Modern Mythic

Where do you find a hero in everyday life? I was reminded of this question while watching the Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell, revived on Netflix. Campbell’s books, along with Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols and James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, had a tremendous impact on me as a young writer. The idea of archetypes recurring throughout history was fascinating in concept. When transferred to your book, though, what practicality do these ideas have?

Boldness might be the most important consideration. Campbell’s formulation that a hero journeys until he ends up transformed in a version of hell might seem quaint at first, but it is in fact essential to the structure of novels. If your protagonist remains within the bounds that order his everyday life, the reader will quickly become bored. His restlessness, his desire to break free, lies at the heart of story tension. The tenet that nine out of ten people remain in their parents’ socioeconomic status tells you which one you should be writing about.

What are the bounds that hem in nine out of ten? That’s one of the beauties of fiction writing: they are what you say they are. A young woman defying the norms of her small town may commit an act, like kissing a boy while dancing at prom, that in another context would seem like small potatoes. The rules you create, though the strictures enforced by other characters, draw the lines that a heroine should not cross. 

The notion of a journey is also instructive. If your hero does not advance through a series of stages to whatever dragon awaits him in its cave, your story will have no momentum. Sneaking out to do drugs all night with friends is merely a stage of experimentation. Do it more than a few times, and the novel will reach a listless plateau. Whether that leads to drinking alone to excess or to leaving home for good doesn’t matter as long as the progression leads to more consequential acts. 

The climax in hell is the model that most authors follow. A trial must be undertaken in the climax sequence in order for the book to feel complete. The idea of inner transformation resulting from that event is not employed as often, and that often separates the novels you really remember from the ones that are only exciting at the time. The process of reading is a journey of its own, and the more the character changes in the end, the more we feel its impact.

Exercise: Reading old myths can be a tiresome experience, leaving you wondering what the point is. You might profit more from reading an interpretive guide like Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. The process you are engaged in as a writer is age-old. You may find models that better allow you to tap into that elemental force.

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
—Joseph Campbell

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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