Monday, February 22, 2010

The Hero's Journey

I’ve made mention a few times of the Hero’s Journey and its impact on the format of my story, but I haven’t really elaborated on what it is and how it shapes my narrative. I think it’s time to change that.

At its core, nearly every story ever told follows some variation of the Hero’s Journey, dating all the way back to ancient cultures and their mythology. From the original epics all the way up to modern movies, the Hero’s Journey is exactly that – the path a protagonist takes through the narrative and the events that happen along that road. The Hero’s Journey was originally mapped out by the esteemed Joseph Campbell, and The Writer’s Journey updates those concepts for the entertainment industry. If you want a comprehensive look at the Hero’s Journey, you can pick up the aforementioned book or Mr. Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this and future posts, I’ll be hitting the highlights, particularly as they apply to my writing.

First of all, the Hero’s Journey is a catch-all title that encompasses both genders. While the concept of the boy going out on an adventure to become a man is a time-honored staple of this model, the “Hero” part of the Hero’s Journey refers just as easily to women as it does men. In point of fact, one of the three individual Hero’s Journeys that stretch through my trilogy focuses on a female protagonist. One could even say her journey is the catalyst that sets the other two journeys into motion…

Secondly, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t always refer to an actual physical journey. While it often takes the form of a road trip or some other method of travelling to experience the danger and excitement that awaits us outside our front door, this isn’t always the case. A spiritual or emotional journey, one that takes place within as opposed to without, can also fall under this category. This version of the Hero’s Journey may not take the audience to exotic locales, but it may take them through a path of self-discovery as they follow the protagonist through a crisis of faith or a new relationship.

And finally, the Hero’s Journey isn’t just a structure for popular fiction. As Chris Vogler mentions in his book, writers – indeed, all people – go through their own personal Hero’s Journey in their lives. There’s a reason these types of stories resonate so well with audiences, and that’s because we can see a reflection of that adventure playing out day by day. Most of us can recognize the everyday version of those classic story figures – the mentor who taught us everything we know, the gatekeeper keeping us from progressing to the next stage of our journey, the allies who have aided us along the way – and can relate to the dramatized scenarios that much more because of it. Because of this, I’ll be illustrating each stage of the Hero’s Journey through the next few posts by drawing upon (highly fictionalized*) examples in my own life.

Put on your boots and strap yourselves in, we’re about to go on a Hero’s Journey!

* All names and some details will be changed to protect the innocent… and not so innocent.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Old Is Too Old?

Age is such a funny thing. Some put so much stock in their age that it seems nearly everything revolves around the year, month, day and sometimes even hour of their birth, not to mention the phase of the moon, position of the sun, and alignment of the stars. To others, it’s just a number, yet another way of tracking time and nothing more. It’s all relative, after all. Too old to one person is too young to another. Some would give anything to be young again, while others can’t wait to hit certain landmark years. I know I was eager to hit my 21st birthday, but not so much for the 30th.

There’s one thing that the publishing industry can agree on, though – YA fiction has a specific age bracket attached to it, and if you want to publish in that genre, you’d better keep that in mind.

For the record, Young Adult is roughly the equivalent of 12-21. Wikipedia will tell you it’s 14-21, but while that may be the antiquated view of it, the truth as I understand it expands the category by a couple years. Kids today are much more sophisticated in terms of their growth and understanding, and if a kid is reading any books at all in this age of blockbuster movies and groundbreaking video games, he’s already ahead of the curve. When I hear stories of 13-year olds reading Shakespeare outside of their school’s required reading, I have to take that 14-21 designation with a grain of salt. Hence my 12-21 version, which I think is more accurate than the “official” version when you consider that the stories themselves feature main characters who are roughly the same age as the readers. After all, Harry Potter found out he was a wizard at age 11.

This, of course, brings me to my own books. In the first draft, my protagonist was 17 and in his final year of high school. Graduation was not far off for him, and beyond that, the College World. His friends were the same age, and some of them already had jobs to hold down. As originally written, the main characters were at the tail end of the Young Adult category, which didn’t leave them a lot of room to grow up with the readers.

I’ve since come to realize that this was a Big Mistake.

Like any performance art, you want to make an authentic connection with your audience to take them on an emotional journey through the story of your art. For me, this means making characters that my readers can identify with so they can experience vicariously everything that the characters go through. If I was writing a one-shot story, the 17-year old might fly, but not when I’m writing a series of books. If the character is going to grow and change and mature through the series, it would only make sense for the reader to be able to grow and change and mature with them, to solidify that connection with the audience.

In other words, it was time to strip a few years off their young lives. Mwa-hahahahaha!

Don’t worry, my characters are fine. They are, however, a few years younger. By putting their age closer to the early range of the Young Adult crowd (or, by my own classification, more toward the middle), it gives them a lot more room for growth – and, by extension, more room for the readers to develop with them on their own journeys. Whichever character you feel more of a kinship to, you can be right there to see how they grow into the world around them book after book. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll inspire you on the course of your own personal Hero’s Journey.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Quick Take on the Super Bowl

My hometown team, the New Orleans Saints, won the Super Bowl this past weekend! The final score was Saints 31, Colts 17, which makes me happy as all could be. When I was a kid, I had resigned myself to never seeing the Saints win a game. Now I live in a world where they're Super Bowl champions.

Let that be a lesson - hard work and determination (and maybe a little luck) pays off, big time.

As a consequence to my game-watching this weekend, my usual lengthy post will be somewhat delayed, but not overly much. It's coming, I swear it!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Let There Be Structure!

Now that I had my audience in mind, I was ready to go forth and reshape my story to fit the Young Adult Fiction mold.

This was no easy task, I’ll have you know. I wrote the first draft of my story with only a few characters in mind and an attitude of “Let’s see how they react when I throw this curveball at them” toward writing the tale. It made for fun storytelling, but my retooling of the narrative thus far had only reinforced the fact that I really didn’t have a solid framework to build my story upon. It was a beautiful example of stream of consciousness writing, but that’s all it was. Fixing this, of course, would have to be the first order of business.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to find this new structure all by myself.

Through Barbara, I was able to contact her own writing coach, the very gracious Claudette Sutherland. She read the mess that was my story at that point and helped me figure out what audience I was aiming for. Armed with that information, she put me in touch with someone who could better help me organize my story for a younger crowd, the talented and prolific Michael Scott. The two of us sat down with my modest story and proceeded to break it down to build it up bigger and better than ever.

This sounds like fun, but let me tell you, when you’ve poured so much time and energy into creating something, even the most constructive criticism feels like someone just ripped your puppy apart. The bottom dropped out of my stomach and it took all my effort not to sound defensive at every question directed at why I chose to do what I did with my little manuscript. Even then, I’m sure I looked just like I did when a bully in elementary school tore the arms off of my favorite Star Wars action figure. (Han Solo, for the record.)

All was not lost, however. To the contrary, Mr. Scott freed me from the crutches I’d used in my story so I could walk the road I wanted to travel with my story, a road that would be far more compelling to my readers than the trite journey it had been previously. While I had tossed around the idea of my story as modern-day mythology, he helped me truly focus on what sort of scope I was aiming for. I wasn’t writing for television, or even for a movie, where the size of the story is limited by time and budget constraints. This was a book about gods and mythology as they would be applied to the modern world, and it deserved the same grand scope as the earliest myths of gods and men. (Hm… “Of Gods and Men.” Future book title? I’ll keep that one in reserve.)

To this end, I was instructed to reread one of my favorite books, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and really take a look at the mythic structure and how it can be applied to modern stories. I reviewed the outline of the Hero’s Journey and measured my story by it, changing huge swaths of my narrative to give it the proper feel. The end result, once I’m done writing it, will be an epic in nearly every aspect of the word – and for a hint of what you can expect in my trilogy, check the definition posted in the entry before this one.

I also went back and replotted the original story according to the Hero’s Journey, giving it some actual, honest-to-goodness structure by writing a chapter by chapter summary of the book, then proceeded to do the same with the newly envisioned Book Two and Book Three. It’s still a work in progress as some characters become more prominent and thus necessitate a retooling of the outline to compensate for their new role in the story, but there is now a definitive beginning, middle and end to the whole thing. And while you can enjoy the Hero’s Journey as it is in Book One, the entire trilogy acts as one massive Hero’s Journey for the main characters. Heck, there’s even a Dark Hero’s Journey in place for the antagonist…

There’s more to be said for changing my mess of a draft into a functioning outline for a young adult trilogy, but that’s a story for another time. At least now you’re all mostly caught up with where I am in the process of writing my grand narrative. Stay tuned, I’m just getting started!