31 October, 2010
Deconstructing the Hero's Journey

This is from the nobody cares department. It was simply something I was thinking about a month or two back, and I've finally found the time to try writing it down.

I will, of course, start with a digression.

I didn't know people were still into Joseph Campbell. I thought it was one of those things from the Eighties. There's always something. A trend to follow. Whatever. As permanent as a sandcastle on the tide-line.

I remember people at community college, especially some of my professors, being obsessed with Joseph Campbell. The hero's journey. Everybody's got one. Right. Plug in the numbers. Fill in the blanks like a giant mad lib. And, it was fun. Figuring out how stories and movies fit the mad lib of the hero's journey.

For me, this entertainment lasted until I actually tried to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Yeah, died real fast right there. The book rambled. It rambled and meandered and wandered around and never got to the point. I'm not convinced the book had a point, and I quite simply could not figure out where all of these people were finding all of the things they were finding so great about the hero's journey in this book.

Boggled my mind. Couldn't find it.

Later, I met some sociologists at San Francisco State, including one lady who actually worked with Campbell, and whoa. I wasn't alone in thinking Campbell was over-rated. They all had a specific problem with the hero's journey, which I thought was very interesting. There was an over-reliance on primitivism, and a glorification of those simple people with their quaint backwards ways.

Not my point.

I can beat the hero's journey with a stick and not even talk about how condescending it is towards pre- the age of reason and enlightenment cultures, which I just failed to do by going on about the age of reason and enlightenment cultures. Oh, well.

Okay, here is the thing as I understand it. The hero's journey is universal. It's everywhere. Everybody's got one. Every story is one story, and that one story is the hero's journey. Doesn't matter the details of your story. Your culture or background. You built the specific details of your story around the mad lib that is the hero's journey.

The hero will descend into the underworld. There will be a trial at the entrance to the underworld. There will be a guide or mentor, leading the hero to the trial. But, first, there must be a call to adventure. The hero will want to deny the call. Circumstances will intervene, and the call will be answered. Finally, the hero will return from the underworld with goodies, knowledge, fire, whatever.

Universal. Profound. Every story's got one.

Hell, even the Weird Al Yankovic song Trapped in the Drive-through fits the hero's journey. The hero is hungry. He goes on a journey to the drive-through. He gets his burger; even though, they forgot the onions. So, it is a bit of a bittersweet ending. No worries. It still fits the hero's journey mad lib.

Now, here's the point where I torch my straw man.

The hero's journey is all just fancy words. Saying noun and verb just wasn't good enough for this mad lib. It had to be big. Important. Profound.

The reason so many stories include a descent—literal or figurative—into the underworld is not because it is a universal idea that everybody taps into. It is quite simply because people like a little excitement in their stories. A little action. Something to happen. How boring would it be if every story was the humdrum everyday stuff of just sitting around or whatnot?

Same goes for the trial at the gate, call to adventure, and even the attempt to let voice-mail answer the call. It's all to add a little more spice and excitement to the proceedings. Stretch things out a bit.

As for the guide or mentor or random helpful person, it's good to have more than one character in the story. It's especially helpful to have one who can provide some exposition. I mean, how boring is it when the hero just knows it all, right?

Finally, the goodies. Simple enough. Hero needs to have a reason to go out and get in all of that trouble. Otherwise, he's just an asshole.

So, there you have it. The hero's journey. Profound mystical truth of the universe or good old-fashioned storytelling common sense.

Not that there is actually anything wrong with dressing stuff up as profound mystical truth, but you know. Don't expect me to play along if I don't feel like it.

copyright © 2010 by keith d. jones – all rights reserved
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