Creating Your Own Hero’s Journey

Even if you seek to create the most original story of the year, the hero’s journey and archetypes can help.

Yes, I realize that sounds like a contradiction: “if you follow a pattern, the story cannot be that original,” you say.

Here’s the thing: there is plenty of room within the hero’s journey for originality (just look at the stories I’ve been using as examples in my previous posts—they cross genres and show incredible diversity). Additionally, the journey is universal and you probably want your story to touch upon universal themes of the human condition.

In fact, I’d suggest that being familiar with archetypes will help you break the mold. Why? Because the more you know the “normal story,” the easier it will be for you to avoid it, take a new turn, and enter truly original territory. You can play against our expectations!

No matter your genre, the first steps of the hero’s journey will help your story get started. After all, readers will always need to know basic information about the setting (ordinary world) and the character’s life. Your protagonist will need a goal and will strive to achieve it (the call). You will also need to establish the stakes of that goal. As your story progresses, your protagonist will face obstacles and challenges that will change or influence him/her (transformation and journey).

Just using that basic template will catapult your story forward. You want to get to the call as quickly as you can, establish the goal/motive, and make the stakes of success or failure clear.

When you have writer’s block, look to the hero’s journey for inspiration! What is the next step in the journey? How can you get there? Or what can you do that will take the story in an unexpected direction?

Figure out which types of archetypal characters you can fit into your story (hero, lover, mentor, traitor, etc.). You can then have fun playing against type.

As a creative exercise, I suggest trying to put in as many elements of the hero’s journey and archetypal characters as possible, and then have fun twisting things around. You might surprise yourself as well as your future readers!

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Writing Physical Description – Part One

In my post about “Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1,” I wrote that you should “Avoid the temptation to describe your main character [on the first page or even in the first chapter].” However, I didn’t provide much insight into how to write physical description. So here we are.

There are no “rules” to writing description because it is a product of your own style. Hemingway gives us very little in the way of description while Stephen King can go on for pages. When I read The Stand twenty years ago, I remember stopping and thinking, “My God. He’s written six pages describing an abandoned military facility. There aren’t even any characters!” Now, to King’s credit, I also noted that his elaborate details enabled me to vividly picture every brick of this complex. Obviously, my reaction is also an indication that despite King’s talent, the passage was still long for my personal taste.

I cannot write like Stephen King. I will never be able to include such rich and graceful detail. My prose is average; it serves its purpose but lacks imaginative description or an abundance of figurative language. Therefore, I would never attempt to imitate King and therefore I lean toward the opposite approach: providing little description and counting on the reader to supply the rest.

Even if, like me, your prose isn’t going to win you any awards, you might still be tempted to provide plenty of minute details so that the reader pictures exactly what you have in your own head. Resist that. Instead, keep the description pretty quick and short. There are advantages to minimal character description. Yes, you will want to provide the reader with a good idea of what the main characters look like, but you can leave “a little room” for the reader to supply the missing pieces. I see two advantages:

  1. Minimal description will quicken your story’s pace.
  2. When the reader uses his/her own imagination, he/she becomes part of the creation and can become more invested in the story.

Do you want to provide details about your main character’s face? I only describe a face if there is something peculiar or memorable like facial hair, a scar, the color of lipstick, if the person appears plump or thin, etc. Readers seem happy to supply the particulars of the face. If you supply it for them, readers might not feel like they “know” the character—the character may appear as a stranger in the reader’s mind. I can think of exceptions to this rule (I’ve included Ichabod Crane’s introduction at the bottom of this post), but I think it’s generally good advice to provide the outline or skeleton of a character, dress it up with some meat and clothes, but allow the reader to unconsciously help out.

Providing a single telling detail is often more effective than a summary description. EX: “His neck was a molting snake.” See? Can’t you picture that guy? Did you imagine him as old and wrinkly? If not, is the image in your head a vivid one? If this is a minor character, this brief description is all we’ll need. If it is a major character, you can be more descriptive later, but this lays some good “ground work” so we won’t be surprised later when you tell us that this character is elderly, has a skin condition, was in a fire, etc.

Reading description is boring from a modern reader’s standpoint—it brings the story to a halt. You don’t want to slow down on the first page or even in the first chapter. Can you wait a chapter or two before describing your character? Try it. I bet you’ll end up making that description a more natural/less forced part of your prose if you hold off for a while.

Read the following description of Ichabod Crane, the protagonist from Washington Irving’s classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Note that Irving does describe his face. More importantly, look at the specific details he provides. Irving’s writing is vivid and original. Even without the sentence describing Crane’s face, the description would still be fantastic. Enjoy it for yourself.

“He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

Transformation in the Hero’s Journey – Part Two

In many stories, the hero’s transformation is represented by a death and rebirth sequence that signifies the new person who emerges. The death and rebirth can happen anywhere in the story (beginning, middle, or end). While this death and rebirth can be literal, it is more often symbolic.

Think of the stories you love. How many “death and rebirth” examples can you think of?

Please leave comments to add to my list of examples!

  • Major League: Honestly, I don’t see this in the film. Sorry. I’ll add a “bonus film” at the bottom of this post.
  • The Godfather: Michael has a kind of death and rebirth when he disappears from New York after killing Sollozzo. He is missing for several years and his girlfriend Kay has no idea where he is. When he finally returns and sees her, it is like he has come back from the dead. Of course, he has returned as a new man— no longer the Michael she fell in love with, but a hardened and heartless mafia leader.
  • Harry Potter: We could probably find dozens of examples in the Harry Potter series, but the most obvious are the evil Voldemort’s return from death (which happens in book 4 after several failed attempts) and Harry’s sacrifice + rebirth in the final story.
  • Lord of the Rings: How many deaths and rebirths can one story have?
    • In book/film one, Frodo is stabbed, falls unconscious, and nearly dies (a kind of death and rebirth). Much later, Frodo is cocooned by a giant spider (the cocoon is a symbol of change—like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly). Frodo is hardened by his journey and like Harry Potter, gets quite a bit darker. In the end, Frodo fails because he is taken over by his darker nature and the evil ring that has been influencing him. When he returns to the Shire, he cannot find happiness any longer.
    • Gandalf the Gray falls into a dark chasm and returns as Gandalf the White.
    • Aragorn is thought dead in the film version of The Two Towers, floats in water (a symbol of life and rebirth—as in baptism) and returns. In the final book/movie, he enters the Paths of the Dead (entering into the realm of death) and emerges (having beaten death). This scene is also when he finally accepts who he is and becomes the leader the world needs.
    • The entire group of the Fellowship enters the Dwarf mines of Moria—a vast cave that has become a den of goblins, ogres, and demons. Surviving this “hell” is a kind of death and rebirth (though this is actually where Gandalf falls into the pit and “dies”).
  • Batman: Bruce Wayne/Batman’s death and rebirth in Batman Begins occurs as he returns to Gotham City after a seven year absence. On the flight home, he finds out that he has been legally declared dead and must therefore “come back from the dead” once he arrives home. His death and rebirth in The Dark Knight Rises is far more obvious as he is defeated and broken, left in a dark pit to suffer (a kind of hell), climbs out of the dark pit, and returns in time to save the city. During that entire time, the people in Gotham assume that he is dead, so to them his return is a resurrection. At the end of that film/trilogy, we also have the idea that anyone can become Batman and that he will live on despite the fact that Bruce Wayne is gone – Batman will be reborn with a new person taking up that mantle.
  • Star Wars: “Rebirth” is a major theme in the Star Wars saga. After all, the main character is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader who “dies” in Episode III when the Jedi known as Anakin falls and becomes the evil Darth Vader, but he gets a rebirth in Episode VI when he returns to “good” (which is why his spirit is allowed to stand and smile with the spirits of the other nice Jedi). Additionally, the end of the 6 episode saga is about the rebirth of the Jedi Knights and of democracy. Another character who has a nice “death and rebirth” sequence is Han Solo. In The Empire Strikes Back, he is frozen in carbonite and is in a kind of suspended animation. In the next film, he is thawed out/rescued from this half-life and is therefore reborn or given a second chance at life.
  • Captain America: (Bonus Film). Although Cap/Steve Rogers doesn’t change that much in the film (he starts off as a brave and moral guy and ends up the same way), he actually has THREE deaths/rebirths in this one movie
      • When skinny Steve becomes the super-soldier, he literally transforms in a metallic cocoon-like pod. The old Steve is gone, and the new super-hero Steve emerges.
      • When he is declared dead on the battlefield and then moments later reappears with nearly 200 soldiers he rescued from the enemy camp.
      • At the end of the film, Cap “dies” in the arctic when his plane crashes, but really he is just frozen for 70 years. When he is revived in modern day, he has come back to life . . . again.