When I was about 23 (give or take a year), I thought I’d made a discovery that NOBODY ELSE in the ENTIRE WORLD had ever noticed before:
Most stories follow a clear mythic pattern. There are archetypes (the hero, the mentor, the buddies, the main bad guy, the lesser bad guys), and a trajectory (hero starts in the everyday world, he receives a call to adventure, he hems and haws and tries to get out of it until something forces him onward; a mentor appears when he enters the special world to guide him into his newfound abilities; he fights a series of lesser bad guys to test his skill until finally he faces the Big Boss. He seems to fail (and often seems to die), but then he comes back miraculously, overthrowing the reign of evil and restoring the balance to the world.
I collected examples of this pattern: Harry Potter was what first made me see it, but Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, Star Wars — all of these big classics followed essentially that structure. Even movies that aren’t fantasy still have elements of this structure… at least if they’re good. I based my whole concept for the “Piercing the Veil” trilogy on this idea.
Around the same time I’d heard of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” but I never read it. But now I’m reading “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Voegler, and he derives his mythic pattern from Joseph Campbell’s outline (which is TOTALLY the one I thought I’d discovered for the first time, except in far more detail).
Anyway, Voegler is a screenwriter and screenplay analyst for Disney (among other films). Now I understand why I like Disney so much… they use this structure for ALL of their movies! It’s a fascinating read, watching a veteran screenplay analyst break down movies I’ve seen but actually never thought of this way, down to these constituent parts…
But even better, he makes analogies to real life situations. Isn’t this the reason why we love stories that follow this structure? We’re all the heroes of our own stories, and at least at some point, we all feel the call to adventure on our own Hero’s Journey. But will we resist out of fear, or complacency? Or will some outside force finally compel us to take the leap of faith into the Special World we’ve always known was out there? When we try to take that leap of faith, will some Threshold Guardian block our way, and make us turn back… or will we absorb his lessons and become stronger for having faced him? Will we heed the lessons from our mentors? Will we pass the tests we face along the way so that we can ultimately find our destinies?
We love stories like this because we identify with the heroes in them… we know that’s us, or at least it’s supposed to be. Vicariously, we see ourselves taking the leap and overcoming the obstacles that we may be too fearful to overcome in our own lives. This is why I believe stories are important… because they’re not just stories. They are parables, with lessons to teach.
After more than a decade of knowing about it, I am finally going to read “The Hero with A Thousand Faces”… I can’t believe it’s taken me this long!