, it is usually an event that happens to a loved one of the hero that stirs him into action.

In the end, the call is the one event you can trace the events of the story back to.  It is also key in setting up the stakes of the game and can often lead to singular questions such as, Will Bella and Edward get together?  Will Hiccup befriend the dragon?  Will Harry become a great wizard?  In case you aren’t guessing, this is the hook.  This is the initial point where you make your reader wonder what will happen.  The key to a great story is keeping them interested until that question is finally answered.

Next, our hero gets all reluctant and Refuses the Call.

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.