The Hero Cycle #1 – The Departure

I still haven’t finished my novel’s first draft, but last week I dug myself out of a bit of a plot hole by relying on . . . my education. Shocking, I know, but it’s nice when those English degrees actually come in handy.

I was having a hard time transitioning from the all the rising action to the climax when I started to look at my main character’s entire journey. I realized that she had, in many ways, followed the traditional “hero cycle” or “hero’s journey” as discussed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m not sure how this escaped me to this point, but it had.

The literary theory behind the hero’s journey involves the basic premise that all literature contains “archetypes” or recurring patterns in myths and stories worldwide. The hero’s journey is one of these patterns, and by understanding the journey, we can then understand the story, the hero, and possibly ourselves or our world a little bit better.

So how does all this apply to writing? It applies because it works. As readers we instinctively understand the steps that a hero must take in order to, well, become a hero. If one of those steps is missing, somehow we know it, and as writers including all of the steps of the journey can not only deepen our work, but just make a well-developed story. It can fill in those missing holes.

Though it might sound complicated, the archetype of the hero cycle is not. Simba in The Lion’s King and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars are two heroes who follow it almost to the letter.  If you like the movie The Sandlot, Bennie follows a hero cycle when he dreams of Babe Ruth and faces “the Beast.”

The first stage of the Hero Cycle is called The Departure. It is made up of three stages: The Call, The Threshold, and The Helper.  If you research this, you will find a large variety of stages in the cycle and fancy names.  I’m writing about the eight major stages that make the most sense to me and that I teach to my high school students.

In the Call, the hero is somehow “called” to action. This might be through a dream, somebody literally crying out for help, or as in Luke Skywalker’s situation, his family is killed and he finds a robot with a weird princess message on it. Harry Potter gets called by a letter and then a giant on a flying motor cycle. It can be anything as long as it starts the hero on his journey and in some way changes the status quo that is his life.

The next step is the Threshold. This is where the hero decides he’s either going to accept the call and “go for it,” or if he likes life as it is, he stays put and is not a hero after all. A hero chooses to step through the door, or “threshold,” into his new role. He may not be comfortable with this; he may refuse it outright several times, but ultimately, a true hero will accept the call.  Again, think of Luke, Simba, or Harry Potter. They all embark on journeys to help save themselves or their world, but they aren’t necessarily sold on the whole idea at first.

The third piece of “The Departure” is “The Helper.” This stage provides the hero with some sort of aid which might be supernatural in nature or it might just be an object that the hero believes will help him to survive. For example, Simba has his friends and the monkey also gives him advice. Bennie in The Sandlot has his shoes that help him run faster and jump higher. Athena repeatedly helps Odysseus in The Odyssey. Luke has Obi Wan Kenobi and the force. Harry gets a wand and two true friends.  In essence, every traditional hero has some sort of object or people that help them along the way.

I’ll write more about the next two stages of the hero cycle over the next two weeks. Even if you don’t think you’re writing or even reading about a traditional hero, you might be surprised to find how prevalent this archetypal pattern appears in both contemporary and historical fiction. It really does speak to us, it just makes for a good story, and now I know it can rescue us when we’re stuck.

The hero’s journey image is from the Wikimedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.

Getting Characters to Come and Play . . . or Not

I’ve been waiting for someone.  This is not someone I know, but someone I want to get to know.  Actually, she’s a character.  I didn’t realize she was a somewhat major character until last week when her role in my story grew.  Now, I need to get to know her in order to move on, but apparently she’s not nearly as interested in getting to know me as I am in getting to know her.

All week, I’ve been asking myself: what kind of person is she?  What is her name?  Her job?  Her ambitions?  All those things I ask myself as I develop a character, and so far, I’ve gotten nothing.

I almost feel like she’s not quite ready to introduce herself, which is an odd feeling.  Is it me?  Have I done something?  Is it possible to inadvertently offend or intimidate a character who lives in my head?

I realize I sound crazy right now.  I feel a little crazy.

I had big plans for writing this weekend.  It didn’t happen, and I’m starting to blame this character.  To be honest, it’s starting to piss me off.  I want to yell at her, explain that I have a novel to write and a busy life.  My weekends are important for making progress, and it’s all her fault that I’m unable to work on it right now.  This is not a good start to our relationship, unless, of course, for some reason, I’m supposed to not like her much, or she enjoys creating drama.  Maybe that’s it.

I’ve tried all my strategies to jump start my creativity:  running, reading fiction, reading “writing” books, quilting, quieting myself and listening, asking for help right before I go to sleep so my subconscious can work on it while I sleep, wine.  Nothing.

Apparently, I just have to be patient which is not my strong suit, but I feel better already after this little temper tantrum on the page.

For some reason, she’s not ready to introduce herself to me.  I guess I’ll have to trust there’s a reason for that and just hope that this week, she’ll be ready to make a grand entrance.

Six Benefits of Writer’s Block

I’ve been suffering from writer’s block, that hideous stuck feeling when I sit down to write.  Yesterday morning, I finally broke through it, but during my week of being stuck, I spent some time thinking about the benefits of writer’s block. There must be some reason for it or my brain wouldn’t “block” itself in the first place.

Here are the six benefits I came up with:

  1. Your desk will stay clean.  In my life, that’s a small miracle.
  2. You can spend time with family without any guilty feelings that you should be writing.  I spent the weekend as a bona fide soccer mom, traveling to my daughter’s tournament on the other side of the state, visiting with family, baking cookies for my son and not feeling even a little bit guilty for not writing since I still had no words coming to me.
  3. You can catch up on fun stuff like ironing.  All my laundry and ironing is done and no longer clutters up my quilting space, another small miracle.
  4. You can devote some time to alternative creative endeavors. I have a whole appliqué block designed and ready to add to my scrappy quilt top, and I made 25 12” blocks out of extra material from my man quilt.
  5. You have some extra time to get caught up on your reading.  I can’t write unless I read, so I took advantage of it and did just that.
  6. You can start a new different writing project that does strike you.  I began to sketch out a YA novel idea that has been brewing in the back of my mind but hadn’t got to because of my devotion to my work in progress.

I’ve decided to think of writer’s block not as my nemesis, but more as a brain break.  All the activities that I did instead of write somehow fed my creativity in that I didn’t really have to think too much while I did them, leaving some part of my gray matter free to solve my dilemmas in plot and character that had me stopped in the first place.  I enjoyed myself.  I tried not to feel guilty or bad about not getting any writing done, and for the most part I succeeded.

When I sat down to write yesterday and the words started to flow, I couldn’t stop.  I had to force myself away from desk, which already has a nice little pile of messy papers, so I could get to work before the tardy bell.

I’m happy the words are back, but next time I find that I can’t write, I’ll take full, guilt-free, advantage of it, knowing that the words will return.

The Muses Must Play

Yesterday, I sat at the computer all morning, ready to write.  I have a time line here.  It’s summer vacation, and it ends in six weeks.  I need to write . . . NOW!  I have goals!  My muses don’t seem to be getting my sense of urgency as they failed to bless me with their presence for the third day in a row.  Apparently they don’t like to be ordered around.

I felt abandoned, so I tried a few different strategies:  I grabbed a favorite book off the shelf and opened it to a random page, reading great writing for inspiration . . . nothing.

I read a few blogs on writing . . . nothing.

I got on you tube and watched some videos of a fiddler since there’s one in the scene I’m writing . . . nothing.

I kept going and standing in front of the refrigerator.  I wasn’t hungry, but thought that feeding my stomach would possibly feed some ideas into my head . . . nothing, other than to make my ass a little bit cushier when I sit down to write.

Blocks that still aren't all sewn together

Finally, I forced myself to write half the fiddling scene until I gave up and left my computer for my sewing machine.

Maybe stitching a few blocks would inspire me.  I pulled some blocks off my design wall and began to put them together.  I was chain piecing them and at the end of each row instead of pulling the blocks out and snipping the thread, I grabbed two random scraps from my scrap bucket, sewed them together and then clipped the blocks off to press.  A friend showed me this technique to save thread.  Ultimately, you get enough pieces of scraps sewn together, and you have a whole new piece of “scrap” fabric, and maybe a teeny tiny dent in the scrap bucket.

Soon, my blocks were pushed aside, and I found myself surrounded with piles of scraps – the ironing board, the floor, my sewing table, all were covered with little pieces that were growing into bigger pieces.

My "new" scrappy fabric

I had a ball.  It was creative, fun, and probably most important, not forced.  I wasn’t planning on spending three hours making new scrap fabric, but I did.  I completely lost track of time.  I didn’t realize how much I needed to just play.  My muses are back this morning; apparently they like to play too.

If I demand they show up, they laugh at me and go their own merry way, off to play without me, leaving me to figure out, yet again, that I can’t force creativity.  I need to honor the process.

Name Block

When I had my children, the first one had a name way before he got here; the second one took a little longer.  She was here, in our arms, for a few hours before she had a name.  Now, I’ve given birth to a slew of characters all of whom need names.  Most of them have names, and they seem to work, but naming them all of them is tough, much more difficult than naming my own children.  My main character has gone through three or four names.  Now she’s just ______________, literally.  Somehow, she has rejected all my ideas.

Juliet says, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Essentially, we can call a person or thing by any name, and it won’t change the essence of that person or thing.  I don’t disagree, but names definitely have differing connotations.  For example, to me a “Priscilla” would be, well, prissy, while someone named “Scarlet” would probably be a much more sexual character.   When I named my children, their names “fit” them, but they also “grew” into them.  Now I can’t imagine calling them anything else, well, okay that’s not entirely true (if you’re a parent of teens, you know what I’m saying).  But generally, their names “fit” them.

Now, I’ve created a character who is fully grown and developed.  I have a picture of her in my head; we’ve had conversations.  (That may sound crazy, but if you write, I think you understand what I mean.)  I know her strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, all kinds of interesting details about her life.  But I don’t know her NAME!!!  It’s driving me crazy.  I think the hard part is that her name has to fit her right away; she can’t “grow” into it like a baby does.  I have looked through books about the time period to help create a list of names.  I’ve looked at the etymology and meaning of different names. I’ve written about her using different names, but none seem just right.  And she’s not a newborn staring at me, waiting.  I’m stuck.  I have name block.