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Monday, January 20, 2020

The Hero's Journey Explained: The Beginning

The Hero's Journey is one of the most popular story structures. Last year, I shared my personal hybrid story structure that I like to use when evaluating narratives (which is pretty comprehensive, I think), and in it, I argued that despite there being various "story structures" to choose from, they are pretty much saying the same thing, in different ways with different approaches--they simply slice and dice story differently.

With that said, it can still be very beneficial to familiarize yourself with all of the major structures, so you can find which one connects best with you, and also, so you can refine and troubleshoot your own manuscript when writing. Have you ever just needed to hear a different perspective to solve a problem? Or needed another perspective to grasp a concept? Learning all the major story structures can help with just that and give you new insights.

So what is the Hero's Journey structure, and how is it different? The Hero's Journey came into the writing world from a famous book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, but in reality, the structure is much, much older. Campbell was a mythologist who looked at and studied stories across all cultures and noted what patterns they had in common. This became the Hero's Journey. In the 90s another book titled The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler took Campbell's work (which was rather labyrinthine and scholarly I'm told) and made it more accessible and practical for writers today, in part by applying it to contemporary works.

Vogler's updated approach is slightly different than Campbell's, but the patterns are the same.

For this series, I will be using Vogler's version.

Personally, I feel the Hero's Journey approach has both strengths and weaknesses. This structure puts more focus on the protagonist's experiences and growth than perhaps any of the other popular guides, which also means that it's probably better at addressing theme than many others as well. But as a result, I feel it downplays antagonistic forces, which could be problematic to some writers. While the terminology is vivid, bringing to mind mythic moments, I also think it can be misleading, which can lead to confusion. The main thing with the terminology, is that the actual terms are often more specific than what they are defining, which can feel a little backwards to me. The best way to probably deal with that though, is to take them all more metaphorically and less literally.

Another difference worth noting is that traditionally the Hero's Journey is in the shape of a circle, not a triangle. The circle emphasizes a typical journey, where you leave home, go somewhere new, and come back having gained more experience. But you could just as easily diagram this as a triangle, really. It's just emphasis and preference.

In reality, you can just as easily translate this structure into a triangle.

Like the other structures, there can of course be variations and some parts may bleed into other parts. That's okay as long as it serves the story.

And one more thing, I'm going to be referencing Into the Spider-verse again (in short (and along with others)). You might be thinking, woah, you must really like that movie! But in reality, I'm using it again to show you how the same story actually fits multiple plot structures, a sign that really, it is all about how you like to slice and dice it. (And I wish I understood that long ago.)

But this story structure is great! And it definitely has an archetypal tone, which can be fun to work with. So let's get started.

Ordinary World

At the beginning of the Hero's Journey, the protagonist starts in an "Ordinary World." I use quotations because the term is relative to the story and hero. It's ordinary compared to what is going to come later. Or it's ordinary to the character. It might not necessarily be ordinary from an outside perspective. It's important to realize that, because I think it can trip some writers up.

In Harry Potter, Harry literally starts in an ordinary world (in fact, you can't get much more ordinary than the Dursleys). Later, he'll go to a magical world that exists within our own.

In the movie Enchanted, Giselle begins in a world that is ordinary to her. Later she'll go to New York, which is not ordinary to her.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo begins in Hobbiton, which is ordinary to him (though not to us).

This is true even of non-fantasy stories. It may not be literally a world, but it's a state or lifestyle that is ordinary to the character or ordinary compared to what is going to happen later. It might be a business-woman who is too busy to fall in love. Business life is her ordinary.

The Ordinary World is the setup section of the story. Who is this story about? Where does it start? When does it take place? In the Ordinary World, you are essentially grounding the audience in the story. You are establishing a sense of normalcy (ordinary world). The setup will introduce us to the main character's arc and the theme topic as well.

In Spider-verse

In Into the Spider-verse, Miles starts in an ordinary world compared to what will happen later. This can be confusing to some people, because at the starting of the story, Miles has just recently started attending a new school. But it's very ordinary compared to what will happen later.

We get the setup--who Miles is, where this takes place (New York), when this takes place (present day), and a look at what he has going on in a typical day. We get a sense of his thematic arc and some foreshadowing.

The Call to Adventure

The Call to Adventure is what others may consider the "inciting incident," if you are familiar with that term (though this structure breaks the next part down into more specific pieces). It's a moment that challenges the normalcy we established in the Ordinary World and propels the protagonist in a new direction.

In a lot of traditional Hero's Journey breakdowns, this comes from someone else--a herald. It's Hagrid revealing to Harry he's a wizard. It's Gandalf telling Bilbo he's looking for someone to share an adventure. The herald may not be human. It might be the chocolate bar that has a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Or it might even come from someone dangerous.

The Call to Adventure can also be an event--Primrose Everdeen having her name drawn out for the Hunger Games. It can be a temptation--the promise of riches if the hero joins a ship's crew. It can even be a stirring within the protagonist, a desire for something more. Maybe the hero is just sick of the way things are in her community.

In Spider-verse

This is the moment where Miles is bitten by the radioactive spider. It changes the sense of normalcy establish in the opening.

Refusal of the Call

A Call to Adventure can be a little scary, or at least risky. Often the first thing the hero does is refuse or deny it. Even characters who want to go on the adventure may take a moment to consider what this means, because as Gandalf once said to Bilbo, if you come back, you may not be the same. Typically, they will at least have a second thought.

In Harry Potter, Harry immediately denies this: "I can't be a wizard. I'm just Harry." In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie says he wants to sell the ticket for money for his family. In The Hunger Games, Katniss thinks, "There must have been a mistake. This can't be happening!" And in The Hobbit, Bilbo turns Gandalf down.

In some cases, if the Call to Adventure is something rather negative . . . say . . . a chance to cheat on your significant other, then the Refusal of the Call may be seen as a positive choice.

In Spider-verse

The morning after being bitten, Miles refuses to believe there is something legitimately different about himself, telling himself over and over again that he's just going through puberty. He's in denial. Even when he goes back to find the dead spider, he tells himself "It's just an ordinary spider."

Meeting the Mentor

At this point the hero usually needs more help, more information, or more encouragement. This is where the mentor comes in. Sure, the mentor may be a set, obvious character: Gandalf meets with Bilbo over tea. It may be a temporary mentor, like Hagrid helping Harry prepare to go to a wizarding school. But sometimes it's helpful to think of the mentor as more of a function rather than a character. The function is that something or someone provides the hero with additional information, supplies, wisdom--whatever they need, maybe even a kick out the door--to get going. In this sense, it can be a map the protagonist looks at, a loved one explaining why they need to answer the Call, or a library book that has historical facts that foreshadow the future of the world. The mentor function may even be fulfilled by an enemy or rival.

Mentors provide or donate some sort of "gift," literal or figurative. Sure, it might be wise advice, but it also might be a magical pendant that will light up any darkness or a breastplate that a dragon can never pierce. It might even be something the protagonist doesn't like or want.

In Spider-verse

Right after finding the dead spider, Miles runs into the real Spider-man, who is battling bad guys at the collider. During this, Peter Parker speaks with Miles, asking and encouraging him to be a Spider-man, offering to mentor him, and giving him valuable information about the collider. He insists that he needs Miles's help--kicking Miles out the door (figuratively speaking), so that he can answer the Call.


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