Holding Out for a Hero

Available October 2014
Available October 2014

L’home Theroux, debuting October 12, 2014, follows a “Journey of the Hero” pattern.  Then again, the structure as laid out by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth is sufficiently fluid that a clever lawyer-type has a fairly good chance of making just about anything fit.  Similar counter-arguments can be leveled against archetypes.Power of Myth

Within The Hero’s Journey, there are milestones that move the plot forward and archetypes that perform specific functions within the story.  A quick recap: an archetype is a recognizable pattern of behavior.

In my collegiate career, I took just about every literature class offered at Evergreen Community College to fill my electives.  Perhaps I was a masochist for taking so many, but since we only had the one literature professor, I could have given several of the lectures myself by the time I graduated.  As a consequence, I am well-schooled in Joseph Campbell (a big “Thank you” to Mr. Sterling Warner because without him, L’homme Theroux likely wouldn’t exist).

Joseph Campbell

Even discounting for my bias in favor of Joseph Campbell, he is a giant in the literary community.  Not so much for the works of literature he created (come to think of it, I can’t think of anything he wrote outside of academia), but because of his contributions to our deeper understanding of literature and providing we writers the frames on which we stretch our furs to dry.

Whether readers, writers, and viewers recognize it or not, The Hero’s Journey is the basic structure of virtually every novel, movie, or television show ever produced.

Time for a quick heretical joke to illustrate a point:

Q:  What’s the difference between religion and mythology?

A:  Nobody practices a mythology.Thousand Faces

The point behind this joke is that at one time every bit of “mythology” was part of a living, breathing religion practiced by living, breathing people who believed them true just a fervently as Christians believe God created the universe from nothing.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to Nirvana, and it smelled a little like teen spirit (or perhaps, their first album Bleach.  Oh, Nevermind).

Looking back across time to the various creation myths, Joseph Campbell identified commonalities such as worldwide floods, miraculous births, resurrections, and superhuman feats that followed similar patterns with characters that performed similar roles.  In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell first identified a whopping seventeen stages along The Hero’s Journey that were common to stories told across cultures, religions, and times.

Not every monomyth (as Campbell coined the phrase) will contain every one of the seventeen stages.  To complicate matters, only a few of the stages really need to be in a particular order or a specific place within the story.  Nor should they, unless writers want to produce predictable work.  The flip side of that caution is to include enough of the elements for the story to feel complete. So, that is the quandary.  How many are enough?  How many are overkill?

I don’t have a stock answer.  It’s like identifying pornography. You know it when you see it.

Much like the Three-Act Structure, The Voyage of the Hero is divided into three parts; Separation (or Departure), Initiation, and Return.

  1. Separation: This is the portion where the main characters, especially our hero, are introduced and established.  We find out their strengths, weaknesses, and quirks.  There may be some minor adventures, but nothing like what is to come.
  2. Initiation:  This is where all the real excitement happens.  Somewhere near the end of this stage should be the ultimate resolution.  If a series, at least enough resolution to bring the story to a good stopping point.
  3. Return: Just like the name implies, this is when our hero comes home, somehow changed or in possession of something significant.

Within the three main parts of The Hero’s Journey are the milestones that must be reached to remain true to the pattern.  Again, the particular order they appear in, or even if they are all present, is not super important.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to omit what I think are the less important ones because it’s kind of like the Pirate Code.  It is more a set of guidelines.

Call to Adventure (Separation)

We find our hero in his everyday life, where he may or may not be content.  Younger Heroes tend to be restless and possessed of wanderlust.  Older heroes are usually quite happy in their lives.  Either way, something happens where our hero has the choice of whether or not to embark on his adventure into the unknown.  Literally, every movie has the call to adventure, so I am left the dilemma of too many choices to give a specific example.  I will use the old standby of Star Wars when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed.  The basic idea of the call is that it is what sets the entire story into motion.

Refusal of the Call (Separation)

Alvin York
Alvin York

This milestone can rightly be considered optional depending on the nature of the call to adventure.  Refusal of the call could carry such dire consequences that our hero does not even consider it as a possibility.  In Taken, this touchstone is completely absent, as any father would tell you it would be.  Sometimes, refusing the call is anathema to our hero.  An interesting example of possibly refusing the call can be found in the movie Sergeant York.  Alvin’s conflict between his pacifist beliefs and his duty to country was an opportunity not only for inner conflict, but also part of the story arc where the hero discovers something about himself.

Supernatural Aid (Separation)

For a modern audience, I think this stage would be bettered called “gathering” or “tools” or “the stuff that will allow the hero to come out on top.”  You’ll see why in a second.

After our hero has committed to the journey, he will come into possession of some sort of item he will need later because whether he knows it or not, our hero begins his quest unprepared in some fashion.  This want could be in character, skill, gear, or some combination of all three.  When what our hero lacks is a tangible item, it is often bestowed by the mentor archetype.  Sometimes it is given indirectly such as the notebook Indiana Jones’ father kept in The Last Crusade.  Sometimes the hero comes into possession of the item through serendipity as when Conan found his sword by accident.  He was having one adventure and fell ass first into the king’s tomb to find the damn thing.  Why can’t I have luck like that?

Once our hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his guide or magical helper becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present our hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid him later in his quest.

Crossing the Threshold (Separation)

While not exactly crossing the Rubicon, this is where the real adventure begins. Our hero kisses mom goodbye, promises his sweetheart he will be true, tells his kids that he loves them, or whatever else, as the plot requires.  He is leaving his comfortable, known world for a dangerous, unknown world.  Changing his mind about accepting the call after this point would disgrace our hero.

If you want a bullshit opportunity for our hero to experience self-doubt, add in “Belly of the Whale.”  It’s technically a separate stage, but I’m omitting it.  I don’t mind a nervous hero, but I look down on heroes so wracked with doubt that it induces cowardice.  Both physically and symbolically, this will be the farthest our hero has ever been from the shire.

The Road of Trials (Initiation)

All the stuff that happens between leaving home and achieving the goal.  The list of events here is so long it is impossible to be specific.  At its heart, this is the plot.  There are usually failures and setbacks in this stage.  A hero that wins on the first try is actually kind of boring.

As a rule of thumb, the trials should become increasingly difficult and complex.

Often, solving one small problem will create (at least) one more bigger problem for our hero or someone else.  All the trials don’t have to be life-of-death, but should have progressively higher stakes.  If our hero rescues the kitten from a tree after he prevents the dam from bursting, the best scenario will be that you just made an unintentional joke.  Then again, do you really want to create comic relief when you should have a catharsis happening?  Laughs are to give an audience a chance to unpucker their buttholes, so you can you smack them with more tension in a little while.

The Meeting with the Goddess (Initiation)

Ah, the love interest.  What’s a good story without a girl to impress and her favor to win?  Every time a writer introduces a clunky romantic subplot, he is cleaving to Joseph Campbell’s pattern.  I must raise my hand here because I did it in L’homme Theroux.  My defense is that it set up a lot of possibilities for conflict and love triangles.


Woman as Temptress (Initiation)

Before the feminists fire up their brooms for the ride to my house, I would like to point out that selecting women as temptresses was neither my decision nor done in my lifetime.  Joseph Campbell formulated his theories at a time and about a body of work when women were neither the heroes nor well represented.  Change the name of the stage to “temptation,” if it bothers you that much.

That is really what this phase of the story is about, anyway.  Women are a metaphor.  The hero is tempted by something to divert his attention from his task.  He risks abandoning it completely, if the goddess he encounters also plays the role of temptation.  It’s not unheard of for a man to abandon a task in favor of a woman.  Does it really sound so farfetched our hero would give up appearing human for some girl-ogre ass?  It happened in Shrek II.

Atonement with the Father (Initiation)

Damn Joseph Campbell and his metaphors.  Here’s another one that should be renamed because here our hero confronts the incredibly powerful being (at least, in our hero’s mind) that holds sway over our hero’s life.  Whether the atonement is working through a loggerhead with Dad, whacking the Old Man with a light saber, or conquering a fear of heights, the gist of this stage is the confrontation itself and the guts to knock the power from its pedestal.  The hero may fail.  Actually, the hero may fail on several attempts.  The “try” and what the hero learns in the process is the important part here.

The Ultimate Boon (Initiation)

The hero achieves whatever it was he set out for.  It’s almost not worth an entry, but important because everything previous has led our hero to this moment.

Refusal of the Return (Return)

Have you ever gone somewhere on vacation and found yourself giving serious consideration to how to make a living in that area so you wouldn’t have to go back home?  Yeah.  Me, too.  Heroes aren’t immune to stuff like that, either.  Our hero may not want to go back to his boring old life after getting a taste of adventure.

The Magic Flight (Return)

Odysseus at the Mast
Odysseus at the Mast

I almost skipped over this, but then I would have wasted a perfectly good example.  When you hear magic flight, think Odysseus.  The entirety of The Odyssey is an example of magic flight.

Once in possession of the boon, our hero has to make his escape.  However, modern interpretations tend to either significantly shorten or entirely eliminate this aspect of The Hero’s Journey.  About the best we can usually hope for in a movie is a decent “Get to the chopper!” scene.

Rescue from Without (Return)

This one I find interesting for its danger.  I’m not talking about danger to our hero.  I’m talking about danger of the writing accidentally slipping into deus ex machina.  Unless what you are writing is set in, performed in, or written in Ancient Greek, leave the divine intervention out.

Anybody who helps our hero make his escape should have been introduced long before the moment of rendering our hero aid.  Just trust me on this one.

Another interesting aspect of rescue from without is how it is applied currently.  There seems to be a pairing of it with magic flight that often includes self-sacrifice for the sake of the hero.  From a writer’s standpoint, it almost has to happen because you can really only get away with resurrecting your hero one time.  And since much of the road of trials involves the hero escaping sticky situations, a writer eventually runs out of ways for the hero to cheat death.

Freedom to Live (Return)

Whether or not our hero returns with girls, money, and fame, he still comes home with the experience.  Done properly, our hero has learned something (often about himself) that gives him the ability to live his old life in a new way.  Now, he may not necessarily return home in the physical sense.  “Home” may shift to operating a bar and boat rental in Fiji.  “Old life” is a metaphor for the day in, day out existence he led prior to his adventure.

Think about it for a second.  Even your dream job would become ho-hum sooner or later, so the return to normal life isn’t necessarily completing the circle exactly where our hero began.  And if he does wind up in the same physical locale, our hero has changed in himself or his view on life (or possibly both) to the point where home isn’t boring anymore.  He approaches it in a new way.



6 thoughts on “Holding Out for a Hero

  1. May I disagree? If all religion could be explained as mythology-in-the-making then I’d say both the teacher of this notion (author Joseph Campbell) and his young impressionable students are locked into a closed-in worldview where any sort of spiritual existence on earth is laughable.

    I’m not done yet.

    At least those that believe in God have another life in view after the earthly one whereas those that see religion as a myth, just in case there really is a God that they would meet after death (like the usual chronicles of the NDE phenomenon/experience of resurrected-resuscitated people in sociology), might find themselves very unprepared indeed.


    • I think you’re assessment of the closed-in world view is accurate. Campbell’s philosophy has permeated the views of Atheists of all flavors and those who have a very cynical worldview. These are generally the folks who latch on to the social control reason for religion’s existence.
      I actually have a tiny bit of respect for Atheists. Despite the fact they are patently wrong, at least they have the stones to make a stand. What God chooses to do with them is his business.
      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] That is something I should have understood before.  It is something I keenly understand now that I see posts about “Me & Jake,” screeds about ISIS, and stories of Nazi Home Owners Associations see far more traffic than nerdy posts about archetypes and the Hero’s Journey. […]


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