One late autumn evening, when the sound of raging rain broke through the window of my castle, and the brick road beckoned me... err, let me start this again. One evening one of my Twitter followers has asked me to blog about the whole concept of The Hero's Journey or Monomyth (if you never heard of it, I suggest you read this article first), coined by Joseph Campbell, an American writer and mythologist, basically stating that most myths follow the same pattern of a hero leaving on a journey, meeting a beast or some other crazy eight-headed dude, slaying him, and returning happily home with some kind of a prize, cheered on by the folk at home. This is a very simple explanation, of course. Anyway, said Twitter follower asked me to elaborate on whether or not this is really only a crutch for writers and what I think about it and how it can be applied to writing stories (if it should be applied at all). But then someone else asked me to blog about Minotaurs, and I thought, bingo! Here is the perfect combination, the perfect story to illustrate my points with. And my points are as follows.
Life is a journey, and all stories are drawn from life. First of all, the reason we like stories is that they give us the sense of accomplishment, of control, of a certain security. Which is a false feeling, of course, because life is utter chaos and everything that happens to us has no meaning at all, no logical explanation. People die every day, for various reasons, and it freaks us out, we want to think that we do, indeed, understand life. So we create stories, because stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They feel round and finished and complete, and make us feel like we grasp things better. Let's think back to how stories traveled and why stories were told in the first place. Well, back when our language just started developing, we didn't have cell phones or newspapers or anything of the sort, but we wanted to experience what others experienced, wanted to know how that hunter killed that tiger, to learn, and to marvel, and to hope that we can predict, that we can somehow learn to trick death and live a little longer. And what did people do back then? Well, they traveled to places to get food, right? And what kind of food was it? Why, large beasts like mammoths, of course! So the hero's journey is the oldest and the simplest story form, the story of a hunter getting food. It's been ingrained in our brains, we respond to it really well, and in that sense, no, I don't think it's just a crutch, it simply feels natural to us.
When you use something a lot, it becomes a cliche. So, let's think about this whole monomyth thing. Why was the idea even discovered and written about, why not just write stories as we feel them? Why do we always strive to find the secret to the perfect story? Because, again, we seek patterns, it's how we have been programmed evolutionary, to escape that Minotaur from the labyrinth, to come back on a ship, victorious, with the white sail raised. Only Theseus forgot to change the sail to white, so it was black upon his return, and his father, thinking him dead, flung himself into the sea. Anyway, back to the topic. What I mean here is this. If you look at the concept of the hero's journey, at all of its 17 stages, it's nothing more than a normal psychological struggle of a human being in reaction to change. The call to adventure is, in simpler words, "oh, shit, something happened!" The refusal to call is, "man, I'm lazy, I don't wanna go." The supernatural aid is some bloke that decided to help (see, it's our belief that someone out there knows), the crossing of the first threshold is, "uh-oh, I'm in the woods now, better catch that bear". I can keep going, but the idea is this. All stories are about change. Something happens, we react, we change. Done. Beginning, middle, and end. It's how we learn. The Hero's Journey, in this light, has become a cliche only because its particular structure has been used to many times and is so recognizable (in movies especially), but it can have any number of events that are surprising, like the return of Theseus, for example (he was supposed to put up the white sail, dammit!). It's about the story, and every story is unique, even if it follows the same structure, as long as you stay true to your feelings, because we all experience them differently.
Each of us has a Minotaur inside that needs to be slain. If you look at The Hero's Journey from the purely associative point of view, it tells us about the monsters inside us that need to be rooted out and killed. It's out triumphs over ourselves that are the real stories, our courage winning over our fear (in killing that Minotaur, for example), because it's the hardest thing to conquer. Notice how we don't like stories that don't bring any kind of conflict resolution at the very end. We feel disappointed. Why? Because we need to be assured that change is possible. If someone else could do it, we could do it. It gives us hope, gives us light, it fills us with purpose, with the possibility of overcoming ourselves, which is the hardest thing to do. Of course all stories from the beginning of language are about that, of course you will find similar elements in all of them, after all, we're only human and we're all the same, with the same set of emotions and limbs and hearts and such. We didn't change much genetically from when we were holed up in caves and barely talking. We grew bigger brains, yes, but our basic needs are the same, so here you go. The Hero's Journey will only be a crutch if you follow it blindly as a story structure, without diving deep into your story, and I mean, your story, and not somebody else's. Because if it has no meaning to you, if it doesn't turn you inside out, doesn't make your heart beat fast, no matter what structure you apply to it, it will leave your reader cold. We want to know that we can kill that inner Minotaur, remember?
Right. Confession time. I totally winged this post. I have studied the concept of the monomyth way back when I was writing screenplays, but it's been a while and so I simply applied my current story logic to it after quickly skimming over this article to refresh my memory. What about you? Are you using hero's journey pattern for your stories or any other type of story structure? Curious to learn from your experience.