Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Call to Adventure

I can't get my head around the fact that it's September. It doesn't help that I seem to have missed a day somewhere along the way (probably Monday). I kept thinking yesterday was Monday, but I think I'm back on track, since I had ballet last night and will have choir tonight. This is the children's choir kickoff tonight, and this year I'll be the assistant teacher for the kindergarten choir. I have friends with kids that age, so that's sort of in my comfort zone, though I'm used to kids who like having lightsaber battles and who are mildly obsessed with Daleks.

In the last writing post, I started a series working through the steps of the Hero's Journey, as outlined in the book The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler. Vogler took the stages outlined by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces and applied them to modern storytelling (because there's a lot in that book that's very specific to mythology). The idea is that there is a universal story structure that the human mind is hardwired to follow, and audiences are likely to respond more strongly to a story that follows this structure. I found it to be a good way to learn to plot. It's not so much about slavishly following this structure as it is about understanding the meaning of these stages so you can use them. The first stage is the Ordinary World, a glimpse of what the hero's life is like before the story really gets started. It's the baseline that allows us to see how the hero and/or his world have changed at the end of the story.

The second step is the Call to Adventure. This is essentially the point of change that really kicks off the story. If this didn't happen, there would be no story because the hero would just keep plugging along in his ordinary world. You can also think of this as the moment when the hero realizes that something needs to be changed, either in himself or in the world.

This can be a literal Call to Adventure in which someone (usually in the form of the Herald archetype) asks the hero to do something -- Gandalf asks Frodo to take on the mission to destroy the ring, M gives James Bond his assignment, the king's herald announces the challenge to win the hand of the princess, Obi Wan asks Luke to go with him to rescue the princess and learn to be a Jedi, the best friend sets the heroine up on a blind date, the government asks Indiana Jones to find the head of the staff, etc.

But it can also be more subtle than that. It can be the moment in a romantic comedy when the heroine gets fed up with yet another night with a microwave dinner, the television and her cats and decides to get out there and do something. Or the moment when the cubicle prisoner can't take his job anymore and starts searching online jobs boards. Or the hero may start noticing the injustice around him and take action. He may have been aware of what was wrong all along and the change is the realization that he can or should do something about it. It can be a moment when two people meet, whether it's the "cute meet" in a romantic comedy when the hero and heroine bump into each other or when the spy meets the average guy who might be inconspicuous enough to complete the mission undetected. It can be a force of nature bearing down on the hero, like a natural disaster changing the world around him -- a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption or asteroid collision. It can also be a situation in which the hero is a victim and his life is changed for him -- he gets kidnapped, drafted or is a victim of mistaken identity. Think Cary Grant's character in North by Northwest. He gets caught up in something and his only choice is to go along with it or get killed.

It may not be any one event, but rather a series of events that add up to convince the hero that something is wrong. That's what can happen to our cubicle drone as he goes through a day of bureaucratic nonsense and realizes that he can't go on this way. That's also often what happens when a character awakens to injustice around him. It's not one event, but a pattern of events that opens his eyes. Some heroes are particularly dense and need a lot of calls before they get it -- Luke Skywalker saw the distress call from the princess but still wasn't ready to do anything about it, and then he got the direct invitation from Obi Wan when R2-D2 took matters into his own robotic arms and set out to find Obi Wan himself.

In a novel, this needs to come as close to the beginning of the book as possible these days, usually within the first 30-50 pages. This moment of change will be what's mentioned in the back-cover copy on the book -- she gets offered, discovers, learns, is assigned, must do, etc. Sometimes, the call to adventure is the very start of the story, and then while the hero is trying to decide what to do, that's when we see the ordinary world. I've even seen stories in which this happens before the start of the story so that the hero is already on his quest as the story opens, and we later learn about his moment of change in flashback or dialogue. This often shows up in multiple-hero stories where the story may start with one character who then meets another character who's already on a journey. I think this is what happens in the TV series Firefly. Mal's Call to Adventure is learning that he has fugitives on his ship. He then has to decide whether to continue to avoid trouble or to become more actively involved in defying the Alliance. Meanwhile, Simon is already on a later stage of his journey when he comes into the story, and it's only later that we hear from him that his Call to Adventure was getting the coded letters from his sister that convinced him she was in danger (and we see it in flashback in a later episode).

This moment should be a point of no return for the hero because even if he were to refuse the call and never take on the quest (which isn't likely to happen because then there would be no story), just realizing the need for change is going to alter the way he sees the world, and that will change his life. He can't truly go back to the status quo. Next time I'll talk about that possibility of refusal.

1 comment:

Chicory said...

This is a nice post. I love thinking about the Hero Journey, whether figurative or literal. :)