It's Time to Unlearn the Hero's Journey

By | Monday, November 30, 2020 Leave a 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.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces
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 happened to watch Big Hero 6 over the weekend, and one of the things that I was very pleasantly surprised about was how they changed up some of the monomyth tropes. The older mentor character was Hiro's 20-something brother Tadashi, who dies pretty early in the film. But he continues to act as a mentor through his last project and his notes about it. It continues to follow the same ideas Campbell laid out, but does so in an unconventional and almost subversive way. I kind of half-think they weren't deliberately trying subvert the monomyth at all, and they just happened to land on a similar structure, but approached it differently out of ignorance.

More of that please!
Newer Post Older Post Home