Monday, 11 July 2011

Let's Ban the Hero's Journey

Having had a go at Character Data Sheets, I'm now taking a pop at the Hero's Journey. 

Quick recap:  The Hero's Journey was originally written about by Joseph Campbell in a book called The Hero with 1000 Faces. It is a study of thousands of fairy tales, legends, myths, stories etc from around the world that feature a similar pattern - a young man of unknown/uncertain parentage discovers his true self and saves the world, often with the help of an older mentor, often with the help of a magic sword.  Most cultures have such a tale eg King Arthur.  Christopher Vogler wrote another book called The Hero's Journey for Writers, which showed how you could reduce it down to a 3 Act, 17 step structure which provided a blueprint for writing a novel or film script. Chuck in a whole load of Jungian-based analysis of characters such as the Mentor, the Shapeshifter, the Mirror etc and that's the Hero's Journey.  It came to prominence when George Lucas used it as a basis for writing Star Wars, and many scriptwriters have used it as a format subsequently. 

That's obviously a very short version - here's the link to Wikipedia  if you want to know more or you can Google the Hero's Journey and you'll get lots of information and analysis. You can apply the Hero's Journey to many stories, from Cinderella to The Wizard of Oz and beyond and jolly good fun it is too.  Many a happy hour can be spent developing your story according to the Hero's Journey.  

And that's why I don't like it, or rather, I don't think it's a useful tool for writers.  It's another great way of procrastinating instead of getting on and actually writing your book.  Secondly, it implies that there's a format for writing, and while I would agree that working to a basic 3 Act structure is a good idea, I don't think that there is a universal format that any old writer can use.  Thirdly, it's restrictive - not every story follows the Jungian archetypes, not every story is a quest.  

I have a sneaky suspicion that the reason it gets taught in a lot of creative writing courses is that it's a great one for creative writing tutors to teach.  You could spend a whole term on it without having to think of any new stuff that might be really useful to a student writer.  Even better, you can teach it as an academic subject, in just the same way English is taught by academics who analyse books, rather than by writers themselves. 

I first came across it on my MA in Creative Writing where it was being taught by an academic.  Everyone was very excited because here seemed the answer to one's prayers - a surefire structure that you just had to fill in the gaps, join up the dots, and bingo! a lovely shiny new novel or film script would emerge. Except it doesn't.  What you get is lots of writing ABOUT your novel, and not much writing OF your novel.  

So - are there any writers out there who use the Hero's Journey as a starting point?  Or even as a finishing check-list?  Is it really a useful tool for writers who want to write? Or is it, in Hero's Journey speak, just another temptation on the Road Of Trials for those of us who want to write a novel?


Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never started off looking at the basic plots but I have looked back on my books afterwards to see what I’ve done. In all five novels my heroes are taken on a journey (in some cases literal but mostly not) but none of them know what they’re searching for until it arrives. The closest to the classic hero’s journey would be the arc of the first two novels where a man gets to spend three days with the personification of Truth but he has no idea what his goal is – which is why the book’s been compared to A Christmas Carol because Scrooge (a very reluctant hero) doesn’t get the point until he’s got the point. Unlike Scrooge getting the chance to return a better man (which is more like the Rebirth plotline) learning the truth changes nothing for my hero and the ending is tragic. I think an awareness of basic plots isn’t a bad thing but it’s like my O-Level in Applied Mechanics, knowing what the coefficient of friction is didn’t make me a better driver – common sense tells you that it takes longer to stop on a wet or icy surface than a dry one, so what if there are sums to prove that.

Karen said...

I think it's another temptation on the Road of Trials. I spent far too long trying to make a novel fit this structure once, and ended up scrapping the whole thing!

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

When I started my current novel, and I worked on the structure of it, I attempted to use The Hero's Journey. Unfortunately, I couldn't make my story idea work to that structure, although I did get a mentor in, and a 'shall I, shan't I?' moment. Mind you, I had to do a lot of pushing and shoving to get it work that way.

I finally abandoned The Hero's Journey, went round on a huge detour which doesn't concern us here, and finally reworked my plot as a Three Scene structure with proper story arcs etc, and that process has been successful, for this project, I think.

I am left with the impression that The Hero's Journey is too restricting as a method, and as such, disappointing for the writer.

Beth Kemp said...

Sacrilege! And just when I thought you'd made a good point about character data sheets... Just goes to show that models and techniques such as these don't work for everyone or for every book.

I've found the hero's journey most helpful, but then my current plot is essentially a quest.

I'm not convinced anything's hard and fast in writing. And I do agree that 'hero's journey' makes for some nice straightforward teaching.

Sarah Duncan said...

I suppose I'm a bit wary of structures and formats that are worked out after the stories are written. And they always seem such a good idea when you're starting out, but end up (in most cases) as a dead end, Beth of course excepted.

On the other hand, I'm a big fan of 3 Act Structure and always use that as a starting point. That's the one that really seems to work for writers both from personal experience and from working with other writers.

Think Jim's analogy of having an O level in Applied Mechanics won't make you a better driver is a good one. At the end of the day it's all about the writing.

Jonathan Champ said...

I like your comment 'more writing about than of'...ahhh, procrastination!

Before we ban it outright, a few quick observations:

An understanding of all types of meta-structure/meta-myth is useful for writers in any medium/genre so they have more choices.

It depends if THJ is being used as a launch point or a destination - anything used as a joint-the-dots technique will create join-the-dots writing. If it works in your method, great.

While slavish following and abuse of the hero's journey has given us some terrible formulaic product (in script form particularly), it can also lead to some ripping yarns.