By Connie Flynn
Many people who read Chris Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY for the first time find themselves forgetting it's about writing. Vogler's world seems so real. We know these people–the threshold guardians who block our way, the shapeshifters who betray us, the mentor who guides us. We've experienced the hero's reluctance to start, the setbacks on the journey, the moments when all seems lost.
By the same token, many writers puzzle over how to apply this material to their own writing. The possible reason is that we take a literal approach and think of archetypes as characters and the stages of the journey as plot points.
HOW THE JOURNEY REALLY WORKS.
The Campbell archetypes are story roles and placeholders more than characterization. Many of the archetypes can be held by more than one person. Some of them can be held by an animal, an object or even a place.
A character could be a feisty nine-year-old boy and still alternately assume the role of shapeshifter, threshold guardian and mentor through his actions and dialogue. Writers must still build a unique personality for the characters and overlay them with archetypes as the story dictates. By using the roles to aid or present obstacles to the hero as he travels, we can combine their function with other characterization techniques that create rich and textured characters.
The stages of the journey are events that should meld into your story, rather than become plot points themselves. It helps to divide the journey into four stages.
In the first stage the Hero, transitions from the known (ordinary) world to the unknown (special) world. The archetype used to create the call to action (Herald) doesn't necessarily require a character. It could be a letter, a dropped object, a barking dog that draws the hero from his bed into a pack of monsters.
The second stage has the Hero fully entering the special world to face tests and enemies, and gains allies. Here, the Mentor is most visible, and the Hero will never depend on him more. A trusted ally or love interest may become a betraying Shapeshifter, the Trickster may show up as capricious weather or the town idiot. The Shadow pops up to test the Hero's resolve. The Hero is beaten down.
In the third stage the Hero faces the Supreme Ordeal. Escape comes only by seeing the danger through. An old ally may return. A loved one may die. The Hero experiences a near-death or a psychological death. Something will be lost, a sacrifice made. Reward comes in the form of new knowledge or a weapon that foretells success.
In stage four the Hero escapes. Guardians and Shadows are hot on their heels. The Hero again stares death in the face and is resurrected through a new skill or perspective. The prize is seized. The love interest is won. The Hero's acts have transformed the ordinary world and he returns to accolades.
During all these events the archetypes and stages of the journey exist only as pressure points to create story conflict and contrast. If they don't serve that purpose, they should be skipped.
Endings do not have to be happy or details nicely tied up. The journey itself is circular and can lead into a new journey. But in classic romance fiction, the Hero always gets the girl. And the bad guy always gets punished. Unless, of course, there's a sequel in the works.
Connie Flynn is a co-founder of Bootcamp for Novelists Online and will teach Applying the Hero's Journey, a six week clinic, beginning May 23rd.