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Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero's Journey

June 17, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Link has been on many a journey.

For the past several years I've been going to talks and reading books about the Hero's Journey, but the concept always seemed vague to me. There are all these stages that the hero may (or may not) have to go through, and all these characters whom he may encounter: the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Shape Shifter, the Trickster, etc.

But then we're told that he may not have to meet them after all, or that different mythical characters can be combined into one individual, the whole thing seems so confusing that it's hard to know what to make of it. Interesting reading, but how does it help?

So our question for today is, "what practical use is the Hero's Journey to us as story tellers and game writers?"

Why The Hero's Journey Is Important

What makes the hero's journey so important? Why should we bother with it?

It's important because myths are important.

Myths convey the values of society. Myths are how we teach each other who we are and how we should behave.

Myths actively guide our actions. They're not dusty old stories in a book, or crumbling temples in a far-off land. 62% of people in America say they believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and that became a critical factor in the election of George Bush to the White House. Suicide bombers in Iraq believe by blowing themselves up in their holy cause, they will go directly to Paradise and will this day be with Allah. Game developers believe that if we work just a little bit harder, we'll soon see fat royalty checks.

In The Cry For Myth, Rollo May points out four areas where myths are still active in modern life

  • Myths give us our sense of personal identity, answering the question, "Who am I?"
  • Myths make possible our sense of community. We are thinking mythically when we show loyalty to our town our nation or our team. Loyalties to our friends or community are the result of strong myths that reinforce social bonding.
  • Myths are what lie underneath our moral values.
  • Mythology is our way of dealing with the inscrutable mystery of creation and death.

It turns out that myths are wired into us. The fields of evolutionary biology and psychology tell us there is an adaptive advantage to myths.

Evolutionary biologist William Hamilton discovered and proved the theory of "kin selection." Until Hamilton , "fitness" was measured by whether a particular creature passed on its genes - the familiar "Survival of the Fittest." Hamilton introduced the idea of "inclusive fitness," which is to say that the true measure of evolutionary fitness is a gene's ability to promote the survival of copies of itself, perhaps in siblings or in cousins.

Steven Pinker writes: "The vast majority of altruistic acts in the animal kingdom benefit the actor's kin. The most extreme examples are social insects like ants and bees, in which the workers give their all to the colony."

Applying that to humans, I would say that people who figured out where the dangerous animals lived and how to avoid them survived longer than people who didn't. And people who banded into tribes to tell each other what they had learned, survived even longer. But the genes of the people who acted in ways to preserve their tribe (as opposed to just themselves), are the genes that ultimately survived the longest, and those are the genes we all carry within us today.

Tribes that found ways to encourage people to act for the good of the tribe, rather than for the good of the individual, are the tribes that survived. How did they accomplish this? Through myths, parables, and stories - not just the stories about where the wooly mammoths hang out and what the best way is to kill them, but parables, like the Good Samaritan, which tells us we should always look out for the other guy, and epic tales like Beowulf, who doesn't just give us a good story, but who becomes a model for our behavior.

In his book, The Key, James Frey writes, "Beowulf's heroic deeds convey to the other members of the tribe how they must act. They, like Beowulf must be self-sacrificing, and brave, fight evil, and so on. Heroes are our models: their stories convey to each succeeding generation the cultural values of the tribe."

If you can convince an individual to go to his personal death so the group has a better chance of living, that's a very powerful and effective societal tool.

By definition, we are the biological descendents of the tribes who told stories to survive.

Carl Jung argued that mythical motifs are structural elements of the psyche. In fact he went further to argue that there are patterns that are biologically present in our brains. He gave these patterns the name "the collective unconscious." Just as Pinker believes humans have the capacity for grammar wired into our brains, waiting for a particular language to come along and imprint itself upon us, Jung believed we have mythic structures built into us, waiting for a particular belief system to be imprinted upon us by the culture we grow up in.

Frey writes, "When a human encounters some version of a myth, he responds at a very deep level, subconsciously, and he is powerfully drawn to it as by magic. The force of myth is irresistible. Mythic forms and mythic structures are the foundation on which all good stories are built; these forms and structures are the key a good storyteller can use to create powerful fiction."

So storytelling, as a way to make sense of the world, is wired into our brains. It is something we are compelled to do, in the same way that spinning a web is wired into a spider and building a nest is wired into birds.

How powerful are myths? Without them to guide our lives, we are lost.

Rollo May writes that to remain sane, every individual must bring order and coherence into the stream of sensations and emotions entering his consciousness. "Each one of us is now forced to do for ourselves what in previous ages was done by family, custom, church, and state - namely, create for ourselves the myths that will let us make some sense of experience."

May further says, "Myths carry on the essential task of trying to create meaning out of our lives and actions, in a world that doesn't notice or care" (emphasis added).

If you take away a man's myth, the result is mental illness, depression, and the loss of the will to live. Each of us needs to believe that we matter, that our lives have meaning. We find that meaning in the personal myths we create for ourselves. And we actively seek out activities that reinforce those myths.

The best-known traditional myth-reinforcing activity is storytelling and literature. I believe that games also fall into that category and will argue for that in a minute. But first let's take a look at the function of literature.

In his book Myth and Modern Man, Raphael Patai wrote: "Literature has the power to move us profoundly precisely because of its mythical quality... because of the mystery in the face of which we feel an awed delight or terror. The real function of literature in human affairs is to continue myth's endeavor to create a meaningful place for man in a world oblivious of his presence."

Literature proves there is order in the universe. It says that, in life, moral choices lead to outcomes. In fiction, there is meaning to human events. Because myths help us create meaning in our lives - in the face of a universe that doesn't even know we're here - the myths in our stories reaffirm the values of our culture and teach us "the way we should be."

It turns out there is a universal mythological structure underlying good and popular stories, and the Hero's Journey is the most useful way to get at that structure and use it to create new stories.

Why is this important to games? Rollo May has postulated that narcotics are myth-substitutes because they allow people to assert control over their environment, even if only for a short period of time. I contend that games are another example of myth-substitutes.

In the book " Killing Monsters," Gerard Jones wrote how playing violent games actually helped one young boy named Jonathan: "Games gave Jonathon control over events where he and others felt none and, perhaps even more important, they gave him control over his own feelings. With these games Jonathan no longer felt as helpless. He was not as scared of others or of his own feelings."

So here is the heart this talk (and academics take note, because this may be new). I believe games are essentially myth-reinforcing activities. And I believe that players tend to choose the kinds of games that reaffirm their own personal myths.

For some it might simply be a need to bring order out of chaos. For them, Tetris is a fine way to re-assert that belief, for them to assert some control over an otherwise chaotic world.

But Tetris can't reinforce the belief, for example, that " The good of the many is more important than the good of the one ," or that " it is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all. " If you want to want to reinforce deeper, more complex myths, which in turn can create deeper and more satisfying gameplay experiences, then you need to turn to stories

To write those stories, you need to understand how myths are put together and communicated. And that is why the Hero's Journey is important!

What Is The Hero's Journey?

A professor named Joseph Campbell analyzed thousands of myths and found that some common elements kept popping up. No one myth has been found that contains every one of these elements. But in categorizing them, he tells us that the more of them a narrative has, the more likely it is to strike a deep mythological chord with the audience.

Campbell summarizes these elements, which became known as the Hero's Journey, in these words:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Campbell goes on to make an exhaustive list of all the possible steps in the Journey. But we don't need to write a game that contains every motif ever to appear in a mythical story. Instead we're going to focus on the most important elements - the ones that have to be there. These are:

  • Establishing the hero's world
  • The call to adventure
  • Entering the mythological woods
  • Trail of trials
  • Encountering the evil one
  • Gaining the hero's prize
  • Returning that prize to the community

How Can We Use The Hero's Journey To Build Stories?

The Hero and his prize.

If try to use Campbell 's observations as a template for story building, they suddenly become elusive. Are there 12 parts of the Journey, or only 8, or some number in-between? Must the hero encounter all of Campbell 's archetypical characters, or is it OK if he skips a few?

We are continuously cautioned against using the Hero's Journey as a template. This is right. Campbell 's work is descriptive rather than prescriptive. His job was different than ours. What he was trying to do was catalog common themes, not demand that they all be present in a new story. If that's true, how can we make practical use of it? What are we supposed to put in, and what can we leave out?

When these questions are met with a shrug and the answer, "It depends," we're tempted to leave the whole business to the academics to analyze later, because we've got deadlines to meet and a game to design, and theory is nice, but it doesn't get the script written by Friday.

First let's take a quick look at two things NOT to do.

  • Don't look at all the possible steps in the Hero's Journey and make sure you've got them all in there and in the proper order. Fiction is flexible.
  • Don't make a list of all of Campbell 's mythological characters and try to find a spot for each of them in your story. The Herald, the Threshold Guardian, the Trickster, the Shape Shifter, etc. Just create the characters you need to tell your story and you'll be fine.

So what DO you do?

Step #1: Pick Your Premise

First, pick your premise - your theme, your myth.

Myths and stories consciously or subconsciously influence behavior. So you must decide what you think is important and make your game about that.

You must decide how you want people to behave or think differently after playing your game than before.

This is not a license for preaching. It's the emotional connection you will create with the gameplayer, built up through time as he experiences the different facets of the issue that you have built into the game.

Lajos Egri says in The Art of Dramatic Writing, "The premise tells you what you need to include and what you need to leave out. The premise is a tyrant."

Step #2: Create Your Hero

Next, create a hero who can embody that premise. Match the hero to your premise.

Some people say we should have started with the hero and the villain first and then build the story around them. Personally, I prefer to start with a premise, and then create a hero and villain who will bring the premise to life. So, for example, if you start by creating an obsessed sea captain and a big white whale, you'll find yourself in trouble if what you really want to write about is that "Love Conquers All."

A hero is a myth in action. Heroes are how the myths are brought to life.

In The Key, James Frey says in addition to being a great dramatic character, the hero usually possesses many of the following qualities:

  • The hero has courage (or finds it in the course of the story).
  • The hero is clever and resourceful.
  • The hero has a "special" talent.
  • The hero is an "outlaw," living by his or her own rules.
  • The hero is good at what he or she does for a living.
  • The hero is a protagonist (takes the lead in the action at some point in the story).
  • The hero has been "wounded" (maimed, disgraced, grieving for a lost loved one, etc.) or becomes wounded in the course of the story.
  • The hero is motivated by idealism (at least at some point in the story).
  • The hero is sexually potent.

STEP #3: Create a great villain.

Next, create a great villain.

It's an old writer's saying that, "The strength of your villain is the strength of your story." There's no point in having your hero triumph over a weak villain. Your audience will say, "So what?"

Great villains are memorable characters, Often much more memorable than the heroes themselves. (Think of Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter).

The greatest myth-based stories are those of the self-sacrificing hero pitted against the self-centered Evil One.

Here are some characteristics of the Evil One that Frey outlines in his book:

  • Traits similar to hero
  • May be full of hubris
  • May be an outlaw
  • Clever and resourceful
  • May be wounded
  • May have a special talent
  • May have great sex appeal
  • Traits dissimilar to the hero
  • Motivated by greed, avarice, lust for power, vanity, narcissism, and so on.
  • Never acts out of idealism, although he may have an evil cause he believes in.
  • Is often cruel
  • May win by luck, which the hero never does
  • Is not forgiving
  • Might quit - but only at the very end
  • May whine and grovel, which the hero isn't allowed to do.
  • May not be stoical like the hero
  • May not be loyal
  • Usually not physically superior - though his or her sidekick may be
  • No special birth or special destiny, though he may falsely claim one

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