Posted by: Alastair Rosie | August 12, 2012

The Hero’s Journey: Part One. The Ordinary World

The Hero’s Journey, mythic cycles, mentors, wise old woman, threshold guardian. Words that have some writers scratching their heads and yet they are important plot elements or structure in just about every book or play since Aristotle.

The Hero’s Journey is not a formula for success and one could argue that it’s not even a formula at all. The guidelines for Harlequin are a formula, they are quite specific about what happens in their books, go to the website and check for yourself. You couldn’t have the heroine suddenly going off with her lesbian best friend, her love must be male, mysterious, perhaps frightening but eventually she must fall in love with him and they live happily ever after.

So what is the Hero’s Journey? And by ‘hero’ we’re referring to both men and women. In short, it is simply the journey the hero takes from the Ordinary World into an Extra-ordinary world or New World. Along the way our hero encounters allies, mentors, threshold guardians and finally the descent into the belly of the whale or inmost cave where they fight a monster, seize the sword and return to their ordinary world with some kind of benefit or boon for their ordinary world. This structure is so embedded in our consciousness that Campbell postulated it was perhaps the mono myth, one that could be found throughout history all over the world. The names, tasks, rewards and geography changed but the story remained the same.

The Hero’s Journey is played out every day all over the world. Each and every one of us has been on a hero’s journey. Have you ever started a new job? Do you remember that job interview, trying to convince the interviewer that you were the right person for the job? They believed you and a few days later you started your new job and you were in a new world, it may have been similar to your old world or job but you were on a hero’s journey. Along the way you met allies, threshold guardians, mentors, probably fought a monster and maybe even descended to the belly of the whale. At some point you might even change jobs, you will emerge from your journey/job and hopefully you will have learned from the experience. Ever been married? If you’re still married then you’re on a Hero’s Journey. Did you get divorced? Another Hero’s Journey. Survived cancer? A Hero’s Journey. Gone on an extended vacation, moved into a new house or neighbourhood? You’ve gone on a Hero’s Journey. Moved to another country? You’re on a Hero’s Journey.

Thus the mythic structure we see so often in books and movies, and play out in video games has an inner resonance. We’re comfortable with it and so we keep reading, watching or playing.

The Hero’s Journey has different versions, ranging from seven basic plots to about forty but at the heart of every plot or sub-plot we have the Hero’s Journey. It’s something we’re going to explore in detail and hopefully at the end you’ll have a better understanding of the Hero’s Journey. You’ll know the difference between a mentor and a shapeshifter, the dark mother and the light mother and when you look at old movies and reread books you’ll begin to identify them. Look at the book you’re writing now, who is the hero and who is the mentor? Who is your threshold guardian and where is your inmost cave?

Ready?

Then let’s begin with the actual cycle or journey first.

The Journey begins with the Ordinary World. Luke Skywalker’s ordinary world is on Tatooine, Rose’s Ordinary World in Titanic is the society into which she was raised, the privileged world of high society, Jack’s on the other hand is a little more lowbrow. The new world they step into is the Titanic. Scarlett’s Ordinary World is the plantation. Boudica’s in Dreaming the Eagle is Icenia in 32AD. Angela Bennet’s Ordinary World in The Net is her home in suburbia.

So your Ordinary World can be anywhere, from a moon somewhere out there in a mythical universe to an actual location on Earth, and can take place in the deep distant past, as in Dreaming the Eagle to the recent history of The Net. The Ordinary World is however very familiar. We all live in an Ordinary World even if things aren’t ideal.

Your Ordinary World is where you introduce the reader to your world. It’s the place where any back story takes place, whether you write a prologue, introduction or just jump straight into chapter one. In Braveheart the Ordinary World was introduced with a subtitle giving the year and the place. It tells the reader where they are right now. A distant planet? A dystopian world? First Century Britain? Here you have the opportunity to tell us about your Ordinary World. It might be idyllic, almost perfect, until you introduce the threat that will drive your hero out into the Extraordinary World in order to set their Ordinary World to rights.

Titanic was an interesting movie because we had two Ordinary Worlds, the world of the salvage crew who first go down to Titanic, and the one that begins with a much younger Rose stepping onto the deck of the Titanic and Jack sitting in a pub playing cards. One comes at the very start and tells us where we are right now and the other goes back to when Titanic was still afloat.

The Ordinary World is where you meet the hero, you may meet the first victim and antagonist if it’s a murder story. It’s where you connect with the reader and if you fail to make that connection then there’s a good chance they’ll put the book down.

Go back to your book and look once more at your Ordinary World. Should we really care about this world in the first place? Is the looming threat on the horizon bad enough to damage or destroy this world? Do we find problems in this Ordinary World that need to be answered? Rose’s dilemma in Titanic is obvious from the moment she boards Titanic. She’s agreed to marry a man she despises just to please a vain, self-serving mother. The salvage crew are of course searching for the Heart of the Ocean. One searches for love, the other for wealth, two of the strongest desires known to humanity.

Angela’s Ordinary World in The Net has more subtle overtones of dysfunction, she finds it hard to relate to people face to face. Boudica, or Breaca, in Dreaming the Eagle has just killed a Coritani warrior and lost her mother in a Coritani raid. The larger looming threat is vague at first but is soon revealed as Rome and a society that is in danger of losing its unique cultural identity.

In The Deepening Dark I have introduced my heroine, Rhianna watching the arrival of the Bulkarans. Her husband has died several weeks ago leaving her in control of Haydutia and the coming of the Bulkarans is an obvious threat when we learn that they have conquered half the region of Tuath and are marching eastwards through Haydutia. Your Ordinary World is your best chance to hook the reader. Give us someone or something to care about, a world that should be preserved or a world that needs changed as in Joan Wilder’s world in Romancing the Stone or Lyra’s world in The Golden Compass/Northern Lights.

Go back to your Ordinary World and read it with a critical eye. Should we care about this world? Have you asked questions that must be answered? Do you care about your principal character enough to write a whole book about their journey? Don’t skimp on it but don’t overdo it either. In a cinema the lights are going down and people are making themselves comfortable. With a book the reader is settling in to absorb your Ordinary World. Your description will either cause them to turn the page or close the book.

Do your homework and reread books. How is the Ordinary World introduced? Did it work for you and why? If not, why not? Why did you keep reading? How can you take the lessons learned and incorporate them into your own Ordinary World?

Have a good writing week and I wish you the very best in your writing career.

Alastair Rosie.

Here are a few more examples of Ordinary Worlds. What are your favourite Ordinary Worlds?

Nim’s Island in the movie of the same name.

The Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring

Wragby Hall in Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Forks in Twilight. You could also say Phoenix as well.

Kansas in Wizard of Oz

Chicago in the movie Hope Floats.

Sources:

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers by Christopher Vogler.

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Responses

  1. Fantastic post! I’ll be going back through my novels now 🙂
    Thank you for sharing

  2. Good point of views, a writer should trigger on these points to write a better copy.

  3. Nice piece of writing today. Thanks for sharing.

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