This post is the first in a series I’m beginning on The Hero’s Journey story structure. It’s important to note, you can use any structure you like. In fact, go crazy, have fun. But, some of the most popular (I won’t say best) films use this structure. Notable examples include the Star Wars flicks and pretty much anything Disney makes.
I’m not saying it’s the best structure you can use. What I am saying is that if you’re writing popular fiction (as opposed to literary) you could do worse than to at least try to understand how this structure works. The best way I know to do that is to apply it to anything and everything, films and stories you encounter every day, to become more comfortable with it.
This is a mish-mosh of The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and it’s use in the movie, Clash of the Titans.
When we see Perseus on the fishing boat with his family, where he tells his father he’s exactly where he wants to be, we are seeing his Ordinary World and his desire to remain there.
The Call to Adventure
Perseus is called to act when Hades destroys his family’s fishing boat, killing his parents and sister.
Refusal of the Call
Perseus denies an ability to avenge his parents and save Argos. He says, “I’m just a fisherman.”* However, since this would be a pretty shoddy story (and story structure) if that was The End, Perseus’s desire for revenge and pretty much everyone in Argos telling him he’s a demigod, he’s The. Only. One. who can save them, and the reveal that God’s have been screwing with him his entire life convinces Perseus to go with it.
Meeting with the Mentor/Supernatural Aid
Perseus receives both. The Mentor archetype soldier, whose name I can’t be bothered to remember, trains him with a sword. Perseus also receives a stick that becomes a sword (“Um, thanks?”) and finds Pegasus, who will make an appearance later. It’s worth noting, at least for the purposes of meaningfulness in a a later stage, Perseus refuses these gifts and anything to do with his biological father, Zeus. Or Gods of any kind. He really has a hate on for notMen.
Crossing the Threshold
Perseus moves beyond the world he left behind but, more important, leaves behind the man who was just a fisherman, when Calibos attacks and leaves the thoughtful gift of ginormous scorpions to kill everyone. The band of soldiers, hunters, Perseus, and wise woman/hottie Io can’t defeat the scorpions. But! They do defeat several of them, working together, and Perseus himself kills one all on his own in a rather disgusting bit of pwnage best described as, “I will stab you from underneath, then burst through your body, covered in your slimy guts, to emerge from you victorious!”
Belly of the Whale
Not included in Vogler’s version but still relevant, this is the final separation from the known world and self and a bonus rebirthing. Perseus nearly dies from the bite Calibos gave him because Calibos has poisonous bad-guy cooties. There were no rabies shots or penicillin back then, so one of the Djinn covers him in blue fire stuff they just happen to keep on hand and Perseus is reborn! Or, at least, healed.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies/The Road of Trials
Vogler kind of gives us an open invitation here to allow our hero to pick up minions, piss off new enemies, and pass tests that are increasingly difficult but not the most difficult. The Djinn join Perseus and his group to travel to the Sister Witches with the hairy eyeball. They point Perseus toward Medusa and also offer him doom and gloom, “You’ll die trying!”* predictions. The Djinn, save one, take off. Apparently, domesticating scorpions and healing poisonous bites are one thing; but let someone predict failure, and they’re all, “We’re taking our scorpions and going home. Screw this.”
Approach to the Inner Most Cave
This is the trip to find Medusa. They must face Charon and the scary boat pulled by tortured dead people in the River Styx (nice touch). Once there, Perseus gives a speech about how everyone, including the woman and the Djinn (who isn’t a man at all) are the greatest men he’s ever known. Put a nail in the coffin, boys. That speech means you’re all dead men walking, at this point.
The Meeting of the Goddess
In a bit of BDSM, er training, Perseus and Io get all punching each other/flirty. This somehow declares her The One He Loves as well as tempts him, for like 5 seconds, into abandoning his quest. Or, at least, putting it on hold while they get busy in the boat to hell. Which they don’t do. Of course.
Perseus, and his ever smaller entourage, must face Medusa. No man has survived, danger, danger, danger, etc. But, being clever and a demigod, Perseus does. Survive, I mean.
Basically, everyone dies. Everyone. Except Perseus, of course. Because he’s The One. Even Io, who Perseus is so happy to see, despite losing all of his friends five minutes ago. Until she also dies at the hands of Calibos.
Atonement with the Father
Perseus has so many dads (biological father who is the ruler of all the gods; man who raised him; King who is his stepdad, or would’ve been had he not tried to kill Perseus and his biological mother). Clearly, fathers are a theme here. Anyway, Perseus embraces the gifts from Zeus (his biological father) that he spurned earlier and finally kills Calibos (the killer stepdad/King). After he impales Calibos with his magic stick/sword (WTH is up with that gift?), there’s some light show signifying… something, and Calibos is all, “Don’t become one of them,”* in a total, “I’m sorry I tried to kill you….notmySon,”** moment.
Woman as Temptress/The Road Back
I wouldn’t say Perseus is ready to abandon his goal, but he is certainly willing to jeopardize his ability to get there in time to actually prevent anything or save anyone because he won’t leave Io as she lay dying. She tells him to go and he does when she turns into a yellow mist and swirls away.
The Reward/The Ultimate Boon
Medusa’s head. In a bag. The snakes in her head still slither. It’s one hell of a creepy boon.
Rescue from Without
Seeing as Perseus only had one coin for the hell boat, he needs a way home. And fast! The eclipse is approaching! Ah, but there he is: Pegasus. How did he get there? I mean, we’re on the other side of the Underworld. How did he know when to come? Don’t know. I guess that’s why magical horses are more awesome then normal ones. That, and they can fly.
The Road Back/Magical Flight
Perseus makes it back to Argos only to have one of Hades’s minions steal Medusa’s head away! He flies all through the city chasing it while people die. A lot. But, the important thing is, the princess lives.
With a lunge from Pegasus, freefalling, Perseus manages to hunt down the head from the last minion (something he couldn’t do while flying), open it up, and turn the Kraken to stone. Hades threatens to kill Perseus (not sure why he couldn’t do that before…? Zeus didn’t care at that point, basically denouncing his son for “not praying”*, but whatever) but Zeus, fickle as always, is pissed at Hades for trying to destroy him and Olympus and so he fills Perseus’s magic stick/sword with lightning and Perseus sends Hades back to the underworld. (Opening the way for a sequel. No, really. It’s coming out next year.)
Return with the Elixir/The Crossing of the Return Threshold
This isn’t so much bringing back something awesome/magical/new (in this story). It’s more his acceptance of who he is, a demigod–though he’ll always identify more as man than god. It’s the wisdom and the courage he gained through the journey. At any rate, he dives into the ocean and rescues Andromeda (maybe she’s the elixir!) but turns her down when she proposes he be the new king (and, also, you know, her husband). Because he’s not a leader (god); he’s just a man.
Master of Two Worlds/Freedom to Live
Zeus is all proud papa now and summons the yellow swirl that is Io so they can live happily ever after. At least, until the sequel.
*Quotes aren’t exact quotes. I’m too lazy for that. Quotes, in this post, are more best-remembered paraphrasing.
**That one isn’t a paraphrase at all. Or a quote. It’s more of a subtext.
For hero’s journey, go see Kal Bashir’s excellent material at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html