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Writing Excuses 8.2: Hero's Journey

Writing Excuses 8.2: Hero's Journey


Key points: Possible steps along the way include establishing normalcy, call to adventure, meeting a mentor, a threshold crossing, a road of trails, helpers along the way, attaining the prize, return to normalcy, another threshold crossing, homecoming. But beware of trying to force everything on the list into your story. Do think about the functions and how they suit your story. Consider Dan Harmon's Story Circle steps: a character in his zone of comfort, wants something. To get it, they enter an unfamiliar situation, adapt to it, get what they wanted, and pay a heavy price for it. Then they return to their familiar situation, having changed. Don't use this as a checklist, do consider it, and think about "Why?"

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Two.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. The Campbellian Monomyth slash Hero with a Thousand Faces slash The Hero's Journey slash yes, we're finally doing it...
[Mary, Dan] [laughter]
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry, and we can't possibly fit it all in.
[Dan] And we're finally, at long last, that smart.
[Brandon] No, we're not, because we're using Cliffs Notes on it.
[Dan, Mary] [Laughter]
[Mary] Yes, yes, we are.
[Brandon] We're cheating.
[Mary] Well, we're cheating because the original... The original monomyth, it says things like, "This first stage of the mythological journey signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown."
[Brandon] Yes. If you weren't with us many years ago, right when we started...
[Howard] A fine example of transparent prose.
[Mary] Thank you!

[Brandon] Right when we started, years and years ago, we said, "Hey, let's do a thing on the Hero with a Thousand Faces. We'll all read it, and then talk about it. Then we went to The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Howard, being the chump he is, actually read it. Dan and I had read it before.
[Mary] I just want to point out. I was not here and did not agree to this.
[Brandon] We started reading it and realized, "Wow, this is really dense prose."
[Mary] Refusal of the summons...
[Brandon] Then we never got around to it.
[Mary] Converts the adventure into its negative.
[Brandon] Yes. The thing about the Campbellian monomyth or the Hero's Journey... We're going to talk more about the concept of the Hero's Journey because Campbell wasn't the only one who talked about it. We want to learn to apply it to our stories, and how to use it in our stories, and when not to use it in our stories. It is very useful as a narrative arc, because it... It's something that Campbell noticed and other ethnographers and folklorists discovered, a lot of stories throughout human history, regardless of culture, follow this same concept. All these kind of epic stories about the hero who leaves their home and then travels into the underworld and then returns home with newfound knowledge happens time and time again. So there's lots of discussion about why this is part of our natural... Our human conscience. What is it that makes us want to do it? So let's talk about it. First, let's identify the pieces. I just kind of went over it in short. Let's go over it in longer. Howard, why don't you just go kind of down the list of what happens?
[Howard] Gosh. There is the establishing of... Normalcy. A call to adventure. A...
[Brandon] Meeting a mentor.
[Mary] Meeting a mentor.
[Howard] Yeah. Meeting a mentor. A threshold crossing. A road of trials. Helpers along the road. There's a moment at which the prize is attained. There's a return.
[Brandon] Yup.
[Howard] Return to normalcy. Another threshold crossing. On the way back. And a homecoming.

[Brandon] Campbell was very big on the whole concept of these thresholds. Which to him are passing from one form of the story into another form of the story. Other people who have identified it don't talk about the thresholds as much.
[Mary] No, but I think other people use different language...
[Dan] Different language. Yeah.
[Mary] To describe the same thing. Because you can talk about the MICE quotient, and the threshold is the milieu. That is when you leave home, and the story ends when you return home. Or Dan's seven-point outline where you've got the pitch and the turn, are both thresholds.

[Howard] One of the things that I find fascinating about all of this is that we've seen it done so many times that we don't just... I mean, when Campbell was writing this, what he was saying is there is something in this that resonates with us as humans, which is why it works. As writers, the temptation is to use this because it resonates and it works. But beyond that, I think that it's successful when you turn things on their head. One of the most recent solid examples of this is the threshold crossing in How to Train Your Dragon. Where the normalcy is we're Vikings and we fight dragons. The threshold crossing is when he is out in the wild, is faced with a dragon, and frees it. I had a huge emotional response to this, because I recognized it as a threshold crossing that was backwards.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's pretty awesome to point out.
[Howard] It was wonderful.

[Dan] Well, one of the great things that that movie in particular does is it shows the threshold return.
[Howard] Yes!
[Dan] Which is something that you don't see a lot anymore, honestly.
[Howard] Return with the prize, and the prize is rejected.
[Dan] Part of the classic Hero's Journey is that you attain the prize, but that attaining it has changed you in some way. And when you make your homecoming and you come home, you yourself are different.
[Mary] Well, Harry Potter is a classic, classic example of this. It starts with him at home and the threshold crossing is quite literal, when he leaves the house. And every book ends with him returning.

[Brandon] Right. Now, I do want to point out that by Campbell's definitions, these are not the thresholds.
[Mary] Okay. [Garbled]
[Brandon] You're defining these as we like to believe. The thresholds for him are actually what you call... Well, they're pinches. They're resolution moments or... Like where... One of his thresholds is when you are swallowed into hell, is one of them. Leaving the... Leave coming is not crossing the threshold. That is just part of the...
[Howard] That's call to adventure.
[Brandon] Yeah, the call to adventure.
[Mary] Call to adventure.
[Howard] Part of what we're...
[Brandon] His thresholds are like things like when you're resurrected. When you die and come back to life or things like this. The threshold is a change in like...
[Howard] See, with Harry Potter, I'd argue that the call to adventure is the... "Well, Harry, you're a wizard" is our call to adventure. The threshold crossing is like the sorting hat, when he's there, suddenly surrounded by magic, arriving at Hogwarts. That felt threshold-y to me. I mean we...
[Brandon] No, because Campbell would call the threshold when he descends down to fight Voldemort.
[Mary] Well, this is... Well...
[Brandon] That's the thing...
[Mary] Campbell says specifically, "With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the threshold guardian at the entrance to the zone of magnified power." I would say the zone of magnified power is Hogwarts.
[Brandon] Okay. We're getting in...
[Dan] In that sense, the sorting hat is totally a threshold...
[Brandon] Descriptions... I disagree completely. Studying this a lot. That would be down below when he is... The door he gets through to fight Voldemort.
[Dan] Well, one of the...
[Mary] Isn't that the belly of the whale?
[Brandon] That's one of the thresholds.
[Dan] See, belly... The whale's belly is a threshold. That's one of the shorthands that Campbell used all the time, was whale belly, brother battle, things like that.

[Brandon] Yeah. Now here's the thing. This is what we're getting into. We should talk about this. The monomyth is not a guide on how to write a story. That's the problem we're getting into. The monomyth is a description...
[Howard] It's not even a good guide for how to deconstruct a story, which is what we're arguing over.
[Dan] [chuckle]
[Brandon] Yeah. It's a description of stories that have happened, and key points that happen in the story frequently. You get into trouble, I've found, and this is kind of one of my personal hobbyhorses, when writers assume that the Hero's Journey is a guide to writing a fantasy novel. Then they will go and try to check all the things on the list. Sure, a lot of them happen. The hero is frequently an orphan, but with noble parentage. So it's the son of the King who's lost in the wilderness, like Harry Potter. So you start to put these things in, and the thing is, when you start to shoehorn too many of them in, you realize that it doesn't actually create a structure for a story. For instance, Campbell was very interested in what we would call the climax of the story and things like that. If you just go down the list... I've said before that I feel Lucas lost his way a little bit with Episode One. He was a student of Campbell, he loved Campbell. He actually has done thing... He was a mentor, he knew Campbell personally, and he started shoehorning things in such as the virgin birth. It's a big part of the Campbellian monomyth, and Lucas didn't have a virgin birth in his story. So he's like, "Well, gotta have a virgin birth." Did not fit the Star Wars narrative at all. It felt like this big plunk, here it is. So be careful. You can use this thing, you can learn from this thing, but don't make it a checklist.
[Dan] Yeah, like you said, it's a bad guide for writing a story. Because if you take the classic stories and boil them down to the point where they're easily mappable onto the little chart of the Hero's Journey, then at that point, they're indistinguishable. Then The Matrix and Star Wars and the Wizard of Oz all have the same plot. You have to expand it beyond this model in order for it to be unique and interesting.

[Howard] Let me wordsmith that statement for just a moment. I don't think it's a bad guide for writing a story, I think it's a horrible checklist for writing a story. Don't use it as a checklist. Don't try and get all of these things in here. But recognizing the cyclical nature, the presence of threshold crossings, the presence of mentors and helpers, is extremely helpful because you recognize what they... What these people function as, what those characters or things function as in other stories.
[Mary] it's like any of the formulas we've talked about, like the Hollywood formula, or any of these. It's about understanding what the pieces do an understanding their function in your story. Sometimes you swap things out, because you want more [garbled. Vinegar?]...
[Dan] A great example of that is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has one of the strongest threshold returns that you'll ever see when they come back and they have to scour the Shire. The hobbits have learned something, they've changed, they've become better, so they have their homecoming, they come back and they clean the place up. The movie took that out, but replaced it with some other stuff that still feels the same rule of showing how they've changed and matured.

[Howard] Let's take just a moment for the book of the week. We're going to go out on a limb and recommend to you Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
[Dan] [chuckle]
[Howard] Which is, as we said before, very dense prose. I listened to the audiobook, and you know what, it was a great experience, listening to the audiobook because it expanded my brain. This is not transparent prose. This is dense stuff, there's a lot to be learned there. You can pick it up at after collecting your free trial membership and listen to this one for free.

[Brandon] All right. Let's talk about how to use this, then. We've talked about the warnings of maybe not using it. We've gotten into arguments defining different things.
[Dan] [chuckle]
[Brandon] Which I think they're... The thing about it is...
[Dan] Which is [symptomatic? Emblematic?] Of what it's like.
[Brandon] Yeah. There's so much that you could... So many arguments you could make. But how can this help you? I mean, looking at the Wikipedia page or looking at... We have XDM in front of us, which is the Tracy Hickman and his son, Curtis Hickman, where they did a thing on how to be a great Dungeon Master. They included a thing on the Hero's Journey. Just looking at the little symbol, the little thing, calls to mind all kinds of storytelling archetypes and things that you could use. So there's got to be good ways to do this.

[Dan] Well, my personal favorite is actually branching out a little bit. One of my favorite TV shows is Community. The creator for that, Dan Harmon, has I will say condensed the Hero's Journey or altered it into what he calls a story circle. You can find this online. It's really easy. Just look up Dan Harmon story circle. What it does is, it takes the hero's journey and removes the epicness. Which sounds like you're removing the point, but really what he's doing is, he's making it into a very cool story model that you can apply to any genre at all. Just very quickly, I'm going to read through these eight things he says. A character is in his zone of comfort. They want something. They enter an unfamiliar situation, adapt to it, get what they wanted, pay a heavy price for it. Then return to their familiar situation, having changed. That's basically the Hero's Journey, but kind of genericized a little. I find that very useful.
[Brandon] It is. I think that one thing that Howard's talked about and actually Tracy Hickman talks about in his book is, we often forget the end. We forget the homecoming and things. I think there is a very important part to this homecoming that we shouldn't forget, that is a big part of this story. It's part of the catharsis that comes at the end of the story, is having gone through it all and letting us see the character return to their familiar surroundings. It is important.
[Mary] Yeah. I keep talking about the MICE quotient, but that's one of the important things. Whether that familiar surrounding is an actual physical place, or whether it is an emotional zone. That having some sort of things-are-stable-now at the end is important, not just for the character, but for the reader to ease out of the story.

[Howard] One thing to bear in mind is that the subversion of this is incredibly useful. I've mentioned How to Train Your Dragon before. There's a point in How to Train Your Dragon where he has returned with knowledge of the dragons, and that knowledge is roundly rejected, and we have a plot disaster. In the monomyth, there are examples of mythology where our hero has a transcendental experience, returns with knowledge, and is rejected. One of the most notable is the crucifixion of Christ, and Campbell points this up as an example. Well, How to Train Your Dragon doesn't want to end on that note. So we return with that knowledge, and then the story continues, and the knowledge at the very end of the movie gets reapplied, and we have a subversion of the model.

[Brandon] I would say, one of the most important things with all of this is if you research it and learn it and start studying it, you can try to ask yourself the questions why. The why is what's going to make you write a better story. Rather than saying, "Well, I'm going to kick this off and put in the virgin birth," or something like this...
[Howard] I need a mentor character.
[Brandon] Rather say, "Why is the mentor so important to the story?" Well, the mentor represents the strange, and can be the thing that comes into the familiar world. So that narratively, we're like, "Oh, it's a hint of what's coming." Like the prologues we talked about in the previous cast. What do they do? It gives us a warning something cool is coming. It also shows us what the character could be. So you don't have to include a mentor if you can somehow otherwise show this is what your potential is.

[Mary] Yeah. At the same time, if you recognize, "Oh, this character is functioning as a mentor character" and that is the only thing you have them doing, that's when it becomes dull and boring.
[Brandon] Exactly. Yeah.
[Mary] If you can roll them into another function, that's where it gets interesting. I mean, there's... One of the... This is actually something that pops up when you run into The Noble Savage or The Magical Negro archetypes which are often mentor figures, but they don't do anything else. They don't have any desires or needs outside of serving the hero. Which is problematic on many different levels. So if you understand what all of these pieces are and what they're doing and can make them do more than one thing, it's better fiction.
[Dan] Yeah. I was going to say while you were talking about that, the one that jumped out at me is actually Ben Kenobi, in the first Star Wars. Who seems, on the surface, to be just a mentor with nothing else going on. But the secondary function he is serving is to illustrate the presence of magic in a science fiction universe. He's in this classic wizard's robe, he fights with a sword, he's there to explain the setting to us.
[Brandon] But...
[Mary] I will say that the Kenobi role is one of the few things that I thought was more interesting after having read the... Or having seen the first...
[Brandon] Yeah. The prequels...
[Mary] Yeah, the prequels, because he was...
[Howard] Oh, cool. He was a person.
[Mary] Because that did give him a... Like, that actually completely changes the way you view the movie and the rest of...
[Brandon] Yeah. I have no problem with what the prequels were trying to do. I just have trouble with what they did.
[Mary] Yes. [ding]
[Howard] Execution is everything.
[Brandon] All right. Let's have a book of the week. Howard?
[Howard] You mean a writing prompt?
[Brandon] Book of the week? Writing prompt.
[Howard] We've done the book of the week.
[Brandon] I've done that like three times.
[Mary] I'm going to tell you...
[Brandon] That's because you said book of the week this time.

[Mary] I got one for you. What I would like you to do is take Goldilocks and the three Bears and apply the Campbellian monomyth to it, and write a short story.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.

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