Thoughts on The Hero’s Journey

Earlier this week I read a very interesting blog post by Rick Stump about Conan the Barbarian that definitely makes me want to read some Robert E. Howard. (I hope to anyway, since he’s on ‘Appendix N’.)

This is a complete digression of what that blog post is really about, but I find “The Hero’s Journey” and Joseph Campbell’s work in general to be quite fascinating, so I shall digress… the blogger writes:

Howard died well over a decade before The Hero With A Thousand Faces was published and I think that he would have sneered at it. As many more people before me have pointed out, Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey is malarky. It is so very broad that it can’t be defended in a scholarly sense and yet it is so confining and predictable that when writers use it it hits everything with a Power Word: Bland spell effect. It fails to describe a number of rather seriously important myth cycles and attempts to shoehorn all of heroic narrative into a single pattern.

What?! Malarky?! Noooo… but… but… I love it…

I think there are two issues here. First, what exactly is “The Hero’s Journey” anyway? And then, second, how a writer (screenwriter or novelist or whatever) might use (or misuse) it.

What is “The Hero’s Journey” anyway?

Granted, it’s been more than a decade since I read Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and I would not consider myself an expert on Campbell’s own views anyway, but my understanding of Campbell’s “monomyth” is Campbell saying this: Hey, I’ve studied a bunch of myths from around the world, and I’ve found some interesting patterns that many of them share; they tend to follow a particular model. As we find these similarities in the otherwise diverse myths from multiple cultures, what might this telling about being human?

Now, maybe that’s not at all what Campbell was saying. Like I said, it’s been a while since I read the book, and I don’t always find Campbell to be a particularly accessible writer anyway. (He seems to ramble and sometimes seems so interested in sharing the details of some myth that you forget what point he is trying to make, which he may not have even bothered to make clear in the first place.)

Also, note that “The Hero’s Journey” is about myths, not stories and narratives in general. There is some overlap, but whereas stories and narratives can be written by single authors for purposes of entertainment, myths emerge from groups of people and are generally shared in some sort of religious context. That is, the one who has learned the myth is meant to make a spiritual connection with it, not treat it as merely a fictional product. That is not to say one cannot make a spiritual connection with a modern-day novel. But that is icing on the cake for the author. You wouldn’t make up your own myth, much less try to sell a myth on Amazon for money. Not the sort of myths Campbell is considering, anyway. Hopefully that distinction makes sense.

Anyway, what makes the monomyth interesting (and a valid model rather than mere malarky) is that it describes similarities between myths. The idea is that, by virtue of finding these patterns across multiple cultures, the myths contain symbols that point to something bigger than themselves, something about humans and our relation to the universe. That is, hey look, there are spiritual truths in these myths!

Now of course one may argue about the particularities of the model Campbell proposes, such as whether it should or shouldn’t include the “stages” Campbell describes, or whether the patterns Campbell finds truly point to something bigger or are just coincidence. There is some subjective interpretation going on, an analysis of a myth is more art than science. (I’m not sure how one would make story analysis into a science?) Whether or not the model is considered to be “too broad” depends on what exactly one is trying to do with it. It is not meant to, for example, explain all myths ever. And surely it is not meant to generalize myths or trivialize their differences, any more than explaining sonata form or analyzing patterns in functional harmony generalizes or trivializes the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Campbell himself writes:

There is no final system for the interpretation of myths, and there never will be any such thing.

So I think “The Hero’s Journey” sometimes gets unfair criticism for not being what it never claimed to be in the first place. It is, simply put, a set of patterns found in a number of myths, with the underlying idea that these patterns are thus meaningful to the human experience beyond the specific myths they may be found in.

I’m not sure where in any of his books Campbell ever “attempts to shoehorn all of heroic narrative into a single pattern” or even advocate it. But, again, it’s been a while since I read the book. Maybe whether or not he’s “shoehorning” is itself a subjective matter?

The (mis?)use of the “monomyth” in Hollywood

So the story goes that George Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth while writing Star Wars. Star Wars was a big success. Screenwriters thought the monomyth was thus a “secret formula” for producing hits, or at least serviceable stories, and then a bunch of cliche predictable soulless awful stuff started coming out (and still comes out today).

Of course dull soulless films are really nothing new. When any art becomes commercial, “formulaic” artists emerge. The “formula” may change depending on the latest success, but the crime is the same: the writer depends on a “formula” (consciously or unconsciously) to the detriment of the final product. Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat!” beats also get a lot of unfair criticism for this sort of thing. (The form he proposes is really another form of “The Hero’s Journey” but from a screenwriter’s perspective, which necessarily includes such things as pacing considerations, a side plot, and the statement of theme). Writers look at the “formula” and come up with the same cliche manifestations of the story beats and the resulting story is soulless, monotonous, and predictable.

When this happens, the blame really goes to the uncreative boring writers, not to Joseph Campbell or Blake Snyder, who merely shared patterns they had found. (Well, perhaps the ultimate blame goes to the audiences that keep buying such formulaic stories, but what does that say?) The story patterns they share are no substitute for soul or theme. From my perspective, they’re a bit like talking about methods for calculating vanishing points on a canvas to help you draw with perspective. They might give your painting some depth, but they won’t make it beautiful. That is, from a storytelling perspective, they can serve as insightful tools. They are not “formulas”… perhaps they may serve as “foundations” or “forms”, but they are not instructions on what must happen next. “The Hero’s Journey” is spiritual, not a plot template. It’s not about what the hero does physically, it’s about his (or the audience’s) spiritual experience.

So, in conclusion, I don’t think “The Hero’s Journey” is malarky at all, though I certainly agree that it can be misused when storytellers treat it as merely a “formula.”

Only giants will do

Of Other Worlds

I recently finished reading a small series of essays and stories by C.S. Lewis collected in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.

Of particular interest to me was the first essay, “On Stories”, in which Lewis defends the elements of fantasy and sci-fi, myth and fairy-tale, as not merely arbitrarily-chosen story entities, but innately unique and important, as they carry with them all their unique weight, connotations, feelings, etc., which bring about different “kinds of pleasure.”

He mentions talking with a friend about books they had enjoyed as boys. He writes of his friend:

His favourite had been Fenimore Cooper whom (as it happens) I have never read. My friend described one particular scene in which the hero was half-sleeping by his bivouac fire in the woods while a Redskin with a tomahawk was silently creeping on him from behind. He remembered the breathless excitement with which he had read the passage, the agonized suspense with which he wondered whether the hero would wake up in time or not. But I, remembering the great moments in my own early reading, felt quite sure that my friend was misrepresenting his experience, and indeed leaving out the real point. Surely, surely, I thought, the sheer excitement, the suspense, was not what had kept him going back and back to Fenimore Cooper. If that were what he wanted any other ‘boy’s blood’ would have done as well. … Dangers, of course, there must be: how else can you keep a story going? But they must (in the mood which led one to such a book) be Redskin dangers. The ‘Redskinnery’ was what really mattered. In such a scene as my friend had described, take away the feathers, the high cheek-bones, the whiskered trousers, substitute a pistol for the tomahawk, and what would be left? For I wanted not the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged–the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, war-paths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names.

He goes on to write:

Jack the Giant-Killer is not, in essence, simply the story of a clever hero surmounting danger. It is in essence the story of such a hero surmounting danger from giants. It is quite easy to contrive a story in which, though the enemies are of normal size, the odds against Jack are equally great. But it will be quite a different story. The whole quality of the imaginative response is determined by the fact that the enemies are giants. That heaviness, that monstrosity, that uncouthness, hangs over the whole thing. Turn it into music and you will feel the difference at once. If your villain is a giant your orchestra will proclaim his entrance in one way: if he is any other kind of villain, in another. I have seen landscapes (notably in the Mourne Mountains) which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do. … The dangerousness of the giants is, though important, secondary. In some folk-tales we meet giants who are not dangerous. But they still affect us in much the same way. A good giant is legitimate: but he would be twenty tons of living, earth-shaking oxymoron. The intolerable pressure, the sense of something older, wilder, and more earthy than humanity, would still cleave to him.

Near the end of the essay he writes:

Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in the mere excitement when the journey has once begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas–homecoming, reunion with a beloved–similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so–well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more? … Art, indeed, may be expected to do what life cannot do: but so it has done. The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done–or very, very nearly done–in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.

He almost makes storytelling seem a tragedy, but a necessary one, like a remnant from the Fall of Man, which perhaps it is. If I may be forgiven for playing with the metaphor, I wonder: are we bird-catching for the beauty of the bird, or for the wish to become the bird? Or to find at least glimpses of the bird we hope is lost within ourselves?

In any case, I loved the essay; it’s worth a read for any authors of fantasy or fairy-tales. And it seems to stir in me a desire to write, not so much fuel for the fire, but the breath that brings it to fury. (Or is that a metaphor too much?)

On being a constant failure

No, this is not some dreary confessional.

Author Brian Ruckley wrote this interesting blog post: Everything I’ve Ever Written is a Failure.

In the post, Ruckley quotes another author, Scott McCloud, from his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art:

Ask any writer or filmmaker or painter just how much of a given project truly represents what they envisioned it to be. You’ll hear twenty per cent … ten … five … few will claim more than thirty.

Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.

While I certainly agree with this, and Ruckley’s post about it, I think there’s another perhaps more subtle reason a lot of finished artwork can seem like a failure to the artist.

When we are excited about a new project, we’re excited not about the end product itself, but about the project’s possibilities. It’s like the start of an adventure. I’ve got a few ideas that mysteriously excite me; the project is exciting because I don’t know what the specifics will be. I’m excited by my own ignorance. It’s like getting a big present at Christmas, all mysteriously wrapped up. There could be anything in there. That’s the fun of wrapping gifts. Not knowing and wanting to know is thrilling.

The problem is we tend to mistakenly attribute the excitement of potential to evaluation of the end product. But after a project is finished, there’s no more mystery to it. We can no longer wonder and dream about what it could be. And so it stops inspiring that same feeling of excitement, and it can feel like a failure, because we can never again experience it with that same sense of ignorant wonder.

Is there a solution to this? I’m not sure; it might just be a natural part of the creation process. I suppose the best we can do is to try to understand what exactly is exciting us about a potential project, and always turn our attention to the elements in our stories that are exciting us the most.

The “I’m Spartacus!” moment

Writer David Brin has an interesting article on Locus Online about “why films and novels routinely depict society and its citizens as fools.” He points out how a lot of stories pit the main character against society, often unrealistically. Yet we, the collective audience, who make up that society in the real world, are meant to empathize with the hero, not the dumb society. After all, who doesn’t go around thinking in his head that his own life philosophy is the objectively best one? No one goes around thinking he’s morally wrong in his philosophical beliefs, at least not while keeping sane. So it’s easy to naturally vilify the rest of the dumb world that just doesn’t (or refuses to) see and understand all the obvious truths you see so clearly.

Of course, there are plenty of stories in which worldly rejection is established as a character flaw to be overcome. For example, in the animated film Shrek, our ogre hero says something like: “It’s the world that seems to have a problem with me! They take one look at me and say, ‘Ah! Help! Run! A big stupid ugly ogre!’ They judge me before they even know me.” Or Jean Valjean of the Les Misérables musical and recent film, who sings: “For I had come to hate the world, this world that always hated me.” The point of this sort of conflict isn’t so much that the rest of society is truly evil and stupid, but that the main character’s attitude toward the world needs to change, regardless of whatever the world did to help instill that attitude.

What caught my attention in Brin’s article was what he mentions of the Spider-Man films:

One of my favorite recent exceptions is the series of four Spiderman flicks. None of them are highbrow or classy. But despite their clichéd fluffiness, there appears to be a little-noticed tradition. In all of the first three films, Spiderman repeatedly saves New Yorkers from harm. But there is always a moment of brief role-reversal… when normal people, regular New Yorkers, step up and save Spiderman. Indeed, when I watched the recent fourth one – the reboot – I had to start by quashing sadness over Hollywood’s craven inability to ever try anything new. Still, there came a moment, near the end, when – once again and with style — citizens stood up again for their hero. And I felt a thrill.

I felt proud.

How do such unpoisonous moments manage to sneak in, despite the driving needs of jeopardy pacing?

A moment like this came in a 2009 animated film I recently watched called Summer Wars. Near the end, one of the main characters finds herself unable to defeat a villain because her virtual account has run out of resources. She’s at a brick wall. Who should come to her rescue but countless other online players, willing to give her their accounts so that she can defeat the villain. (And the better the accompanying film music, the more this moment can be milked for its dramatic power. Summer Wars features a heavenly choir swelling at this moment.)

Or there’s the more quotable moment in the 1960 epic Kubrick film Spartacus. Wanted by the authorities, a soldier asks a defeated group of slaves which one of them is Spartacus. He must be crucified for his crime of a leading a slave rebellion. All the slaves come to Spartacus’s defense. “I’m Spartacus!” they all say, each willing to share in their leader’s fate.

It is the complete opposite of feeling rejected. Not only is it support for the main character as a person, it’s support for what the main character is fighting for. No one says, “I’m more capable of being the hero here, stand aside and let me take over.” But it’s not so much that the hero maintains his status and receives personal validation, but that what the hero is fighting for is proved to be something bigger than the hero himself. The hero does get to maintain his status, not because of who he is, but because of what he represents in the story. What he’s fighting for is something that affects everybody.

In this way, the main character’s connectedness to society is emphasized. Not only is his goal something bigger than himself, but he himself is part of something bigger than himself: society as a unity, not a bunch of a competing individuals. Note, this is not collectivism as opposed to individualism; rather it’s the marriage of both. Society is made of each individual, so each individual adds to the whole. Each individual is just as important as the whole, and vice versa. They make each other. They are separate, but they are part of each other.

Like love, and as an element of love, every human instinctively understands this. Perhaps not necessarily as a philosophical concept (collectivism vs. individualism and selflessness vs. selfishness are incomplete understandings), but as an instinctual desire, something that will satisfy the human soul because it is what the human soul is made of.

And stories are great at giving humans glimpses of this.

A variation on this sort of moment is when a supporting character comes to the hero’s aid in the battle’s final moments. It might be the return of the rogue, such as Han Solo of Star Wars flying into battle to help the rebels’ assault on the Death Star. Or it might be the ever-reliable Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King proclaiming: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” Our hero rises with the aid of a supporting character. Again, it’s a powerful moment for the same sorts of reasons.

Appendum: The “Rescue the Hero” moment

Now that I think more about it, I’d call the “I’m Spartacus” moment a type of more general “Rescue the Hero” moment.

The “Rescue the Hero” moment may happen shortly before the climax, as one or more supporting characters aid the hero in getting to the climax. Examples include Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, or Gonji in Yojimbo.

It may happen as part of the climax (especially when the main character is not the protoganist), as in the bike flying of E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, or the sacrifice of the giant in Iron Giant, or the entrance of T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

It may happen right after the climax, to save the hero from his own self-sacrifice. Examples include Dr. Jones Sr. holding Indiana over an abyss in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the mentos mountain rescue of Vanellope von Schweetz in Wreck-It Ralph. Or, again, Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And again with the eagles in the same film, lifting the hobbits to safety.

Finally, it may happen as icing on the cake as a “Thank the Hero” moment, when the climax is over. Examples include Chief Bromden’s tragic “rescue” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the bowing to the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the money donations to George Baily in It’s a Wonderful Life, or the medal ceremony in Star Wars.

Whenever a crowd gives the character support instead of just one supporting character, I’d call it an “I’m Spartacus!” moment, a crowd variation on a “Rescue the Hero” or a “Thank the Hero” moment.

Putting the movie in the mind onto the page

I’ve heard quite a few writers talk about how they can see their story in their mind like a movie, but they get frustrated that they can’t seem to capture it in words.

To which I reply:

Well, of course you can’t. If writing could communicate images as easily as actual images, the film industry wouldn’t exist.

You shouldn’t be trying to capture images with your writing, you should be trying to convey emotions. Let the readers create their own images; give their imaginations some credit!

I’m not saying you should never describe anything visual. Of course you must do that. I’m saying that the point of your descriptions should not be to share the “movie in your mind” or the “picture in your head.” It should be to convey an emotion (usually the emotion of the POV character at that time) through the description, both in its wording and in what you choose to include in it.

The reader is never going to see that brilliant image in your mind, but if you can convey a powerful emotion with your words, you can trust that his imagination will be perfectly capable of filling in the details and coming up with something that will work better for him than anything you could describe.

Maker of the bell stand

Here’s a quote from film director Ingmar Bergman. I heard it in an interview which was included as a bonus feature on the blu-ray of his film The Magician and quite liked it. I think it definitely applies to writers:

I’ll tell you very plainly how I see the relationship between an artist and his audience by telling you a little story that I heard many years ago and that made quite an impression on me.

You see, during the middle ages, a certain wood-carver in China was given the task of crafting a stand for the temple bells. It was a very honorable assignment for this Chinese wood-carver, and he set about his work.

While he carved, he started thinking about all the money he’d earn for this bell stand, and as it happened, the carving turned out quite poorly. But since he was an ambitious Chinese craftsman, he started all over again.

But this time too, as he carved, he started thinking about how he would win everyone’s love with this incredibly beautiful stand. And this attempt too was a failure. So he destroyed that stand and started a third time.

But this time it occurred to him that he would gain immortality with this bell stand, and his third attempt was a failure too.

With that, our Chinese wood-carver grew furious as only a Chinese wood-carver can be, and he decided to try a fourth time. This time he had just one thought in his head: to create a bell stand.

This time he succeeded and in so doing gained love, money, and immortality.