Battling Burnout: Part 2 - The Road MOST Traveled

In this week’s edition of Battling Burnout, I would like to share with you a tip which I am calling: The Road MOST Traveled!

Have you considered how much you are adhering to “the Hero’s Journey” in your storytelling? In narratology and comparative mythology, the Hero's Journey is the common template that involves a hero who goes on an adventure from the world that is known to an unknown world. In a decisive crisis the hero wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. The concept was introduced in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell, who described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This epic journey is also know as the monomyth and is encountered in many religions and ancient mythos. However, you can see evidence of it in the modern mythos of media today: such as in Lord of the Rings, Superman, Spiderman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and even E.T. We are constantly recycling variations of the same story, in which our main protagonist follows the standard journey; it is a tale as old as time. What is more revealing, is that these stories are still blockbuster movies and heralded pieces of literature. How can it be a bad thing if it has been successful since humans began telling stories?

Campbell described a total of 17 stages in the Hero's Journey, though not all monomyths necessarily contain all 17 stages explicitly; some myths may focus on only one of the stages, while others may deal with the stages in a somewhat different order. The Hero’s Journey also has its critics, who challenge that the concept is too broad or general to be of much usefulness in comparative mythology and that it is unsatisfying from a social science perspective.

While I find the Hero's journey to be a great over-generalization, I also believe that the blandness and sameness are permissible for our purposes. The concept is a template that works very well and is open to substitutions. It is in the differences and subversions of this story where we get the uniqueness for which we are looking.

Frank Herbert's Dune appears to follow the Hero’s Journey on the surface, but instead was more of a twisting and critical view. The narrative warns us about having heroes, cautioning us to make our own judgments and to our own mistakes. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang is the chosen one, but he is so afraid of his destiny that he hides himself in a block of ice for 100 years. He Refuses the Call such to the extent that the entire world changes in his absence, and not for the better.

When in doubt about a character’s personal journey, I recommend that you compare your character’s development to the steps of the Hero’s Journey. As societies grow and change, we have a tendency to retell fairy tales and they act as a tool for deeper personal insights about the culture at that time. It is a tried and true measuring stick that has been used so many times, yet it can be warped or augmented in so many ways. Don't be afraid to use the monomyth, but make it your own.

Character Building Exercise:

I would like to create a new character that I could use in a story that I am writing, or who could show up as an NPC in one of my games. The character would live in a fantasy setting, much like Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings. In this exercise, I am going to follow the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey and then make some changes to make the arc more interesting and more personal.

Under the basic structure: This character is called to greatness from an ordinary background. They first refuse the call, although aid of some sort will arrive, and once the hero begins on their path, they cross a threshold into a new and unknown world. They will face trials, meet paragons of strength and virtue, as well as temptations. There is an atonement with the ultimate power in their life, after which they receive a greater understanding. They achieve their intended goal, must return to their old life, finding balance.

What I am changing: What if in my story, the hero’s temptation IS the paragon of virtue that they encounter? That the aid that they are granted which brings them along into this newer world of adventure and danger actually is the reason for the trials. Then, the atonement is their realization of this betrayal. I think I could go somewhere with this.

Join me next week as I continue this exercise with the same character, fleshing them out even more in next week's Battling Burnout.

Keep crafting!