I“m on my way to the Writer Unboxed “Un-Conference” in my hometown, Salem MA, in a few weeks so I was revisiting my post on fictional characters being swept up in events, taken out for an adventure, and generally being fetched by the world. Because, don’t we all want to be fetched by the world, even vicariously, through the characters in our favorite stories? Anyway, since I was reading it again, I thought I’d just be lazy and re-post. Slacker!
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
October 15th, 2014 at 3:33 pm
Today is the day we got the news that my soul mate/best friend/partner in crime/reason for living has abnormal cells eating his kidneys and red blood cells. Today is the day I chose to read your post in its entirety. Today is the day I am fetched by the world, dragged kicking and screaming down the path that my imagination has populated with dreary gray walls, brisk nurses, needles and tears and endless, helpless waiting. I can’t freeze the clock. My ticket’s already been taken, and the train is moving.
October 15th, 2014 at 9:10 pm
Annie – I am sending all the best thoughts I can muster directly to you and yours. Your imagination may or may not be your reality. But, either way, you will get to tomorrow. I’m sorry to hear this news and I will send you a hug every day.
October 15th, 2014 at 11:14 pm
You’re awesome, Bob. Thanks.
March 2nd, 2015 at 8:42 am
Bob: Just checking in on you…hope the new year is treating you well and that the snow is not over the top of your writing desk! An update on the hubby…your mental hugs must have worked, he is doing so much better. Better enough that the doctors decided no chemo! Turns out the kidney failure was due to a cocktail of medications that his GP had been prescribing him for years. Ah, how we unquestioningly follow the white coats. As for me, I was seen in the ER last month for dehydration due to the flu and someone in the lab mis-labeled my blood, resulting in a diagnosis of “you’re nearly dead, you poor thing.” After an emergency blood transfusion, and a terrifying night in the hospital, they discovered their mistake, just prior to doing a bone marrow biopsy. “Oops! We’re very sorry.You’re fine, you can go home.” All in all the past few months have definitely been inspiration for a few short horror stories! All is better now…but I’ve been thinking a lot about “A Glass of Water”. Choice. Descisions. Mistrusting “the Establishment”.
March 26th, 2015 at 6:12 am
Annie – sorry for the delayed response. I’m sorry to hear about your medical nighmare. But I’m so happy for your guys that all is now well. I’m sure you have fresh fodder for writing after all of that!
And thanks for checking in on me. I’m doing fine – just had my hip replaced (thus the tardiness of this response) and healing up quite nicely. Doing a TON of reading and making my way back to this blog and my weird little stories. Take care my friend.