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Thread: Hero's Journey and alternatives
December 3rd, 2012, 01:56 AM #1
Hero's Journey and alternatives
I recently got introduced to "Hero's Journey" and the monomyth as a popular storytelling plot, and it's like a light bulb turned on in my head!
Now, I can't seem to stop thinking about it and finding hero's journey in every story, movie, book, game I encounter.
I find that I am subconsciously molding the existing worlds/storylines I have in mind to suit this plot. However, what I am afraid of is that it is too cliche and done too many times in fantasy and sci-fi.
So, is it a good thing to follow this plot? How closely should I be following it? Will it make the characters into plot-puppets?
Also, what other plot frameworks have been as helpful/discussed/studied as this one in fantasy and sci-fi?
December 4th, 2012, 02:12 PM #2
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There are both promises and perils of using the Hero's Journey as a guide to creating stories.
The biggest danger is that we take it as a pattern for ALL stories. A lesser danger is to take Joseph Campbell's detailed 17-step pattern and robotically cram our stories into it.
The over-all pattern is useful for many coming-of-age stories. At its most basic, a young man leaves home, has experiences, and returns to his community enriched in some way. The circle is closed, and his sons then repeat it.
The problems begin to be clearer when you notice that this is a pattern for HERO'S, not heroines. For much of humanity's existence young women's journey in life was different. They were sent on a journey to another family as a wife. They were protected. They didn't go alone. As potential child-bearers they could not have adventures: ventures into danger.
They DID face dangers, however. Dying in child birth was common, still exists in more primitive societies today. Having one's children die, supposedly more tragic for women. (Though as a man who has experienced it, I can tell you this is not so.) Being beat up or killed or abandoned by our husbands, an all-too-real danger even today.
Today young women are also taking the hero's journey. That's one of the first changes we must make so that this pattern fits our stories.
Another change is noticing other variations of this pattern. One is the tragic one: the venturer goes out and gets killed. Or enslaved. Or comes home impoverished, disillusioned, maybe crippled.
Another variation is that s/he does not return but instead establishes a new home or family.
Lastly, this pattern is one for young people. There are other possible stories based on life's common experiences. Nowadays we hear a lot about midlife crises. Our children grow up and leave, we find we didn't realize our dreams, we begin to look forward fearfully to growing old and dying, etc.
Another common experience is the Golden Years. We become resigned to the end of our life and cope with it, perhaps by denying or ignoring it, perhaps by investing ourselves in our children or grandchildren.
Using the Hero's Journey as a guide to our stories is like any technique to get something done. We can do it well, ill, in-between - or not at all.
December 4th, 2012, 06:05 PM #3
The issue of the "Hero's" gender isn't really an issue at all. Yes, most mythic heroes have been male, no question; but the distilling of history's many disparate narratives into one archetypal Hero's Journey is only done to demonstrate commonalities of satisfying, effective structure. This structure can be as powerfully rendered into the journey of a woman as that of a man; just as equally as it could be applied to the adventure of an animal - to any agent capable of recognising problems in its world; of feeling fear at facing change, before overcoming that fear; of entering new realms of thought, experience or location in search of a resolution to that fearsome problem; and, ultimately, of attaining the solution required and putting it into practice.
This is not to say that every heroic journey must end positively. The nature of the story determines what a "successful" resolution will be, and it may not be good for the poor hero; they may in fact be a figure of evil, and the audience craves their downfall - one of the reasons why "protagonist" is a better term for our leading characters; but the notion that these highly abstract structural steps might exclude "journeys" that never leave the home, or that a female character in a western-traditional role could not develop through facing adversity within that supposedly mundane environment - these are (forgive me, Laer) failures of imagination, not limitations of the Hero's Journey. As you say yourself, there are many dangers, threats and challenges within that societal role - all the Hero's Journey does is offer a way to frame them (or any other story) which, for thousands of years, has inspired comprehension, recognition and empathy in an audience.
I studied the Hero's Journey (and three act structure) pretty intensively, quite a while ago now - though not on the scale of narrative time since it's been ticking away for longer than Christianity, which was founded on a pretty successful story itself. I still keep it in the back of my mind when I'm planning projects, but mostly at a very early stage; because, once the bare bones of an effective story are in place, you need to go somewhere else in order to turn the archetypes into something original. It's a very useful tool, but it's only one tool. It's also useful for analysing existing stories, of course - that is what Campbell was doing in the first place, (literally) after all. The idea of utilising the structure to create stories may not have been an intended side effect, but in my opinion it is perfectly valid - ask any engineer and s/he'll tell you that once you understand how something works you're in the best position to make it yourself, and maybe to do it better.
Last edited by Andrew Leon Hudson; December 4th, 2012 at 06:26 PM.
December 4th, 2012, 07:17 PM #4
Some sound advice has already been posted. The biggest thing about looking at the Hero's Journey is that it's a comfortable plot. It's familiar. It can be a trap. Your reader will know where you're going before you get there and either be pleased you did that or displeased because they knew what to expect before you hit that plot point. Eragon was a big offender of this as it hit every Fantasy Trope and ticked off each and every plot point right on schedule.
That being said, you need to watch out for the trap. Learn the rules. Learn how to develop the story using those plot points. Then see where you can bend and break those rules and points to suit your own story telling. The Hero's Journey is a great learning tool for writing a book, but you need to avoid using it too closely or run the risk of being cliche.
For other story telling methods, look at books by authors like Stephen R. Donaldson and Matthew Woodring Stover (classic anti-heroes). Look at books by David Eddings and Christopher Paolini for books that follow the Hero's Journey TOO closely. You'll get a feel for what works and what doesn't. For me, Eddings is good (not great) but Paolini was awful.
Best of luck and happy writing
December 5th, 2012, 01:35 PM #5
Take the myth of Theseus, for instance. Theseus is a hero under Greek culture, but that doesn't mean that he acts in ways we consider today to be heroic. He seduces Ariadne to be able to defeat the minotaur, then deserts her on shore. He kidnapped the Amazonian queen and caused a war for it, raped her and had her bear a child, then dumped her for a new wife. He according to some versions of stories killed his son, believing the son to have raped the second wife. He died by being thrown off a cliff by a political rival, supposedly, after he was exiled from Athens. And Jason also seduces Medea to help him in his quest, killing her family, and then dumps her for another, which costs him greatly. These complicated myths occur because numerous cultural stories are then dumped under the heading of one mythological person, added to that person's mythos in often contradictory ways. Beyond myths, take something like The Wizard of Oz -- Dorothy goes to Oz, accidentally kills the problematic witches, and returns with a renewed love of home -- but does she then change anything at home? So we cannot blanket call coming of age stories hero journey monomyths. (The bulk of coming of age stories are not suspense, action, fantasy stories in any case.)
Instead, it's usually more helpful to look at each story and see it as a road map and look at the decisions that the author makes at each juncture (and many of those decisions will be directly related to the story-telling medium of print, movies, etc., which is why defining written works along movie lines seldom has much accuracy.) The decisions of the author, positive or negative, are not new. They are both just as common, and the point is not their being positive or negative, but the entirety of the road map, the presentation of it and meditations within it. Experience, from stylized word play to abstract philosophical ideas to complex plot structures, are all well known to the average human. The writer is not making up new experiences, even in science fiction, but connecting through examining, exploring and interpreting experiences, casting them on fictional entities giving that experience a context that can be accessed. The reader, listener, viewer does not interpret the story the same as its creators, but passes it through the individual's own filters, ranging from attention paid through life and cultural experiences. This creates a further fractal of experiences radiating outward. This is why we can have endless romance stories, tragic or happy, endless murder mysteries, horror stories, disasters, blood baths and war stories, coming of age, infidelities, family sagas, etc. This is why an author dead set against writing a hero's journey story may by some readers be felt to have written one, and why an author who is utilizing the idea of a hero's journey may be seen by some as striking against it.
Instead of worrying about framework adherence and column A and B choices, instead of trying fruitlessly to control reaction outcomes, try looking at what it is you want to look at of experience. What are you having a conversation with your audience about? Because it doesn't matter what sort of story it is, or in what medium, you're having a conversation with them. We speak in stories. So let your mind do what it wants. If it goes down one path and you look at that path and decide that's not the conversation you want to have or at least in that way, switch it to the other path, but keep what your mind dredged up that's useful to you. Look at what your mind presented and then how you might change the presentation.
The full range of human emotion is played out in stories, and in written fiction, you have the widest range and the widest possible time frames and no committee presenting together, as in the visual-audio mediums. You are not shooting for a two hour window and you are working in words, not visual effects. "Three act structure" doesn't have much relevance for written fiction, unless you want it to.
And again, cliches are unimportant as a factor except in regards to what you consider material that you don't like, find boring and thus do not want to use. Do you want to look at what might go on in a siege story? A having a baby story? An old man decides his last days story? There are a million ways to do it and they can include a million different kinds of fantasy or sf, in horrific or not mode, as tools. What do you want to talk about? What interests you? What sort of images, ideas, word sounds, etc., do you want to present and explore? And then you play with it, play with it, play with it, in whatever way works for you for that project. And then you decide to dump the project or develop it further. You may bring in input from others, interpret that input and implement new aspects or narrative. Or not. If a hero's journey spits out at first, let it spit out. You don't have to keep it by the end. But look at why you wanted it. See what you can use from it, where you went on one road or another with it. It's just a story; not a fixed point in time.
December 5th, 2012, 03:51 PM #6
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The Primal Story
As early as Aristotle various models of the story have been proposed. Each can be useful if you use it to stimulate your imagination. Each can be harmful if you let it restrict your imagination.
I use a very general model. It's a synthesis of more than a dozen models which others have proposed. This includes the one Aristotle put forward his Poetics. At most basic it follows this pattern.
Somewhere, somewhen, someone strives to get something.
Each of the parts of the story effects all of the others. This can be expressed by the following diagram. The lines between parts indicate that each part affects every other part, and in turn is affected by that part.
Each part is equally important to the story. But you may use different numbers of words on it.
The space-time part, the setting, may need few words if the story is contemporary. Most of our readers know this arena well. For a scene you need only say something little more detailed than "She jumped into her Ferrari and dashed to her office, nearly running several red lights."
The most words may be spent on the plot, the main character's struggle to achieve hi/r goal. Especially if the story is long. S/he may encounter many obstacles between hi/r and hi/r goal, and several kinds of them: physical, emotional, mental, and social. S/he may have to make several attempts to conquer or bypass each before s/he succeeds.
For more on this model read my article The Primal Story on my web site.
Last edited by Laer Carroll; December 6th, 2012 at 12:26 PM.
December 6th, 2012, 04:19 PM #7
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If you're anything like me, you start off with no clue how to plot a story. Then you learn about the various story structures and try to fit your ideas into those frameworks. Eventually you get to the point where you try to forget everything you learned and just write the damned story.
December 7th, 2012, 05:01 AM #8
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(1) The first stage you start with no conscious knowledge of how to do something, such as shoot an arrow or tell a story. You just do it.
But that does not mean you know nothing about the skill. You have been watching or listening to others do the activity for months or years. Your subconscious has learned many hundreds or thousands of facts and patterns of actions. It guides you as you attempt to imitate what you've seen or heard.
Your first attempts are clumsy, but through repetition you become better. Actions you had to first consciously control (pick up the arrow, hold it against the bow, nock the butt of the arrow, draw the string, etc.) become more automatic. Until in one second you can shoot an arrow and hit your target most of the time. You decide to shoot the arrow, then it's done. While you may be doing several other actions.
(2) But eventually most of us gain teachers, maybe just a friend who has mastered the skill—or thinks she has. She tells you this, that, and the other pointers. You try them, and they work.
But not always, or not well. She's given you misinformation, or expressed herself poorly, or you've misunderstood.
This is the stage many in forums like this are in. They've begun working on a skill or set of skills. They've heard many pieces of advice, much of it contradictory. Or poorly expressed. Or ...
That's why all models of story must be approached cautiously. None are complete or perfect. And—very importantly—you must shape each to your unique needs.
(3) As you write and write and write all the conscious and unconscious knowledge becomes ever more automatic. You want to write a scene, ten minutes or ten hours later it's done. With you focusing very little on the mechanics, such as combining just the right amount of description, neither too little or too much. You just focus on WHAT you want to say and not on HOW to say it.
The first draft of a scene or a story is rarely perfect, of course. Humans can't do perfection. So you likely will have to do some re-writing. But as time goes by it will become less and less necessary. Until finally you learn when it's time to say Well Enough. And when you should hand it off to an editor and go on to another story.
(ADDENDUM) I've been dancing the Argentine tango for well over 20 years, taking lessons and going to tango dance parties several times a week. One of my earliest teachers, well-regarded in Argentina, said something that I came to understand only years later. It went something like this.
"You begin knowing nothing. Then you learn the basic skills. The intermediate skills. The advanced skills. Then you forget everything, and begin again."
Last edited by Laer Carroll; December 7th, 2012 at 05:03 AM.
December 7th, 2012, 07:17 AM #9
December 7th, 2012, 08:14 AM #10
December 7th, 2012, 01:48 PM #11
Or.....and I'm just spitballing here....you could throw out the concept of any of it being a rulebook, and accept it for what it actually is, suggestion help. Which means you use what is useful and don't use what is not to you. There are no rules and you aren't throwing anything out. And then when you are writing the first draft, when your Editor Hat tries to sit on your head too early, you put it away. You don't follow structure; structure is your tool. Come to the dark side, we have cookies.
December 7th, 2012, 04:34 PM #12
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Our subconscious brains, however, are not. (They have other limitations.) They are monstrously parallel organic computers. The artificial intelligence people have been (not quite) tearing their hair out since AI research began to duplicate (important parts) of human—or even roach—intelligence. Some of them have given up on conventional serial computers and gone to devising or using parallel computers.
So when creating the first draft of anything, most pros learned long ago to depend on their intuition, their subconscious.
It's when the creation job is mostly done that critical thinking comes in handy—as long as you keep it subordinate to your creativity. Whether creating a paragraph or scene or entire book. That's when it's most useful to look back and ask: Is there something wrong with that sentence/scene/book? Shouldn't I make the subject and the object agree? Or not?
Most of the time you do want your sentences to be grammatical. Grammar has been worn into peoples' brains since birth. It smoothes the neural paths when we hear or read anything. But every once in while you want to jar your readers. That's when you say, Nope.
So don't worry if you've never heard of the Hero's Journey—consciously. You learned it subconsciously long ago and how to use it, bend it, break it, or ignore it in your own writing.
Last edited by Laer Carroll; December 7th, 2012 at 04:38 PM.
December 7th, 2012, 06:14 PM #13
I agree with Laer (to a point) that the heroine's story is different than the hero's. If you look at the old tales where the female is the heroine, rather than the prize, you see that the tasks she faces are less flashy. They are often based on sheer endurance, for instance, The Seven Swans, where the heroism involved is to continue the task for years and years in spite of pain and in the face of deadly suspicion. In many stories, once the heroine marries her prince she bears a child, and in doing so faces further danger as she is accused of murdering the baby. These are domestic dramas, rather than travelogues. Then there are stories like East of the Sun and West of the Moon where the heroine does go on a journey, but not before recognizing the unknown husband as a man rather than a beast. This probably reflects what young girls feared on being married to a total stranger who is going to do unnamable things to the bride on her wedding night. If she was lucky (and in the stories she always is), there comes a time when she sees him as her lover rather than a monster.
December 7th, 2012, 06:44 PM #14
There are other structures that can be used, no doubt. For example, Vladimir Propp's analysis of Russian Folklore generated 31 archetypal aspects which he used to categorise the "types" of stories for their effect; it would be possible to use this structure to reverse engineer stories too (I tried to use it for the basis of a nest of stories and it worked, though I lacked perseverance), but there is a reason why Campbell's analysis is so popular - because it is simple enough that it can be adapted broadly. The only danger is following it pedantically: the hero must be male, his journey must be a literal one, etc. etc.
Last edited by Andrew Leon Hudson; December 7th, 2012 at 06:46 PM.
December 7th, 2012, 07:04 PM #15
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The hero's journey at its most basic is about transition from one status in life to another. Most of the myth's that Campbell examined were of young men becoming adults. They left home, had adventures, and returned home enriched (perhaps only with wisdom).
Nowadays women in modern countries have the freedom to take the hero's journey as well. Much of chick lit, before that marketing label was abandoned, was about the same journey. Though the CL version usually started at a later age: when young women left college. My favorite example is the movie starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep titled The Devil Wears Prada. (Not the book; the movie improved on it by making the she-devil complex and sympathetic.)
But we also go through more transitions in life than the one from teen to adult. According to Gail Sheehy's Passages we go through several, roughly corresponding to the Seven Ages of Man from birth to death.
But there are more transitions than this. As an engineer suddenly promoted (temporarily, thank heaven) to a manager at NASA I went through all sorts of adventures. I'm not sure when I returned to (what I think of as) the more exalted status of engineer I returned enriched, however!
Unless it was with a reputation that roughly meant "Can be trusted to represent us on long journeys to boring conferences and sit on committees his boss doesn't want to be bothered with."
Bottom line for us writers: there are many transitions (some you've experienced) that we can mine for our stories.