Ever since I discovered the writings of Joseph Campbell, and the later reinterpretation of his mythic Hero’s Journey by screenwriter Christopher Vogler, it’s struck me as vital to the understanding of successful story. I’ve continued to ask myself why this particular structure resonates on such a universal scale, and what the greater purpose of story is?
In the course of teaching a novel writing class, and visiting schools to speak about writing, I’ve had to refine my thoughts on this and, just the other day, came to the realisation that the answer to these questions lies in the term ‘identity’.
In order to explain more fully what I mean by this I need to go off on a couple of tangents first, then hope to bring it all together to stake my claim!
First, it’s useful to look at the purpose of story from its earliest incarnations — as a way to pass on vital, life-saving information (i.e. don’t go over those mountains or a bloody great toothed beast will eat you... don’t eat those red berries, they killed Trog last week) and, as importantly, to try to make sense of the bigger world. This is where myths and legends (and faith) come from: human beings’ desire to understand how things work, to answer the big questions of the universe, and to figure out how to place ourselves within our world. Joseph Campbell’s life-time study of myth and legend affirmed this, and he added to this a recognition of the repeated motif of The Quest. The Journey. And the crucial part of all these quests is not the external journey at all. Instead it is the psychological, internal journey that’s reflected in such stories, expressing the values and beliefs of each specific culture to give a story resonance and depth. Now hold this thought!
The other crucial piece of the jigsaw is to reflect on how we learn. We are a social animal, whose earliest drives are to observe and imitate. It’s how we learn to walk and talk, but more importantly, it’s how we learn about our own specific tribe — and how to fit ourselves within the complex social and cultural structures we human beings devise. We watch to see what action is considered appropriate; we listen to the wisdom of those we trust. We have a driving need to identify our place within the system — and to come to our own conclusions about the meaning of life. Campbell would say the ultimate meaning we are searching for is simply to ‘follow your bliss.’ In other words, to understand the true nature of our unique selves. I humbly agree. Each one of us must take our own internal Hero’s Journey — a journey for identity — to find out how we fit into the world. This gives life meaning. It gives us drive to strive each day.
This, I think, is what we search for in a story — in fact, what all good stories offer us. It feeds our inbuilt, inherent acts of observation: we simply can’t resist examining how other’s feel and behave. It’s in our genes; is paramount to our survival. It’s why we turn pretty much everything into a kind of narrative — a way of passing on the human foibles and strengths we have observed. Every day we pass on information in the form of story (this morning I... last night Dad... etc. etc.) and this information gives us power. The more we know about the structure of our ruling systems, communities and families, the more we learn how to accommodate and position ourselves for best survival. We simply can’t help it. Blame our genes!
Books, movies, social media, gossip, women’s magazines, reality TV... they all buy in to this. It is the human stories that grab our attention. Even journalists are privy to this fact. Give us a worthy, well-researched article full of statistics about domestic violence, say, and we can shake our heads and tut-tut if we take the time to think them through. But offer us a case study, a human story that will touch our hearts emotionally, and now the real change of consciousness about the issue starts. Again I say: we simply can’t help it. We’re programmed to take note — to care — because we live in this society too. It’s vital information and we’re at a disadvantage if we miss the point.
I think that why the mythic journey structure works (and is so universal) is simply that it acknowledges the quest for individuation (aka identity) and self-realisation as the key. There can be bombs going off, intergalactic space travel, bodice-ripping, vampires, werewolves, forensic porn (pick any plot device you like) but without the convincing journey of a character from one state of consciousness to another we come away feeling cheated and unfulfilled. Because we’re programmed to set out on our own journey, what fascinates us is to observe how others manage (or mismanage) theirs. It pays for us as writers to remember that our readers are searching for their identity too! Their radars are programmed to pick up any clues — and just like they have learned to walk and talk and fulfil all their daily tasks, they search for meaning in characters they spend time with. Anything less than this shallow. Promise unfulfilled.
Campbell’s articulation of the psychological steps along this journey are interesting for another reason too. They map the territory needed to make fundamental and lasting change — the kind that, once learnt, becomes a part of the newly adjusted identity from that point forth. Note: not half-hearted, short-lived change, but real change, at a very fundamental level. In terms of successful storytelling this is extremely helpful — especially if, like me, your goal is to shift your character from one state of being and knowing to another.
Psychological steps of the Hero’s Journey
• Limited awareness of a problem
• Increased awareness
• Reluctance to change
• Committing to change
• Experimenting with first change
• Preparing for big change
• Attempting big change
• Consequences of the attempt
(improvements and setbacks)
(improvements and setbacks)
• Rededication to change
• Final attempt at big change
Think about the world’s most loved books — the ones that have lasted (and will last) for decades, if not hundreds of years. They all take their characters on some kind of testing personal quest, and in the process we, as readers, take it too. If you can come up with any exceptions to this rule I’d love to know!
A few years back I became involved in an organisation working with youth at risk. What became apparent time and time again is that the key to helping young people overcome the (sometimes enormous) hurdles they must face, and make it through to healthy adulthood, is by helping them to figure out exactly who they are, what they believe in, and what the forces on them have been to bring them to this place. They need to figure out their identity, in order for them to find a positive position for themselves within their world. They’re not any different than the rest of us — it’s just they’ve lacked the right stories via role models to help them through.
As a writer I’ve heard people speak dismissively of mythic structure (and it’s easy enough to see very shallow examples of it, especially from the Hollywood factory-farms) but my gut instinct has always been to champion its cause. At last I understand. It speaks to me at the very core of all my understandings — and has helped to take me on an exciting quest all of my own. I think I know who I am now. I’m certainly questing hard at securing my little place in the world. Thank you Joseph Campbell. Thank you human genes! I’ll go on writing stories that have human questing for identity at their centre — and at last I think I’ve figured out why! I'm following my bliss. What about you?