It’s one of the classics of literature, isn’t it? The hero’s journey is part of almost every genre, it’s part of fictional DNA, it’s a must, right? Well, not in my notsohumble opinion. The hero’s journey is too formulaic for my taste. Not because I’m better, or some equally inane bullshit, but because I don’t write heroes.
In literature, a hero is a person distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, self-sacrifice or by any superior qualities. This person is responsible for saving, redeeming or leading other people. To become their savior or leader, he must first overcome some trials, make an actual journey and evolve as a person. By the time he’s ready to be a hero for others, he’s practically not the same person anymore, and everyone now genuinely believes in him.
Here’s my formula for the hero’s journey in a nutshell:
There’s a bunch of nicer graphics online, but they’re all tailored to fantasy novels which is kinda sad IMO. So I drew a new one.
That’s about it, more or less. The events might vary greatly from one story to the next, but the logical sequence of things remains the same. There’s a call to action, a mentor, trials and tribulations, new insight and acceptance of the new role in life, a journey home and a last challenge that restores order to the world, and then everyone lives merrily ever after.
Here’s my list of pros and cons for the hero’s journey:
– there’s a pretty clear story structure right there in the hero’s journey; all you need to do is flesh it out with the right characters, setting and events, and you can have anything from epic fantasy to science-fiction dystopia
– it’s a well-known structure, and everything that’s well-known is easily recognizable and comfortable; the readers won’t have a hard time drifting into your storyworld
– the hero’s journey is an evolution from selfishness and small thinking, to selflessness and leadership
– it’s the simplest and safest way to show character growth
– the hero’s journey has been used so often, in so many stories, it’s become predictable even when the actual events of the story are new and surprising
– it’s only one way to show character growth, and only one type of character (here are a couple more!); or have you and any of your friends matured as people through a hero’s journey?
– it’s unfitting for any other type of protagonist – the antihero, the villain, the observer, the victim, the desperate, the mentally unstable, etc. etc.
– the positive outcome of the hero’s journey does not fit every story, or every genre; a thriller ending in disaster with the protagonist barely surviving is certainly no place for a hero’s journey
It’s a bold move to stray from the path of the hero, especially when you’re a total nobody with no credentials to your name. It’s even bolder—if not stupid-crazy—to do that with your first actual novel, when you’re still figuring out how to write decent descriptions and keep your dialog tags fresh. I sometimes shudder in the gloomy light of my laptop screen, wondering what the hell I was thinking. I’m currently churning out a much improved draft #2 with several big additions and modifications, and I sometimes wish it were as easy as following the steps of the hero’s journey and knowing exactly how to show my characters’ personality mutations and the degeneration of the setting.
But the hero’s journey just wouldn’t fit my story, no matter how tailored and finely adapted it would be.
My protagonist is an antihero. She’s stubborn and selfish, unwilling to be a team-player, oblivious to the consequences of her actions on others, and even when she does the right thing, she does it for the wrong reasons and at the wrong moment. None of the other character are heroes either. Not even the villains are typical villains. They don’t want to take over the world or destroy other people’s lives, they just take what they think is theirs, regardless of who stands in their way. Much like the protagonist…
How do I go about showing character growth, when I don’t have a clear journey with steps and landmarks to follow?
I’ve opted to do that for all my characters by changing their self-perception as the story progresses, by changing their outlook on other people and events, and consequently changing their behavior. It’s harder (especially since I’m really not an expert writer, only an audacious one) yet it’s the only technique that works with my characters and my story. The more I try to perfect it, the harder the details are to get right, and the more I’m fascinated with non-hero’s-journey type of character growth. And really, I just love my story the harder it gets to write it well. It’s an interesting challenge!
So what about your stories?
Did you flesh out a hero’s journey with your own, unique elements? Or did you go a whole ‘nother route?