The Hero's Cycle: How to approach a story

Last time, we talked about Myth Makers, and I have say, this is a hard post for me to write.  I have talked about the hero's cycle before, most notably when I defended it from the cretins at io9 in my Why the Hero's Cycle Simply is.  The main reason I am having a hard time with this post is time.  There are books about it, and not one come close to describing it in the depth it deserves.  I will try my best to keep this short and to the point.


Joseph Campbell (circa 1984)
Image via Wikipedia

Joseph Campbell had an insight about the architectural underpining of every great story ever written.  He called this story the Monomyth or Hero's Cycle.  Any time you have a story about good verses evil ,or struggle, or the search to get or destroy something, the monomyth is there.  I have yet to find a story that doesn't follow the monomyth.

He presented it in his wonderful book Hero with a Thousand Faces.  While many writers have used it to inspire their fiction, Campbell's purpose was to teach people how to read a story and discover its meaning.

The Lens of Mythology

Stories look very different when you read them through the monomyth.

Hero's Cycle

Most stories start at the Call to Adventure, but that is always the case.  Any part of the cycle may contain an entire cycle within it, or they may be skipped in their entirety.

How to see the Monomyth

The cycle helps you isolate where you are in the story and dig into it a little deeper.

The call to adventure is the event that leads the hero to embark on the adventure.  The hero is ignorant about the true nature of the world and something causes them to seek a remedy for this ignorance.

Along the way they encounter a helper who is a part of the world they do not understand.  This helper could be good or evil.  Their motives are not important.  Their function is to give the hero the courage they need to cross the threshold of adventure.

A crisis befalls the hero and they find themselves somehow lost in unfamiliar ground.  They have no idea where they are or how they can ever get back.  It is too late.  They are committed to the adventure now.

The hero is tested to their limits, and constantly tempted to give up.  Along the way, the encounter more helpers.  Some may be the same as before, but his real challenge to is realize that there is something about them he has to incorporate into himself.  Unless he grows, taking on their positive characteristics and rejecting their negative ones, he will not be able to complete his task.

Next, he is face to face with the solution to the problem.  He has this last chance to decide if he really wants it or not, and how he is going to acquire it.

After he has gained the solution, he has to go back or get out.  If he was meant to have the solution, he will be aided in his flight.  If not, he will be pursued in his flight, the negative forces trying to destroy him.

The final challenge is to cross the return threshold and survive.  All of the negative powers are allied against him to make their last stand.

On the other side of the threshold, the hero must get the elixer to those who need it, completing his quest.

Every story follows this basic pattern.

How to use the Monomyth

Once you have isolated the individual parts, you can see the underlying core of the story.  The trick is to understand that this entire adventure has been a journey to mature and develop the mind of the hero.  Every element presented a psychological or archetypal piece of the puzzle that would make the hero into a hero.

After a while, it becomes second nature to see a story in this way, and to glean from it meaning that the writer might not have even realized was there.  It is a valuable tool to both the writer and the reader/viewer.

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Myth Makers

All well written Speculative Fiction tales are a part of the fabric of the new mythology.  This is true whether the author meant it or not.  Every story we see/hear/watch is unconsciously compared to the stories we live by.  If the new story aligns with, adds to, alters, or changes that story, it has become a part of an individual's personal mythology.  Simply calling something myth or mythos does not make it so.  Only when that alchemy occurs and the story is adopted by others does the story become myth.

Pure Mythology

While that may sound pretentious or mystifying, it is, in fact, a plain statement of fact:  Pure mythology...

  • is fiction that gives the reader/viewer a true experience of being alive.
  • is drawn from the archetypal well of dream that invests meaning into the text.
  • is written in such a way that it connects with the reader to impart clues to understanding profound mysteries.

Any writer who truly engages their imagination in the creation of their work does all three of these things, often without conscious thought or action to do so.

When a writer or artist is set free of commercial and popular demands, and allowed to penetrate and explore their own creative vision, the result can be pure unencumbered art.  The more corporate the art of writing becomes, the less interesting, and true the result.

Many fans are tired of the homogenized work that is becoming more and more common in the industry.  We do not need another company driven by profit margins, or another author whose self-important propaganda obscures the art.  We need writers and artists that love what they are doing.  That is why we are here.  We are looking for something better.

Return of the Cultural Cycle

mythos Project: Shadow Manifesto As we discussed in the Project: Shadow Manifesto, In the era before copyright, "stories, heroes, melodies, and lyrics belonged to the people.  Stories were told, and retold.  Numerous visions of each story competed against each other.  The best were remembered, collected, retold, embellished, and built upon.  The rest were forgotten."

Stories used to have to fight for the attention and memory of  the populous.  Now they fight for the attention of an editor or producer who is often more interested in making a quick buck than telling a great story.  But things are changing!

The advent of the internet and the various methods of print on demand have opened up the floodgates for anyone to publish a story, movie, or song that wants too.  We are returning to the old survival of the fittest model but with one major difference.  We lack the common space for this free exchange of stories to take place.

Only a small fraction of YouTube's traffic searches for the video they watch.  Most rely on others.  And when it comes to text or audio, where do you go to find what you are looking for.  The chance of discovery has increased, but so have the odds against being able to find something new.

For the vital role of the Cultural Cycle to return, we have to discover new and better ways to enable discovery of the new stories.

Copyright, not the only problem

Each generation must retell the tales of the preceding generations in their own context to keep them relevant.  This cycle has been broken by copyright, but this is not the only problem facing us.

  • We are not teaching writers to create lasting works.
  • We have not made it easy to find these works.
  • We have not made it easy to share these works.
  • We have yet to find a way for these to writers to easily make a living from their work without repeating the problems of the past.

And there is one last problem, and its a big one:

Marketing Mythos

The word “Myth” has become a marketing term.

It has gotten so bad that people have started rebelling against the very notion of myth making, assuming it is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

We have to fight this trend and realize that myths are just the stories that give our live a sense of meaning and purpose.  Without them, life is dreary hollow place.  To quote the Manifesto again:

We need writers and artists that love what they are doing.

We need fans who are not afraid to speak their minds.

We need places in our towns/cities and online where we can meet and share the few gems that we find from the industry and from the independent artist, writers, and filmmakers who are still following their bliss rather than the dollar.

Now we need to look at what a myth really is, and how we can spread them easily.