The Hero’s Journey: An Atrocity?

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Over at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig recently asked his readers (many of whom are also writers) some interesting questions.  One of them was “What gets you to read a book?” The answers he received (nearly 200!) ran the gamut from ‘great covers’ to ‘word of mouth’ and on through to ‘authorial voice’.  While it could be argued that a slew of writers giving their opinion on this topic might not actually represent the tastes of the reading (but non-writing) public, the answers do give a writer some interesting food for thought.

A follow up question posed by Chuck was, “What makes you put a book down?”  This question garnered an even larger comment tsunami from his readership. One of those comments struck me as particularly interesting.

A respondent opined:

I would sooner read Mein Kompff (sic) again than another novel, or any piece of media, that is infected with the Hero’s Journey plot structure. The rantings of one of the most evil men in the history of the world is a far more enjoyable than seeing the schlub everyman hero be coerced into an ‘amazing new world,’ murder his bizarro-father, and bring the macguffin back to the mundane reality to resume a more cushy status quo.

I like to think of Joseph Campbell as the Albert Einstein of the creative world: a well meaning guy who made an amazing discovery that’s being used to commit atrocities.

Hitler’s self-serving (but ultimately boring) pseudo-autobiography notwithstanding, I at first reacted with anger. But I sort of get the commenter’s point: when the “hero’s journey” is mechanically pushed into your face, it can be a turn-off. Seems contrived. Done before. Boring.

It is a waxwork of art.

It looks real. Like a story we should be into, but  we already know what’s going to happen. Sure, we can read on to see how skillfully the author puts his characters through their paces, or we can just toss the book in disgust.

I think it’s a valid criticism. I especially admire the comparison of Campbell to Einstein and the unintended, ‘atrocious’ consequences of their respective accomplishments.

 

“Fetched by the world.”

Recently, I was reading an author interview in GlimmerTrain (I can’t remember who it was). But this author  stated she wrote her characters to be ‘fetched by the world’, and it just stopped me. Yes, that’s it.  What an excellent phrase: fetched by the world. So preferable to the more tiresome “hero’s journey.”

Great stories are peopled with characters ‘fetched by the world’. Sure, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins spring immediately to mind (Thank you, Hollywood), but it needn’t be all fantasy and quests.

Who else was fetched?

Jonathan Harker, Emma Bovary, Humbert Humbert, Kunta Kinte, Grendel, Atticus Finch, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jean Brodie, Gregor Samsa, Scarlett O’Hara, Dorothy, Clarice Starling, Siddhartha, Okonkwo, Ahab, Ishmael, and Titus Groan.

Each and every one of them – fetched by the world. In a big way.

And we continue to read those stories through generations because, sooner or later, the world comes to fetch us all. Not a white whale, maybe, but a shadow on the chest x-ray. Or finding love with the wrong person. Or losing your job and having to drink it away or reinvent yourself. The world fetches us. That’s what it does.

We can ignore the call, or we can jump on the train, follow the yellow brick road, go to Alderan, or Mordor, or walk endlessly across Dublin, or swallow the red pill, or go down the rabbit hole.

We can undergo chemoradiation, or get divorced, or secretly love a 14 year-old or, or live through the day of our child’s funeral, or win the lottery, or ,God forbid,  have sex with road kill.

Or we can do nothing. No blood, no foul.

The world isn’t the explainable stage of rationality we want it to be. All bets are off. And we can heed the call and bring back our macguffin. Just as Hitler envisioned himself the ‘hero’ of his epic ‘struggle’ and brought back to our ‘mundane reality’ the spectre of National Socialism.

Campbell, I believe, knew it. He wasn’t worried about artistic overkill, the tired boredom of the reader in the marketplace. He was onto the very root of storytelling itself. Something buried deep inside us. Fear and aspiration.

He was writing of characters being fetched by the world.

Failing. Succeeding. Dealing with life, death, love, anger, jealousy, beauty, loneliness, alienation. Joyous rapture and murderous intention.

It’s what stories contribute to our common understanding, unchanged, across all these generations.

The ‘hero’s journey’ isn’t a formula.

It’s a way to understand life.

Your very life.

_______________

Image by Lost in Scotland

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About Bob Bois

Bob Bois is a writer living in the old, mysterious hills of Central Massachusetts. He blogs his horror flash fiction at http://sittingindarkness.com View all posts by Bob Bois

4 responses to “The Hero’s Journey: An Atrocity?

  • CMStewart

    Excellent post, Bob. “Fetched by the world” – I’ll be mulling this over.

    Pick up a book? It either has an interesting blurb, or the recommendation of someone I know, or I’ve enjoyed the author’s other books. I’ll also often pick up free e-books if they have good reviews.

    Put it down? It goes on and on about “nothing,” or is otherwise all mucked up with long, rambling descriptions that have little to do with the characters or action.

    • Bob Bois

      Thanks CM.
      There were a lot of responses to both these questions – as a writer who hopes to reach an audience, I found a lot of useful data in these posts.

  • Elizabeth Twist

    Absolutely gorgeous post. I think the Hitler fan was onto something with that comment. Specifically, there are many writers who think that craft or structure is going to save their storytelling. But: if you’re an empty passionless husk, your story will be too. Sure maybe you’ll run through the steps of the journey, but it will be an meaningless dance with nothing gained: one, two, cha-cha-cha.

    As a writer it’s my greatest fear that I’m merely running myself through the paces, rather than using craft to let amazingness come through. Actually, my greatest fear is that I have no amazingness. Wow. Confession time, right?

    • Bob Bois

      Well I think the fear of not being a good enough storyteller is what drives us try to write, again and again, something that is true. And I think that the heroic structure resonates because it sort of mimics our own lives (perhaps not in the details, but in the general flow). I believe we’re called to take chances and break out of our ‘mundane’, pre-plot-point-one lives. Miles Davis didn’t need a specially structured horn. He could pick one up out of a pawn shop and make you laugh or cry. We must have a story about a character who wants something before structure can do anything for us.
      And Elizabeth: that amazingness comes on its own schedule, we just need to be at the station to climb on, right?

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