I got stuck in my fiction-writing because the model of Antagonist-Protagonist struggle that is supposed to supply the impetus to most, if not all, plots, wasn’t giving me sufficient inspiration.
Fortunately, I was given Christopher Vogler’s useful The Writer’s Journey, and have become unstuck.
In the previous post, I discussed the archetypal characters the Hero should expect to meet on his Fool’s quest. By using, in this case, Tarot as a metaphor (‘the Fool’ on his journey) I am applying my own interpretation of Vogler’s use of the journey metaphor.
Vogler suggests that writers come up with their own metaphor to explain their writing, rather than apply his metaphor of “road” or “journey” as some kind of template, unless it makes sense to your story.
Stages 1-12 represent the experiences Heroes will likely encounter along their journey. See if any of it is useful to you, remembering that in his book, Vogler states—quite wisely, in my opinion—that not all of these events need apply to one’s Hero, and certainly might not be expected to happen in any particular order.
These are the predominant archetypal themes he’s noticed when asked to analyse the structure of stories, which he has done through the lens of Joseph Campbells’ sociological work on archetypes used in stories through the ages, as well as themes found in fairy and folk tales.
What I’ve noticed while reading Vogler is that the similarity between the structure of the most compelling modern-day fictional stories and, for example, the Dionysian mysteries—and other rites of initiation—is notable; in each case, the initiate begins in a state of unconsciousness, of innocence, and is drawn toward increasing awareness and knowledge, not only of the Self, but also of a world previously unseen.
Eventually, the initiate emerges into an altered state of consciousness, and is more aware of him- or herself, including his limitations and strengths. It could be said that these ‘journeys’ are therefore journeys of the mind, leading always towards the goal of some new state of awareness, and that for those characters who do not achieve this altered, more open and aware, state of consciousness, the story will ultimately be a tragedy, a life (or journey) wasted.
Stage One: The Ordinary World
Crucial to the hero’s journey is that s/he leave the ‘known world,’ her ordinary world, and be asked to step into an alternate, unknown, and therefore, challenging, or ‘scary’ world. This ‘world’ might not be anything more physically distant than moving to a new town, but the difference between the Ordinary World and the world of the unknown will prove to be a world, in Joseph Campell’s words, “of supernatural wonder.”
Vogler says “The hero’s problems and conflicts are already present in the Ordinary World, waiting to be activated” (87). Since most stories are “about” taking a relatively ordinary protagonist and thrusting him into situations that test him, it makes sense that he’s going to have to cross a threshold into an extraordinary world, or set of experiences, if we’re ever going to see how he handles the challenges, and, by comparing ourselves to the Hero, find out how we would handle similar challenges.
This process is the essence of Catharsis: by identifying with a character and having their storyline emerge as one we can visualise ourselves involved in, but then having the character do something—something we’d do, or something we vehemently disagree with—our reaction tells us a lot about ourselves and creates the ups and downs of emotional response that leads to the ‘cleansing of the spirit’ the Greeks had in mind.
Stage Two: Call To Adventure
The Ordinary World is a “static but unstable condition” (99). In some ways, the Ordinary World has outgrown its usefulness to the Hero, who is being called toward adventure. Another way of looking at it is that the Hero isn’t just called to adventure; on the psychological level, we often unconsciously seek change, and help to create it, no matter how unwilling we are when it finally arrives.
In each story, you’ll find that the hero or heroine is somehow, in some way, summoned away from his or her existence as it exists in the moment we find her. The summons might come in the form of a “herald,” one of the characters Vogler mentions earlier in the book, or it might come as a death, or a loss; or it might be that the hero has “run out of options” and must face reality. In any case, it is a call that cannot be ignored, and it functions to begin the story and set the Hero on his path.
Stage Three: Refusal Of The Call
The grim reality of this stage of the journey is that change is hard. The Hero must be seen to ‘refuse the call,’ otherwise it won’t be clear what is at stake for him to take up the call to adventure. He has a lot to lose, but also a lot to gain, by getting on his horse and riding into battle, but first, he will, inevitably, say no to the challenge of his own growth.
If we compare the Hero to the quest of the soul’s growth, the Hero, uncomfortable in his own skin, knows he’s insufficient on his own, but resists change, since what he knows is comfortable and secure. Furthermore, even “willing heroes” who actively seek change and adventure will experience moments of self-doubt, fear, or encounters with Threshold Guardians, who pop up and challenge the Hero’s resolve.
As Vogler says, the Hero is “being asked to say yes to a great unknown, to an adventure that will be exciting but also dangerous and even life-threatening” (107). The pause to weigh the consequences shows that there are real risks at stake, and the following commitment to his quest tells the reader that he’s serious, but also that the story is worth reading, that the reader will also come along on this journey and much will be demanded of her as well.
Stage Four: Meeting With The Mentor
Time spent with his Mentor is crucial to get your Hero past his doubt and fear. Mentors “can be regarded as Heroes who have become experienced enough to teach others” (122). Because the journey ahead is so forbidding, sometimes it makes sense to meet with your Mentor prior to entering on that dark, overgrown path. In The Hobbit, this is precisely what Bilbo and the dwarves do; they stop at the house of Beorn, a shapeshifting bear/man, before entering the depths of aptly-named Mirkwood, where countless dangers lie. Beorn gives them useful things: food and provisions, and, most importantly, advice (which they promptly forget once ensconced in perilous Mirkwood).
The idea, according to James Campbell, is that the seeker asks for guidance from his elders, for the tricks, methods, assorted teachings or wisdom, he needs before going out on his own and applying the things he’s learned. In the fantasy movie Willow, the main character, dwarf Willow Ufgood, must return baby Elora Danan to her homeland, far from his village. Before leaving on his perilous quest, he asks the village’s head sorcerer for charms, spells, help of any kind that will guide Willow and return him safely to his family.
Stage Five: Crossing The First Threshold
This is “an act of will” in which the Hero commits himself wholeheartedly to the quest. According to Joseph Campbell, there’s no turning back now; whether “for good or ill,” the journey must be engaged in, no matter what happens. Crucial to this phase for the writer, if you don’t have your Hero engage with his destiny, his story goes nowhere. In terms of timing and pacing of your story, the first threshold is the “turning point at which the adventure begins in earnest, at the end of Act One” (131).
Ask yourself, is your Hero willing to cross this threshold or not? Are there Threshold Guardians blocking his path? How does he deal with these characters, and what affect do the guardians have on his learning process, as well as his behavior? By crossing this threshold, what options is the Hero giving up?
Stage Six: Tests, Allies, Enemies
Concentrating on the goal, the Hero now “fully enters the mysterious, exciting Special World” (135). Even if the surrounding physical terrain remains the same, in this special world, there is dramatic emotional contrast for the Hero to navigate with the help of allies he gathers along the way. Yet, he will also be tested, and will have to fight or fend off enemies.
The difficulties the Hero faces now are not a life-and-death struggle; those challenges come later, when the Hero’s resolve to complete his quest will have to be faced. For now, the types of tests s/he endures are intended to challenge her ability to cope in this new world. One such test of character occurs when the Hero must judge precisely who is a friend, who is an enemy.
When Harry Potter meets Draco Malfoy in his first year at Hogwarts, it is a test of Harry’s character that he recognizes that Draco is, at best, questionable, as a potential friend or ally. In fact, by refusing Draco’s advances, he makes an enemy he’ll deal with throughout the series. Even the Sorting Hat is a kind of test he might not pass; will he choose Slytherin House, known for its dark wizards? Or will he choose Gryffindor, whose hearts are courageous and honest?
As anyone who has read the Harry Potter series, or seen the movies, knows, this choice will prove to be the most crucial one Harry makes, and it’s one that matters the most to the development of this character, for it reveals what he’s made of. What similar tests do you have for your protagonist? The challenge of initiation into the protagonist’s own mystery will require him or her to make this kind of choice, to reveal who she is, and what kind of character she has.