After almost fifteen years of professional writing–both fiction and journalism–I’d like to think that I learned something along the way. I learned rejection. I learned perseverance. I learned that you have to be willing to sacrifice everything you love for your art. But the most important thing I learned didn’t come from the hundreds of hours I’ve logged on a computer. It came from Star Wars.
Some of you might already know who Joseph Campbell is and all about his theory of The Hero’s Journey. For those that don’t, I’ll give a brief summary. Joseph Campbell was a famous mythologist, who after years of research, developed a concept called The Monomyth (the term is borrowed from James Joyce). The theory is that although there are an infinite number of stories out there, they can all be boiled down to what he called The Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is this, ridiculously simplified and clarified for brevity (Note: much of the terminology comes from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. I highly recommend it.)
Ordinary World :There’s something wrong in the protagonist’s world/life/self/etc.
Call to Adventure: S/he undergoes a “quest” (physical/emotional/spiritual/etc) to fix whatever’s wrong.
Road of Trials S/he overcomes trials, meets friends and enemies.
Ordeal: The hero eventually suffers an “ordeal” and great loss (reversal of fortune).
Transformation and Reward: The ordeal forces the hero to transform/transcend who they used to be, in order to finish their quest, and heal/fail to heal their world
Return The hero returns to their old world changed for the better or worse (sometimes both).
Here’s a more visual explanation of The Hero’s Journey and its story structure:
I’m sure you’re thinking, “well, I just read a book that doesn’t follow it at all.” You may be right (although if you look deeper, you’ll find it), but the vast majority do. Myth is a crystal with a million facets, and the facets are what make it shine.
Back to Star Wars. George Lucas was heavily influenced by Campbell. When he wrote Star Wars, he followed The Hero’s Journey almost step for step (think about it). Star Wars, in turn, opened my imagination to the power of myth, The Force, and a good blaster.
My debut novel, Song of Simon, also follows The Hero’s Journey closely, despite it being a deconstruction of the fantasy genre. Though it’s harder to trace in my webserial The Watchmage of Old New York, it’s there. I’ll explain more below.
From God to Man: Ancient vs Modern Heroes
I’ve read A LOT of books over the years, from classics to trash to classic trash. One thing that I’ve noticed is that the modern hero is very different from the heroes of antiquity.
Early mythic heroes focused around gods or the children of gods. Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Perseus are all the sons of gods. The Egyptian God Horus is born from his father’s remains (the Father transforming into the son). The Monkey King (Sun Wukong) in the Chinese classic Journey to the West is also a god (and the basis for Goku, from Dragonball. In fact, the original Dragonball is a great example of the Hero’s Journey). The myths of the American First Nations focus on divine animals like Coyote, Wolf, and Turtle. The lives of The Buddha, Moses, and Jesus also follow this structure. They all follow some aspect of The Hero’s Journey.
Modern stories don’t skew that way. In anything, modern stories focus on the everyman, the ordinary person who achieves something beyond his perceived fate. To quote the (highly underrated) movie A Knight’s Tale, “’Can a man change his stars?’ ‘Yes, William. If he believes enough, a man can do anything.’”
The most obvious example of this in fantasy is The Lord of the Rings, where an ordinary Hobbit defeats the greatest evil in the world. What wizards and great armies couldn’t do, Frodo and Samwise did. The Hunger Games is another great example. Katniss is a poor girl is the poorest district, but she overcomes her trials to “win” but also inspire a rebellion. I could give dozens of other examples in books, TV, and movies, but I don’t want to bore you. I may have already.
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A New Story for a New World
I feel that the change in focus came around the 19th Century, though there were many folk tales before (Jack the Giant Killer, Hansel and Gretel, etc). The old Kingdoms fell and were replaced by democracies (eventually). The poor found their way out of oppression, either by rising up against their oppressors or by fleeing to a new land. They had nothing but a dream. Some call it The American Dream, but it’s a dream that all people of all nations have. The modern hero—the everyman that I refer to—is the same no matter where they’re from.
Another change was that books (and theater) were no longer reserved for the wealthy. As more people gained access, stories changed to reflect the people.
Dickens was one of the first to explore this new change, with novels like Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield. Victor Hugo did the same with Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, it was the Americans that really took this to heart. Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn—all considered American classics–are examples of an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. There’s nothing particularly special about Natty Bumppo, the hero of The Last of the Mohicans, beyond his self-earned skills, and the only talent Rip Van Winkle had was being a sound sleeper. They are neither noble nor divine, just like you and me.
Post-Civil War, we saw variations on the theme with a new genre, the Western. The lone farmer/cowboy/rancher standing up against the railroad, wealthy landholder, or some other great power, re-occurs throughout the genre.
Song of Simon and the Hero’s Journey
My debut novel, Song of Simon, also features an everyman (everyboy?) as a protagonist. Simon is a shy and awkward suburban teenager pulled into a world and situation he’s completely unprepared for. What modern teen would be prepared for the unspeakable violence and horror that he witnesses?
The central theme in Song of Simon is the how violence affects people, and I felt that it could be best told from an everyman’s point of view. Although he’s given an actual “quest,” his true quest is to retain his Humanity in an inhumane world. He’s not special, he’s not heroic in the stereotypical sense, but he grows to be something better than what he was. He grows to be—in his own way—a hero.
It’s not just Simon that goes through The Heroic Journey. Several characters undergo their own quest. Veteran warrior Wiktor searches for redemption. Potential Messiah Ilyana seeks vengeance. The foreigner Gibron looks for acceptance from an intolerant people. Frustrated ranger Jaym grows from grunt to leader. And there are many more that fail in their quests (it’s a pretty dark novel, though there is light at the end).
Transcend, Transform, and Triumph
The key to The Hero’s Journey is transformation. If the hero doesn’t grow or change in some way, has he really succeeded? How does one make an impact on the world? By achieving what you didn’t think was possible. It doesn’t matter if you are a demi-god, a knight or lord, or a 7-11 clerk. Be more than what you are.
I’m a fan of Walt Whitman, and one of my favorite poems by him is “Oh Me! Oh Life!” taken from Leaves of Grass. I’ll add it here, as it explains what I said better than I can:
O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 5
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
Make your mark. Change your stars. Contribute a verse.
Do you like what I have to say? Check out the rest of my website. It’s stuffed with all things geek, lots of plugs for my work, and more memes than you can shake a waffle-cat at. You can also stalk my facebook fan page or follow me on twitter. If you REALLY like me, you can buy my novel, Song of Simon. People seem to like it (and that kinda blows my mind). Come back here often, we have punch and pie…