Unlearn Joseph Campbell

By | Saturday, February 18, 2012 1 comment
I first watched Star Wars when it came out in the 70s. I was six. Everything about the movie was absolutely new to me. I had no conception of what old serials Lucas was alluding to, or who Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were, or the cultural impact of naming them "Stormtroopers"... I didn't question what a womp rat was because, by the time they got to that reference in the movie, my head so over-flowing with other new ideas that I didn't even have room for anything else.

Star Wars then became a cultural education of sorts for me. I thought it was a fun movie, of course, but my interest spread out into seeing where Lucas' ideas came from. From Buster Crabbe to World War I. Not surprisingly, the works of Joseph Campbell came to my attention since Lucas specifically cited his works as a model/template for his basic story structure.

Campbell, if you don't know, studied and wrote about mythology. Rather than just relay old myths or study their origins, he focused on broad themes and ideas that were common among many cultures. His research led him to what he called the "monomyth". In The Hero with a Thousand Faces he outlined the basic plot structure of many major myths, pointing out not just the story beats but how they work and why they're important. It's become more commonly known as "the hero's journey." You see it in stories from Gilgamesh to King Arthur to Beowulf.

What's happened, though, is that modern writers have been formally taught to this. They're told to study Campbell and learn how to write stories that follow the hero's journey because it's effective storytelling. Which it is.

Until it isn't.

See, the problem is that EVERY fiction writer has studied Campbell at this point and, while they often try to still write their own unique stories, they often resort to pat rehashes of Campbell's structure. While you can deviate from Campbell's work (indeed, Campbell himself notes that there are many potential deviations in the monomyth) many who work in overly commercial ventures like comic books and movies stick to the same patterns, most likely because of external pressures like deadlines.

One of the reasons I stopped going to movies was because I kept seeing Campbell being used over and over again. The films became exceedingly predictable and, therefore, boring. You can frequently pick out the archetypes Campbell identified within seconds of the actor stepping in front of the camera.

The longer form works that I've been enjoying lately are the ones that bear the least resemblance to the monomyth. While there are still elements of the hero's journey in play, and I can spot those pretty readily, they're changed pretty significantly in some way so they don't feel hackneyed. In One Piece for example, the wizened old teacher that takes the hero under his wing doesn't really show up until nearly 600 chapters into the story! At which point, the story jumps to two years later after the training is complete. In Bakuman, the same archetype is embodied in 28-year-old Hattori who, instead of teaching the protagonists, maneuvers people and situations around them so they educate themselves. Compare this against the more obvious Merlin/Yoda style versions that show up everywhere.

I was reading the latest installment of Bakuman last night and found myself laughing out loud. The story wasn't particularly funny but it was just so different and unexpected that I was just happy and entertained. I do that frequently with One Piece as well. Sure, I know that the hero will ultimately win in the end, but their hero's journey doesn't HAVE to follow Campbell's outline verbatim each and every time. In fact, it's the further afield you can go with it, the more enjoyable the result can be!
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Matt K said...

Y'know, I've never heard of this guy.

And it sounds like I may be better off that way. :-) (A bit like this, which a friend pointed me toward recently: http://xkcd.com/1015/)