For today’s AtoZChallenge, the letter J is for The Hero’s Journey.
Yes, I know. The Hero’s Journey starts with an “H”, not a “J”, but I’m taking a little creative license. Can you think of a “J” related writing tip? Didn’t think so.
I’m also saving myself some time, as I and my writing partner wrote about the Hero’s Journey in our book, The Plot Thickens:21 Ways to Plot Your Novel:
The Hero’s Journey
This is nothing new. If you’ve read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or if you seen Star Wars, then you’ve experienced the familiar progression of the Hero’s Journey. It’s the classic set up and plot progression of story telling. I find that this method of plotting makes the perfect skeleton for an outline. And if I need to see where a story is going or why it’s falling flat, the Hero’s Journey is the perfect tool.
If you want to find the strictest, most respected version of the Hero’s Journey, I recommend reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces or his The Power of Myth. Another popular source is Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. There is a huge variety of articles and websites dealing with the Hero’s Journey, some containing as many as 17 steps, but the whole thing really boils down to the following:
The Hero in His Normal World
This is where you introduce your reader to the protagonist and his normal life. It should give your reader the chance to relate to the character, and find something likeable about him or her.
This is a good place to introduce some of your character’s inner or external problems. Think of Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars. Luke had two problems: a deep desire to go to school and get out into the world, and the desire to be trusted as something more than a witless boy.
Notice that Luke’s ordinary world is not like our ordinary world. It doesn’t have to be. But audience gets to see him before he goes off to save the cosmos, and so we have a chance to relate to him and his problems.
Please, do not linger in the normal world too long. Your reader probably doesn’t want to slog through four paragraphs about the room in which we find the hero (think Dickens). Give a picture of the normal world as fast as you can, or sprinkle parts of it into the rest of the story.
The Hero Receives a Call to Adventure
The call isn’t always polite.
Sometimes your hero gets dumped into the adventure. However, if your hero has the choice to take the adventure or leave it to someone else, there has to be a compelling reason for the protagonist to interrupt his or her normal life and have the adventure in your story. Dorothy got dumped into her adventure by a tornado. James Bond chooses to live his adventures because it’s part of his devil-may-care nature and because he has a duty to Her Majesty. There’s a difference, but one way or the other, the hero needs a good reason to leave the comforts of his or her normal life.
The Hero Refuses the Call
Okay, maybe she doesn’t refuse, but she feels great reluctance.
This isn’t always true, but if you can work it into your story, it serves to heighten the tension. Some adventures have scary results, and your protagonist can’t be stupid (because, unless he’s Forrest Gump, your readers won’t root for him), so he or she is probably going to turn down the opportunity the call presents.
Another possibility is that adventure has called, but your hero has obligations and duties in his normal world. It might sound good to run off to the Amazon with the fetching Ms. Jane, but he can’t because his father’s business is on the verge of collapse and he must stay home and work long hours to save it.
And don’t forget that someone else might turn down the call on behalf of the hero. In The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, Lucy turned down her call to adventure because her siblings told her the call didn’t exist.
One call characters find difficult to resist is death. If dying or a near-death experience lands your character into the world of adventure, he can’t really refuse. But she might deny that it’s happening to her. Or she may refuse to cooperate for a length of time.
When the Hero Refuses the Call, a Mentor Steps in to Encourage Him
The rule when it comes to this part is that a good Mentor never, ever forces the hero into following the call to adventure. However, the Mentor will make the hero see that terrible things will happen if he doesn’t take the call. And a really good mentor helps the hero get ready for things to come by giving the hero a talisman, a book of codes, the answers to riddles, or the perfect gadget that will later save the hero by the skin of his or her teeth.
If your hero is facing more conflict than he has the motivation to overcome, killing off the mentor boosts motivation. It also gives your protagonist greater hero status if he accomplishes the goal without handholding from the mentor.
Crossing the First Threshold
This is where the protagonist decides to go for it. He or she might get pushed into the adventure by an external force, or they might decide to go for their own reasons like the realization that Mr. Right is a cheating, lying two-timer. But whatever the reason is, this is where the decision has been made and the adventure will begin in earnest.
This doesn’t always mean that the hero has a straight and easy path. There can be obstacles for him to make it across the threshold. His wife may be holding him back. He may lack the training that he needs. He may have a powerful enemy that has some sort of pre-knowledge of his arrival and has taken precautions to prevent his entry into the new world. An accidental hero usually doesn’t face too many impediments to his or her arrival in the world of adventure, but the noble, god-like hero may have to overcome obstacles to his or her world saving presence.
The New World
The hero may still be living in the same apartment he or she has always lived in, but life is now different. Now she must see things in a different light. She may realize that her friends are not who they seemed to be, or that her boss is a snoop. She finds out who her allies are, who her enemies are, and if the rules have changed.
This is where your spy hero is gathering information. This is where your warrior is finding a place to rest later in the story. Sherlock Holmes always smoked or did a little opium at this point. He had a case to solve, he had some facts in hand, and so he sent Doctor Watson out to get more information while he “contemplated” the facts.
Approach the Inner Cave
He’s in it now. Your hero has arrived, and last minute preparations are made before he faces the great battle. This is where David is gathering stones to kill Goliath. He’s already faced his nasty brothers, he’s heard the taunting of the Philistines, and he’s convinced the king to let him fight, but he still has to get his stuff together. The king is trying armor on him that doesn’t fit. The generals are bombarding him with strategy points. And David has to find a minute to go to the brook and find his stones.
Your hero must realize his situation. He needs to know what rides on his success or failure. He and your reader need to feel the weight of this moment. The consequences of failure must be dire, or nobody will care.
Now this doesn’t mean that your hero has to be excited about his plight. He may still be reluctant to go to the “inner cave,” that stronghold of the enemy or that firing line he must face. Your hero may need extra incentive to face the enemy. Extra incentive can be the death of the mentor at the hands of the enemy. It can be his memory of his dying mother’s wish. But whatever it is, it has to resonate with the hero and the reader. Here lies a great opportunity to give the reader greater insight into the hero’s mind – what really motivates him or her.
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT let the inner cave be what the reader and the hero are expecting.
The diabolical maniac bent on world domination has to have some evil curve balls to throw at the hero – perhaps he gets inside the palace only to find that the evil overlord has kidnapped the hero’s mother and she must be rescued before he can blow the place to smithereens, or maybe he gets in the enemy’s camp only to find that they are slowly starving several prisoners of war originally thought to be killed in action. Whatever it is, your hero has to be taken off guard by something, and it’s better if that certain something instills a greater sense of urgency.
The Ordeal – When the Hero Faces his Greatest Challenge
Everything has been leading up to this moment. Here the hero and the reader are witnesses to the sacrifice. They can taste death or defeat in the air. The hero must be in maximum danger, and can even appear to die. The experience must change or transform the hero in his own eyes. He has to come of this with a new sense of self.
In this section the villain is seen differently through the hero’s eyes. She must see a dark reflection of herself when she looks at the villain. Part of her greatest fears come to life in what she sees in the villain. She might vanquish the villain here, but she cannot kill him. The villain must live on to be confronted again later. Now, if the villain is one of the gods, then an earthly representative might get killed off because the gods can make anyone a pawn of their plans. But if the villain is real and tangible, then he or she may need to escape death in order to be brought back at the climax of the story.
In a romance, this is the part of the story where love may be betrayed or may be consummated for the first time. This is when the hero puts his or her whole heart on the line.
Now our hero gets to enjoy a little success. He has survived. She has put her heart on the line and won. And the audience gets to catch its breath. In an action adventure, this is where the hero recognizes that he is special or different. He may still see where he’s made mistakes, but he also sees that he has a purpose in this new world.
This part has to be short lived. Celebrate the success too long, and you’ll lose your audience. There has to be some conflict mixed in here so the reader wants to continue with the story. Think of Forrest Gump – he makes it out of Vietnam, and the audience is thrilled, but while we watch Forrest win ping-pong tournaments and start his shrimping business, we still want to know about Jenny. That little bit of unresolved business keeps the audience in the game.
The Road Back
Now something sucks your hero right back into the adventure. The villain comes back for revenge. The hero must pull himself together after the tragedy of the last crisis. Or a sudden catastrophe tosses everything into action again.
Again, this section is rather short. Don’t linger too long.
The Resurrection. The Climax. The Last Big Hoopla. The Big Black Moment
Now the hero faces a greater challenge than he’d ever dreamed of. He cannot be saved by anyone but himself in this section. It’s the big showdown, and he or she must be fighting for their life. Here we see where their growth as a person through the rest of the story comes into play so that they can overcome the last big obstacle. Attitude is everything here, and the hero might be tempted to give up, but he perseveres.
Remember when the Pevensy children fought in the big battle towards the end of The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe? Everything the children suffered through, witnessed, and trained for up to that point prepared them to fight in that battle. They are still kids, and they are scared, but they do their part because they’ve been conditioned by everything else that has happened. Furthermore, everything prior to that point in the book builds up their motivation to take such a big risk.
This is the part of the book where you may kill off your hero if you must
But only if it’s for a noble cause, and only if the story is over. If you’re Tom Cruise and you die in Valkyrie, it might be okay. But if you’re Willy Wonka, you cannot. I keep waiting for James Bond to die. He can’t live forever, and I’ll be really sickened if he dies for no reason later. He needs to die for his cause, and needs a noble death. Or, if he gets to die in his own bed as an old man full of years and heroic deeds, he must die holding a major secret that everyone wanted to know.
The hero’s triumph in this stage is most complete when the original problem in the story has come back to haunt her (perhaps her mother’s condescending voice comes back to tell her she can’t handle things, she isn’t capable, she’s in trouble and she deserves it) – only now she can do things or make decisions that she couldn’t make before. She’s stronger now, and she can handle it. This makes the hero look bigger and better and stronger than ever before.
This is where the hero gets back to his or her normal life – only it needs to be the “new normal.” She must be changed somehow, and even if her life looks like it did before, she has to be better prepared to live it and have something new to offer those around her.
Some people like to talk about the hero returning to the ordinary world with a boon or treasure to make that world better. If you’re in a sci-fi/magical place, that might be okay, but for a “normal” setting, I don’t think it has to be anything tangible. The hero’s shift in attitude may be all that’s needed. When Stella got her groove back, she didn’t have something physical in evidence. It was attitude – all attitude. When Bruce Almighty became simply human again, he came back with prayer beads and a whole lot of humility and appreciation.
An attitude shift is one of the most satisfying boons a hero can return with. Peace can turn to war in an instant. Magic potions and powers can be lost or stolen. Treasures are really nice, but they too can be lost. Make sure your hero returns with more than something external, and you’ll make your story more satisfying.
So there you have it – The Hero’s Journey in a nutshell.
Look for it in movies that you watch and books that you read. Study how other writers manipulate it. (Remember that the steps don’t always come in the order given.) And try it for yourself.
Thursday’s #AtoZChallenge* will focus on the letter “K”.
Blessings until then,
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*#AtoZChallenge is a blogging challenge that takes place in April (except on Sundays). Participants blog every day around a theme of their choosing, in alphabetical order. Throughout the month of April, I’ll share tips, links, and insights I’ve learned in my writing career.