Monday Motivation: We’re all on our own Hero’s Journey
It’s become one of the most frequently repeated phrases in the film industry, traded among writers of all stamps, derided by the cognoscenti, while it continues to offer guidance to storytellers around the world.
The Hero’s Journey is the name given to an analysis of story by a cultural anthropologist and mythologist called Joseph Campbell. It traces the transformation that the “hero” – who can be male or female, animal or mineral (think R2D2 or C3PO) and who doesn’t have to be heroic at all – undergoes as he/she/it makes the journey from the opening stanzas of a story to the fall of the final curtain.
Well, because structuring a story is probably the most challenging aspect of writing fiction – whether for the page or the screen. And the Hero’s Journey, to our mind, is probably the single most useful scaffold that we’ve found to help us do just that.
Well, just as the fundamental equations of physics – from Newton’s to Einstein’s – are useful because they seem, to an extraordinarily accurate degree, to mirror the observed details of our universe, so The Hero’s Journey is useful because it is a model that accurately reflects the observed psychological details of human growth and experience.
I’ve encountered critics of the Hero’s Journey whose response can be summed up as, “Hmmm. Isn’t it a little old hat? After all, Campbell published his Hero of a Thousand Faces in 1949; haven’t we moved on since then; haven’t our analyses grown more sophisticated?”
To which my reply invariably is, “Old hats are the ones that fit best.” The Hero’s Journey fits the arc of experience – and so it provides a template for the arcs that our characters must trace, from comparative innocence to comparative experience, from not having done something, to having done something. Campbell plotted the stages of that arc, recognizing the fear and trepidation with which we – and therefore, our characters – face the unknown, and the difficulties that navigating our way through uncharted waters create.
And, as I say, the features of his Journey match the felt experience of our lives. On his Journey, as in life, we leave the world we’re familiar with and enter a realm of the unknown. In that world we face novel challenges and experience a sense of discombobulation. Think of those incidents in which a misjudgement has led you to the edge of terror – and beyond. Think of the challenges that marriage, or parenthood, or disease have confronted you with.
And life supplies companions to accompany you on your journey: friends, family, colleagues, who share the burden – and sometimes betray you. These are all represented in Campbell’s algorithm.
As is that most harrowing of experiences – what screenwriters wryly call “the dark night of the soul” – which most of us have undergone at some stage or other in what might otherwise be happy lives; a time of existential doubt and self-flagellation.
And like Campbell’s Hero, we all emerge from our Journeys with some insight, some understanding to prepare us for the next Journey.
This, of course, is why the impulse to tell each other stories is universal: they reflect and celebrate our struggles, and they prepare us for the next.