The Archetype of the Narrative
What makes narrative work? What are the essential qualities of a story? What building blocks do storytellers employ when they craft fiction? Every story will have its own unique concepts, carefully woven plot, and novel characters, but they also share some innate similarities.
In school we are first taught about a story’s beginning, middle, and end. Later, we are introduced to the ideas of rising action, a climax, and resolution. Most people are familiar with the three-act structure so prevalent in screen and playwriting. Many people have come up with ideas about structure over time, from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell.
But the most poignant of these concepts, in my eyes, is The Hero’s Journey. If you’re a writer, no doubt you have come across this concept at some point. Dan Harmon, writer and creator of popular television series such as Community and Rick and Morty, recently brought this concept back into the public eye with his story circle. Harmon’s story circle boils down narrative to its most basic form, aside from Aristotle’s beginning middle and end, and is straightforward to understand. Many episodes of serialised television, especially sitcoms, will follow this structure to a tee.
But many feel, as do I, that Harmon’s story circle is too formulaic. It is heavily based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey. This idea is one of the most widespread and influential ideas in modern media. George Lucas credits this as the inspiration for Star Wards, calling Joseph Campbell “My Yoda”. Detailed extensively in his epically long The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell compares religions and myths from the beginning of human history. He finds similarities in myths told be peoples and cultures thousands of miles and years apart.
The Hero’s Journey is made up of 17 stages. There are countless articles which explain and look at these stages. Not all stories use every step, but they all contain at least a few. Why is it that this structure in particular is so prevalent, and universal? The truth comes from its origins. By comparing such a massive quantity of stories from such varied cultures, Campbell’s monomyth transcends fiction and narratives. It identifies some of the most common cycles found in the lives of humans throughout history. This structure is built into our very minds.
When presented with a new challenge or opportunity, we are called to adventure. We can either choose to accept that call, or refuse. When we refuse, we often find we are later pushed into a corner and forced to accept and overcome the challenge. We seek out mentors, and encounter threshold guardians. Perhaps this threshold guardian takes the form of a job interview, or the first major fight in a relationship. Whatever it is, we either conquer the challenge, or are defeated. We must overcome our inner weaknesses before we can cross the thresholds.
This process repeats, until eventually we attain what we think we truly want, be it a degree, a new house, or a spouse. But that ‘holy grail’ means something different to us having gone through the trials required to achieve our goal. Finally, we return, and share our new boon with the next generation, perhaps becoming a mentor ourselves.
This hero’s journey directly reflects the lives humans lead. It is why it’s found throughout history so widely. Understanding this structure should not only help you craft better stories, but it should also inform you about your own life. Sometimes it’s hard to accept mentorship. Sometimes, we are defeated by the challenges in life, and we question whether or not we can face that challenge again. Sometimes, after we’ve achieved our goals, we forget to return to those we love. You are the hero of your own life.
Will you accept the call?