The monomyth is all. All hail the monomyth.
In the late eighties, just I was reaching the point where I realized I wanted to be a writer, the Hero’s Journey was top of mind. Joseph Campbell’s work of the past several decades had influenced the halls of fantasy and sci fi in ways that gave way to structured storytelling on a vast scale. When the 1987 documentary was released, it became a staple in college level English. By the time I got to college, Campbell’s work was not only required but the only method by which any epic tale could possibly be told.
And this, my friends, has done a disservice to genre fiction and, in some ways, our collective history.
In Campbell’s attempt to bring all myth into one cycle, he ignored anything that didn’t fit that agenda. By the time Christopher Vogler codified Campbell’s concept into the Disney framework, a popular assumption was made that no other stories were worth telling.
Sure every story has been told. But storytelling, especially American storytelling, has been shoehorned into one mold. New writers try to emulate it’s structure when that’s not the story they are telling.
The heart of the Here’s Journey is transformation. Becoming worthy of becoming a Jedi, getting the girl, winning the kingdom. But what if winning is not the end of the story? What if becoming worthy is part of your character arc?
I’m trying to write a story about someone who eventually becomes the villain. I submitted part of the story for critique, and time after time I get the following back: If she is so overpowered there is no where for her to go.
This assumes a few things. 1) having ultimate power is only a goal 2) once you have power you are perfect 3) a character with power will have no desire to change.
Dear Superman writers, I hope that makes you cry.
That’s the only tip of the issue. If you really think about it, everyone tries to fit every story into the Hero’s Journey even if it isn’t that at all. Brigit Jone’s certainly didn’t find any elixir to bring back to her deeply troubled friends. If a story doesn’t fit to the actual laid out Hero’s Journey, then it’s not the Hero’s Journey. And it doesn’t have to be.
If you really delve into, the Hero’s Journey isn’t for everyone anyway. Joseph Campbell himself said the woman is the prize in the monomyth, never the Hero. And if you’re a 40 year old man who decides to be come a cop, you’re not saving anyone but incidentally, much less going through a transformation. Looking at you Rookie.
The common complaint against genre fiction is that it is often not character driven. This is often untrue but stories become messy when you either nail characters into a structure, or just let them wander into the wilderness by themselves. Often when you talk to authors about their characters they will talk about them like tulpa brought to life, making decisions of their own in a story.
To go with that new writers are often taught a basic three act structure with the Hero’s Journey pasted atop it. That’s great if you’re still learning to plot…but not so much if your ideas don’t match.
So what do you do if you have an idea that you want bring your characters to forefront? What if your idea doesn’t plug into the Hero’s Journey formula?
You take your character and ask them what problem needs to be solved.
It’s a bunch of bullshit to think that every story is the monomyth. Just because a character goes outside doesn’t mean it fits the ‘leaving on a quest’ step. If you read anything I’ve written, then you’ve probably heard me harp about outlines. I think they are must. But my outlines don’t look like anything I’ve done in school. So I ask you, why should my story structure like an 11th grade project?
Lisa Cron’s Story Genius goes into the character solve problem method of outline. If you are writer give this a read.
Is the Hero’s Journey worth pursuing? Oh certainly. It works because it satisfies the human need to win. It’s just not the only story out there, just one of the easiest to tell.