To give our traveling metaphor a bit of a rest, I’ll take up another for just a moment. Say you get a call from someone out of the blue. Might be someone you know, might not. In any case, the call comes at an inconvenient moment – you might be with friends, you might be with a loved one. Maybe you’re in the middle of a project or on the line with someone already. Whatever the case may be, you have a choice. Do you answer the call, or do you ignore it and continue on with whatever you were doing?
That, at its core, is what Refusal of the Call is all about.
This is the moment in the Hero’s Journey where two paths present themselves to our Hero. He can answer the Call to Adventure, propelling himself into the unknown, or he can ignore it and continue on the predictable path before him. It’s a very important moment of the story, the first real test of our Hero. Which will he choose? Well, obviously he’ll go on to the adventure, but most people who are set in their ways don’t just drop everything to embrace the possibilities of tomorrow. They’re either happy with their status quo, or in denial about the need for adventure.
Heroes should resist the Call to Adventure, at least initially. They should be stubborn or resistant – maybe not overly so, but enough to let the audience know that this is a step that is not taken lightly. Let them get a taste of the consequences of inaction, and allow that to propel them forward into the journey. One example of this kind of Refusal – and you’ll have to forgive that this is a movie example, not a literary one – is in The Matrix, when Neo gets a literal Call to Adventure from Morpheus. Rather than follow his future Mentor’s advice, however, Neo’s Refusal of the Call leads to capture and a terrifying encounter with Agent Smith.
Refusal of the Call doesn’t always come from the Hero, however. Said Hero might leap at the opportunity to go on the grand adventure, but something – or someone – else is keeping him from taking that first step, causing the Refusal. Harry Potter would love nothing more than to escape from the custody of his aunt and uncle, but his guardians simply will not let him escape their cruel treatment by going to Hogwarts. They’re so adamant about their Refusal of the Call that they try to take Harry far away to keep the letters of summons from reaching him, but the Call is never so easily denied…
Finally, we have the ongoing Journey of our young Hero, Rob, and his own Refusal of the Call. Unemployed, he has a great opportunity now to break free of the soul-crushing retail job he’s been working and follow his dream – to write his first novel. Rather than rise to the challenge, he wallows in his own feelings of inadequacy and withdraws from family and friends alike, convinced that he’ll never amount to anything. His passive Refusal of the Call manifests in a self-delusional state of escapism, where video games and roleplaying games become his reality in an attempt to replace the pain of his circumstances. And all the while, the money dwindles with each bill that needs to be paid.
This Refusal gives us a glimpse of the downward spiral that is sure to be the destruction of our Hero if he doesn’t change his ways and rise to the challenge presented to him. Sometimes a Hero needs help facing that adventure, though, someone to teach and guide our protagonist on his Journey. Sometimes, the Hero needs a Mentor.
We’ll discuss Meeting the Mentor in the next installment of the Hero’s Journey.