The Hero’s Journey

In 1949, the American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell published a seminal work called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he described how many of the world’s mythical stories seem to follow the same basic pattern, or are composed of the same elements. He summarised this pattern as the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is a sort of blueprint for stories: it says what the different stages of a story are and how they unfold. It’s been especially used in Hollywood for making blockbuster movies like Titanic, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the Matrix. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t map perfectly to every story but the concepts are great. So here are the stages in the journey – as you’re reading them, think about how they map to your favourite film or book. You’ll be surprised!

(1) The Ordinary World – here, the hero is presented in their normal, everyday life. A good place to introduce internal, emotional or personal conflicts. Note that ‘ordinary’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘dull and boring’. For example, for a police officer in a high crime area, an ‘ordinary’ day might involve a pursuit of an armed criminal. On the flip side, the ‘ordinary world’ for a drug addict might mean committing a crime to get money to buy their fix for the day.

(2) Call to Adventure – something happens that makes the hero have to leave their ordinary life and take up a challenge. This is usually because something is threatening their ordinary world and they must do something quickly before it collapses.

(3) Refusal of the Call – the hero is reluctant to take up the challenge and needs some external factor to seal his commitment.

(4) Meeting with the Mentor – the hero meets their mentor, usually an older person, who advises the hero on what they need to do in the adventure.

(5) Crossing the First Threshold – the hero takes the first step into the unknown, adventure world. Note that this could be an emotional journey as well as a physical one.

(6) Trials, Allies, Enemies – the hero undergoes a series of small, but gradually harder trials during which he makes a number of friends and enemies. This tends to be the ‘middle’ of a story, or Act II in a film or play.

(7) Approaching the Inmost Cave – the hero prepares to go to the heart of the adventure world and make the final confrontation.

(8) Ordeal – the hero undergoes a tough test during which their commitment is tested and the success of the adventure is at stake. In an action movie, this is typically where the hero is captured by the ‘bad guy’ and has to escape.

(9) Reward – having successfully passed the ordeal, the hero reaps the rewards of the adventure they set out on. This is usually the first climax of the story.

(10) The Road Back – having completed the bulk of the adventure, the hero makes their way back to their ordinary world, but not without troubles.

(11) Resurrection – the hero performs the final deed that completes the adventure, often involving the resolution of a personal conflict. This tends to be the second climax.

(12) Return with the Elixir – the hero returns to their ordinary world and at peace – all external and internal conflicts are resolved.

In later posts, I’ll start talking about in depth about the character arc and the different types of characters in the Hero’s Journey and in what stages they appear (Hero, Anti-Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Shadow etc.).

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Adjectives and Adverbs

When writing fiction, it is important to be as concise as possible and to make every word count. Adjectives and adverbs can be useful at times, but when can wreak havoc with prose when misused.

Let’s recap some grammar. An adjective is a word used to describe a noun, e.g. “the dark forest” or “the young man.” Similarly, an adverb is a word that describes a verb, e.g. “he ran quickly,” or “she screamed loudly.”

There are two cases where adjectives and adverbs can be misused. The first is when the adjective or adverb can be discarded without losing any information. The second case is where the adjective/noun or adverb/verb combination can be replaced with a single noun or verb that conveys the intended meaning more accurately.

Let’s look at the first case. Suppose we have the sentence “The bear roared loudly.” The adverb “loudly” is superfluous (excuse the fancy word!) and can be removed, since “roaring” is by definition “loud.” We don’t need to patronise the reader by reminding them that “roaring” is loud. A similar example that involves an adjective is “The sight of the red blood made him shriek.” Everyone knows that blood is red.

Onto the second case. Suppose we have the sentence “The man ran quickly to the door.” Instead of saying “ran quickly,” we could try “rushed”, “hurried”, “bolted” or “scrambled.” Any one of these single words can replace the adverb+verb combination. “The man scrambled to the door,” reads and sounds better. Another example is “Heavy rain had started.” This can be replaced with “A downpour had started.”

One more example: “The strong wind blew away the woman’s red umbrella.” This can be replaced with “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella.” Notice the word red was removed, since the fact that the umbrella is red is not relevant in this sentence. If this fact was important to the story, then it would have to be introduced elsewhere, in its own sentence. For example: “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella. Helen noticed that it was red, reminding her of the blood that she had just seen.”

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty was one of the folk stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm when they were preparing their famous collection of fairy tales. Many of these have deep symbolic meanings that go far beyond their common perception as simple bedtime stories for young children.

Let’s recap the tale. When the young Princess Aurora is born, she is cursed by the witched fairy/witch who had not been invited to the christening. The curse is that at a certain young age (seventeen, say?) she would prick her finger on a spindle and fall asleep for a hundred years until she was awoken by her true love. Of course, the King and Queen outlawed all spindles and made sure that her daughter could never go near one. Curses being what they are, the witched fairy made sure that the prophecy came true and sure enough, the Princess and the whole castle fell asleep. They remained asleep for a hundred years until a young prince, who had heard of the story of the “sleeping beauty” made his way through the thick forest that had surrounded the castle and succeeded in waking the Princess.

Of course, they all lived happily ever after.

What is the hidden meaning, here? I’m going to set my imagination loose! One can think of the story as essentially about the search for a hidden woman or a hidden beauty that has lain dormant and out of sight. It characterizes every man’s search for the woman of his dreams, who may be far away from him both in space (hidden in the forest) and in time (the Prince is not yet born when Aurora falls asleep). To a certain extent, it is also slightly sexist in nature, as it portrays Aurora as helpless and unable to avoid her destiny and can only be saved by a man who chooses to love her. In the story, it is the Prince who makes the choice to go into the forest and seek the sleeping Princess.

Dreams play an important role in this story. Aurora has grown up with the shadow of the prophecy surrounding her all the time and dreams to be free from it. The Prince dreams of finding the Princess and achieving glory. Last but not least, one cannot fall asleep for a hundred years without having many dreams. What did Aurora dream about while she was asleep? Did she dream at all? What about nightmares? If she did dream, then most likely what she dreamt about was her Prince and saviour. All that is now needed is to write the word “saviour” in capitals as “Saviour,” and the religious connotations become clear. The story of the sleeping beauty parallels the story of Christ saving humanity. The castle and Princess (humanity) lie in an eternal nightmare, unable to wake up and save themselves, condemned by the wicked fairy (Satan). The brave Prince (Christ) comes along and breaks the spell and brings the Princess and castle back into the light (salvation).

It is amazing how subconscious thoughts and ideas can infiltrate the stories that people write and tell without them even knowing about it. I personally know this from the stories I’ve written. In Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, the main character, Jennifer, is constantly trying to increase her confidence and to prove herself. The quest is to find the magical weapon that can help defeat the sorcerer and free the Fairy Queen and her castle, an almost striking parallel to the story of the Sleeping Beauty. The difference in this case, however, is that the “Prince” is now Jennifer herself, a girl.

I don’t for one minute recall planning to base my story on the Sleeping Beauty…