It’s a good time to talk about heroism. It’s been on display all around us in Redding, California the last couple of weeks as it seems the entire northern third of the state is on fire. We have been on vacation, dodging the worst disasters, while breathing in smoke from the seemingly omnipresent blazes.
We initially planned to take Nancy’s brother and sister-in-law fishing at Buck’s Lake in nearby Plumas County, but the Chips Fire was devastating the Feather River Canyon just below the lake. We planned to visit Lassen National Park, but it’s been ablaze for a week with the Reading Fire. We put the relatives on the plane yesterday just in time to return home to see the plumes of smoke rising from a fire even closer to our town. The school district, of which I was once superintendent, was serving as an evacuation center for people escaping the two day old Ponderosa Fire. On every road we see CalFire Crews ands Forest Service Teams on their way to battle the fires. So, it’s with good cause that we thinking about heroes.
What’s that have to do with the ostensible subject of this blog – writing? Probably, not much. But, as we sat around a campfire in the Trinity Alps on the other side of the Central Valley from the worst of the wild fires, Nancy’s nephew, who just graduated from high school mentioned that he had written his senior thesis on The Hero’s Journey. He enthusiastically took us through the great mythologist Joseph Campbell’s description of the universal elements of heroism in his classic, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. As Cam spoke, I wished some of the authors with whom we work were listening.
Campbell’s idea of the journey is a dramatic, mythic one. If you don’t know it, you might want to look at a brief summary. Stripped of its mythic ethos, the journey is a three act structure that provides a wonderful framework on which to build a novel, but which also might be adapted to add drama to a memoir or family history.
Using Campbell’s titles for the acts that framework would look like this:
The hero is confronted by a challenge or obstacle of potentially life-changing magnitude. He may at first resist because doing so will permanently change his world. Often with the help of someone else who advises him on the course he must take the hero confronts the challenge and sets out to overcome the obstacle.
The hero faces a series of tests, trials, and obstacles to overcome. She may be successful, but may also fail some of the tests making her situation more dire. In the process of confronting these obstacles the hero may be tempted to abandon the quest, but ultimately comes to see herself in a new way able to create a new self which is up to the challenge. This new self-realization allows the hero to confront and overcome whatever the obstacle is and become the new person she has envisioned
The final challenge the hero faces is creating a new normal life in the wake of what he has accomplished. Again, the hero often draws upon the support or guidance of a mentor to achieve this new equilibrium. Part of his new life involves sharing the wisdom and insight gained from the experience of confronting his challenge. The other is recognizing that he has mastered the old world and set himself free to live in the new one he has created.
Look at the story you want to tell. Whether the story is fiction or nonfiction your protagonist will need to embark upon a similar journey. Think of the options for heightening the drama inherent in your story as you develop each stage of the journey. Notice how you will naturally address issues of character development as your hero confronts his or her challenge. If you use Campbell’s journey as a lens through which you project your story you will deepen and sharpen every aspect of the action and the character.