Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Journey of the Hero (or Heroine)

(Psst! It's Bonnie Grove's birthday today! She's 29 - again!)

I’ve been mulling over what Patti said in her comments on the April 29th post. (Sure, that was three months ago: I burn slow, but I burn hot; and haven’t been able to get what she said out of my mind.)

She said, “I've modified The Hero's Journey with its "pattern" of ordinary life being interrupted by an inciting incident with a mentor thrown in and a climatic confrontation with the antagonist, usually internal conflict. The story is propelled by rising antagonism and the active pursuit of desire. Again, the antagonism is external and internal.

How to modify this for women's fiction? First, the ordinary world is not perfect but known, but then something forces the protag to decide what she's going to do about the disequilibrium. Her nest is disheveled, and the action is all about getting that nest (relationships) back into a more comfortable order. 

Well, I don’t know about you but when I read Patti’s erudite comment I felt immediately intimidated because I didn’t know what the “hero’s journey” was. Don’t ask me where I was in the folklore, Bible as literature, and classics classes I took in college. I guess I missed that day. (In all the classes.) I had only a vague idea of what Patti was talking about.

Joseph Campbell explained the concept when he said, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell said that most cultural heroes such as Buddha, Moses, Osiris, and Jesus all shared this journey structure. (I’m trying to think how the real, historic, divine Jesus could be thought to begin in “the world of common day.” John 1:1 blows that theory into bits, but for someone who believes Jesus was not divine nor eternal, the pattern would hold.)

However, I do see how such a journey is a satisfying way to tell a story. It has structure -- and perhaps even the familiarity to us adults of that structure leads us to expect it to follow a certain path-- plus the excitement of conflict, and justice.

(Interestingly enough, the two traditions of Christianity --Western and Eastern -- emphasize different elements of Jesus' hero story. In most western religious art, the focus is on His suffering and atonement; so you would most often see a crucifix. In eastern iconography, His triumph over death and hell is more often emphasized: the Resurrection.)

At any rate, the journey is important to many readers. Do you look for such a journey in the novels you read? In those which have been most deeply rewarding to you, in what ways is it because of the sense of justice and “necessary structure” being satisfied?


Unknown said...

(Is it kosher to comment on your post before anyone else does? )

I have an example of a book I once read that didn't fulfill those culturally-induced expectations. It was The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pyncheon. It began as what I thought would be a great mystery -- clues, a hero searching for their meaning, tension and suspense. I was busily cataloguing the hints and clues all the way through -- and at the end, nothing was solved. That's because the book was about the meaninglessness of life, where things are often unexplained and unresolved.

I felt cheated. I guess now, Patti, I would say that the hero's journey was not consummated, and I remember the disappointment decades later.

Latayne C Scott

Nicole said...

(LaTayne, you might be interested in my post today over at Into the Fire. Might not, too. ;) It's similar.)
I love to read thrillers, mystery, suspense, but I write women's fiction/romance. And for the most part I write about ordinary people like the majority of us. The catch-22 is making the characters so meaningful that the "smaller" conflicts, as opposed to the usually huge conflicts in those thrillers, etc., resonate with readers and keep them in the story.
Two of the best novels I've read with "smaller" plots and huge characters mixed with exceptional writing were Dogwood by Chris Fabry and The Killing Tree by Rachel Keener. And really the memoir-ish fiction of The Passion of Mary-Margaret is incredible.

Carla Gade said...

The hero's journey was the main reason that I could not wait to read Ruth Axtell Morren's The Rogue's Redemption. And it was thoroughly satisfying. I find this to be the case with my favorite novels. When I consider it, most often it seems as though women's fiction the main character centers around the woman. But I find that when the hero has as compelling a story as the heroine that the story feels complete. When one or the other's growth arc is weak it seems out of balance and the potential for triumph leaves the story lacking.

In my current WIP I was struggling with the character arc, in particular the hero. I was wondering what actually makes him the hero, not just his actions, but his motivations. Many people can do the same sorts of things, but for different reasons. And what happens when it goes against the norm? I finally figured it out yesterday so reading this post today was very affirming. The Joseph Campbell quote summarized it so well!

Carla Gade said...

Happy Birthday Bonnie!

Nicole said...

(Happy Birthday, Bonnie. May the Lord shine His face upon you today and everyday.)

Unknown said...

Nicole, I like your site! And I, like you, often mourn as much for the losses suffered by minor characters as those endured by the heroes.

Carla, I'm on the road with you. I am struggling with how to make a woman hero both credible and yet not ignore her husband's griefs just because he is not the focus of my novel's action.

And Shigune, I like the "feel" especially of your blog. Very atmospheric! Do you think you'll continue trying to write horror? I don't have the guts to do that.