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