Friday, 26 January 2007

The Hero's Journey: Meeting with the Mentor

This is a feature in the hero's journey which I've seen less often in the books and films I've been reading, but it's still interesting.

The mentor is one of the character archetypes that Vogler mentions in the beginning section of his book. You know the the kind of character: the wise old woman or man in the fairy tales that imparts wisdom and sometimes gifts to help the hero as he starts his quest. The most obvious examples would be Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Obi Wan Kenobe in "Star Wars" or Mr Miagi in 'The Karate Kid'. (Seriously, who can forget "Wax on. Wax off."?)

Now, Vogler stresses that the archetypes are not necessarily hard and fast character types in a story. A very non-wise old woman-ish person may wear the mask of the mentor for a time.

This is a preparation time in the story where the hero may need to equip himself for the task ahead: a best friend may give some advice; the hero may need to learn some new skills; he may need to arm himself or listen to his conscience.

Mentors may not appear in every story and they may appear at other key points, not just as the hero embarks on the quest, it's just that, in many myths and fairy tales, the presence of a mentor at this point is common.

Shrek doesn't really have a mentor as he leaves the swamp and travels to Duloc. He is only just tolerating donkey - although at other points, donkey wears the mask of the mentor, teaching him about friendship.

In a similar way, in French Kiss, Luc teaches Kate how to live life, despite her attempts to return things to the stale, secure state they were once in. I suppose, in a loose way, the scene where he annoys her on the aeroplane to distract her from take-off, is him passing on his knowledge.

Questions for 'Meeting with the mentor'

1. Does your hero have a mentor?

2. If so, are they:

  • A full-blown mentor?
  • Another character that wears the mentor's mask?
  • An inner code of ethics?

3. What dramatic function do they perform?

  • Teacher - many mentors impart wisdom or teach new skills. What does the mentor teach the hero?
  • Gift-giver - the gift may come in the form of a weapon or something useful for the journey.
  • Motivator - helping the hero to move past her fears and embark on the journey. Helping with mental preparation is in important function of the mentor.
  • Do they give the hero information or plant a prop that the hero will find useful later?

4. In what form do they appear?

  • Traditional mentor
  • Dark mentor - Sometimes the villain (shadow archetype) can be the hero's mentor.
  • Fallen mentor - A hero who has been on his own journey but has stalled. Helping the current hero may help him finish his journey.
  • Continuing mentor - someone like 'M' in the James Bond films.
  • Multiple mentors - there may be a groups of teachers all with different skills and lessons to impart.
  • Comic mentor
  • Inner mentor - the hero's own conscience or inner set of beliefs may teach him.

5. Is the mentor a cliché and how can you avoid this?

6. Is the mentor what the hero/reader believes them to be?

  • Sometimes the mentor may seem benevolent, but has his/her own agenda.
  • Is the hero being duped?
  • If so, at some point he will need to break free of the mentor and finish his journey on his own.

7. Does this story need a mentor?

  • If so, at what points?
  • Don't just shove a mentor in because you think you ought to have one.
  • every character needs to earn their keep - especially in a category romance where the word count is around 50,000.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

The Hero's Journey: The Refusal of the Call

In many stories, even the most gung-ho hero may have a moment of hesitation before embarking on the adventure. A reluctant hero may dig her heels in and refuse flatly.

I think the important part of ‘The Refusal’ is that it allows us to see that this quest is not going to be easy for the hero. If the journey is going to be easy, it’s not going to make an interesting story. Really exciting stories challenge the hero to their very core, whether this is physically, mentally or emotionally.

This section of the journey is a good place to show or voice the hero’s goal, motivation and conflict:

In ‘Shrek’, he tries to ignore (refusal) the fairy-tale animals that have invaded his swamp, but in the end, he snaps and sets off to petition Lord Farquad.

In ‘French Kiss’, in the very first scene, we see Kate refusing the call to adventure most vehemently. She is afraid of flying and is in a flight simulator trying to overcome her fear. When asked what her calming mantra is, she yells: “We’re going down! We’re going down! We’re going down!” Clearly, she is not ready to answer the call.

In the following scenes we see Kate giving all the reasons why she can’t follow her fiancé to Paris: she hates the French, she hates the cheese, she’s afraid of flying and – actually a valid reason – she’s not supposed to leave Canada while she’s waiting for her citizenship application to be approved.

This is quite a long refusal. Some heroes only have a flicker of doubt before diving headlong into the quest. But this lengthy refusal works. Kate wants a home and a family and she is holding onto this dream of security so tightly she is scared to let it go and live. It is a very important part of her character and it needs to be set up so the audience understand how difficult the following challenges will be for her.

Sometimes a hero just gives a list of weak excuses, stalling tactics. Sometimes it takes digging deeper within themselves to summon the courage. In Kate’s case she would never have left Canada unless her motivation had been deepened because the stakes were raised to the highest level: her dream of a home and family with Charlie is threatened because he has met a French woman and fallen madly in love with her.

Now Kate’s reason to fly is not just to enjoy a nice trip to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower. She needs to cross the Atlantic to convince Charlie they are meant to be together. It is only the prospect of losing her strongest innermost desire that drags her into the adventure.

Some heroes may not show any doubt at all. But often, at this point, another character in the same situation will back down and totally refuse the call to adventure, giving the reader a chance to see the high stakes and danger ahead.


1. Does the refusal:
  • Make the stakes clear?
  • Examine the quest?
  • Review consequences?

2. At what level is the hero refusing the call?

  • A moment's hesitation
  • Flat refusal
  • Something in between

3. Does another character show the consequences/dangers if the hero is willing?

4. Why does the hero refuse the call?

  • Past experience?
  • If so, what motivates them to accept?
  • if you've already set up your backstory and character well, the reader will understand why the character falters.

5. What excuses and delaying tactics does the hero use, if any?

6. Are there two conflicting calls?

  • Does the hero have two possible paths to take, each with their own challenges and rewards?
  • A hero may have to choose between success and family. Following one path may rule out getting the goal from the other.
  • Which one will the hero choose?
  • What effect will this have?
7. Is there a positive refusal?

  • For example, a hero may be offered something that it would be wise to refuse.
  • What if a hero needing money turns down the offer to do something illegal?
  • This decision may have consequences that propell the hero into the adventure.

8. What is the hero afraid of?

  • If you are going to make your hero face up to and overcome their deepest fear, you might as well know what it is!
  • Is this a real or false fear?
  • How do they express this fear?

Friday, 19 January 2007

We interrupt this broadcast for an important announcement...

Thought I would break up the craft-heavy posting with something more personal. There were storms in the UK yesterday, and while we certainly fared better than some, we were not unaffected.

A large section of my fence is in next door's garden for a start. And then my oldest daughter had to stay home from school today. Her school is a lovely Victorian building and her classroom in on the top floor of a three-story section. Yesterday afternoon one of the windows in the neighbouring classrooms was blown in - we're talking the whole multi-paned hefty wooden frame, which must be at least six foot high. As a result, the workmen are in today fixing things and making sure everything is safe.

Most tragic of all was the news that, when my husband went to visit our allotment this morning, he found his greenhouse, full of his much-beloved carniverous plants, in a tangled heap. Now, I may moan at the amount of love and dedication he lavishes on these plants - I have been heard to comment that I would get more attention if I painted myself green and sat on the window sill - but even I was sad. Somehow, along the way, I seem to have grown fond of them myself. I even know my droseras from my nepenthes.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

The Hero's Journey: The Call ot Adventure

The second step on the hero’s journey is The Call to Adventure. Other terms I’ve read for this same point are the ‘trigger’ and the ‘catalyst’. In other words, something happens to start the story. If it didn’t, your protagonist would just trundle along in her ordinary life and we’d all…..zzzzzzzz.

I had a bit of a quick think of what was the call/trigger/catalogue in some well-known books and films:

Pride and Prejudice
Mr Binlgey arrives at Netherfield. Without this event the poor Bennett sisters would have continued doing up bonnets, embroidering and bickering until they were old maids.

A Christmas Carol
Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley.

Shrek is disturbed by fairy-tale characters hiding out in his swamp. This is in direct opposition to his goal – to live alone and happy in his swamp. He has a choice to make: live with the squatters or leave the swamp and visit Lord Farquad. One and a half hours of Shrek shouting at the three little pigs etc. would not have been a satisfying story, and he wouldn’t have learnt anything or grown at all.

Pretty Woman
Edward gets lost and has to stop and ask a hooker (Vivien) for directions.

French Kiss
Kate’s fiancé asks her to go to Paris with him.

There are as many different ways for the call to come as there are stories and characters. It may be a very obvious call – a telegram asking for help from a long-lost uncle, a friend who asks the hero to accompany them on a dangerous trip, war breaks out. Some calls come from within the character themselves – a vague feeling that they have to do something or die of stagnation, temptation, or a dream or vision.

Here as the questions I asked myself after reading Christopher Vogler’s chapter on the subject:

1. What is this character's call to adventure? Is it:

  • A message
  • An event
  • A new character
  • Something within the hero
  • Dream/vision
  • Hero's fed up with the status quo
  • The last straw
  • Synchronicity (lots of little things coincidentally pointing them in the right direction)
  • Temptation (money, love, travel to exotic places)
  • Lack or need (do they need money or are they searching for a lost dog?)
  • No more options
  • Something else.

I decided to identify which, if any, of these calls applied to my current story. I then pondered whether the call would be more effective if it was given in another way. In the end, i stuck with what I had already written.

For Will, it was a letter from a solicitor, informing him that at the death of a distant relative he was now Lord Radcliffe and owner of Elmhurst Hall. None of this happens in the book. By the time we meet Will he has received the letter and travelled back to England. This is because the story starts with Josie receiving her call – the arrival of the new lord. Life at Elmhurst Hall is going to different and Josie has to decide whether she's going to dig her heels in or welcome him enthusiastically.

2. Is there a herald to present the call?
Sometimes there’s a character who delivers the call

3. Is the hero unsettled or confused?
Is the hero a willing or reluctant hero? Being asked to step out of the ordinary world can be disorienting or even downright scary.

4. Should the call come earlier/later in this story?

5. Does the call have an interesting twist so it's not a cliché?

6. Does your story have a succession of calls? If so, what different levels of adventure do they have?

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

First things first

Now, I know this kind of approach doesn't work for every writer, but it sure helps me! if you are one of those lucky creatures who can sit down at the keyboard with a fuzzy story idea and watch it flow from there, I offer you my congratulations.

I find I am totally constipated (story-wise, of course) until I dig deep and unearth some central things about my characters and my story. Sometimes I don't have to get very far under the surface; other times I seem to be heading for China before the words flow.

These are my questions for the section of the Hero's Journey that Christopher Vogler calls "The Ordinary World". Some of the questions are his, but many are mine.

1. What is the hero's ordinary world?

2. What problems/conflicts are already there dormant?

3. Is there anything foreshadowed from the coming conflict here?

  • Vogler says that there should be hints. little shadows of the coming conflict - perhaps seeing how the hero's flaw is a problem.

4. What dramatic questions are raised about the hero?

  • The famous story question!
  • Will Indiana Jones get the treasure?
  • Will Romeo and Juliet have their happy ever after?
  • Will Shrek be able to get all the fairy tale animals out of his swamp and live in peace again?
  • The story question is what keeps readers turning pages. They want to know the answer.
  • According to Jack Bickham, the quicker you ask the story question the better. It's the central question of the story, the one you have to answer at the end of the book for it to be a satisfying read.

5. What lessons does he/she need to learn?

  • Every hero needs to learn something. None of us are perfect.
  • Shrek needs to learn to stop shutting the world out because he is doesn't want any more rejection. He needs to learn how to interact with other people and have relationships. It's not going to be easy. Relationships are hard for everyone.
  • The struggles your hero faces through out the story should help him/her grow. They may gather experience by learning new skills or by their mistakes, but by the end of the story they will not be the same as they were at the beginning.
  • In fact, this was why I ditched my first-ever novel attempt. Halfway through the second draft I realised that the struggles I was putting my characters through didn't relate to their biggest fears/inner conflict/lessons as well as they could. If you want an emotional story, you need to hit the characters in their weak spots. Tough for them, but great for the reader as we see them stumble along, being stretched and earning their happy ever after.
  • This was a 'light-bulb' moment for me. Find out what your character's weakness is, what their biggest fear is, and make them face it.

6. What are the hero's Inner and Outer conflicts?

  • I love Debra Dixon's book, "GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict". I can't begin a story without mapping this out. So, I thought I would include this in my little questionnaire.
  • Goal: what does your character want? Motivation: why do they want it? Conflict: what's stopping them getting it?
  • Characters often have inner (emotional/intagible) goals and outer (tanglible) goals.
  • Shrek's outer get rid of the fairy-tale creatures squatting in his swamp, because he wants to be left in peace to live on his own, but before he can get the deed to the land, he has to go and rescue a princess for Lord Farquad. He can do something tangible about this problem.
  • Shrek's inner goal is to protect himself from further rejection, because he has been hurt in the past when people didn't look beyond his appearance, but he's going to have to interact with other beings and forge relationships as he goes on his quest.

7. What does our first meeting with the hero say about her?

  • Vogler says that when we first meet a hero, the hero should be doing something typically 'them'. This gives us clues to their personality and anchors them in their ordinary world straight away.
  • Shrek is farting in a mud bath the first time we meet him. That sums him up pretty well, doesn't it?
  • In 'French Kiss', Kate is panicking about flying. Later on in the film she is told she is "too afraid to live". Our first meeting with her sums up where she is in her emotional 'ordinary world' rather well.

8. What universal goal does your hero have?

  • Readers identify with characters that want something they can understand.
  • Does your hero want success, a happy family life, power, love, stability...
  • The list is endless, but it doesn't hurt to make sure that your central character is someone who the reader can relate to quickly. After all, they're going to be riding on that character's coat tails for most of the story.
  • The reader doesn't necessarily have to like the character, or even want the same things themselves, but they have to understand their goals.

9. What is your hero's tragic flaw?

10. What does the hero stand to lose/gain?

11. What backstory needs to come out?

12. What is the theme of the story?

Theme is such a huge subject I could blog about it for a month. Maybe I will one day. if you want a good lesson in theme watch an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" and listen to the voice over at the beginning of the episode. Then watch the rest with that in mind and see how it is played out in the character's lives and even the medical situations that arise.

Monday, 15 January 2007

The hero's comfort zone

The first stage of the hero’s journey is called The Ordinary World. The idea is that something happens to call the hero to adventure which means he must leave his ordinary world (this need not be a geographical change; it could just be exploring a new emotional territory) and enter into the Special World of the adventure.

There is a trigger, or catalyst for most stories. Something happens to make the protagonist act. This is what Vogler describes as The Call to Adventure. But before the hero answers the call, we may need to get a glimpse of him in his Ordinary World to see why this call is going threaten him, why he is going to have to grow and change to overcome the situation.

In novels a hundred years ago, much more time would have been spent describing the life and background of the hero (I am using the word ‘hero’ to mean the central character, the protagonist of the story, not just the central male character). In modern fiction, we don’t want to spend too long in backstory. We want to get into the action fairly quickly, but it can be helpful to set up a little of the hero’s life before the call to adventure comes.

My kids were watching "Shrek" the other day and I thought it was quite a good story to illustrate this:

At the beginning of the film, as the credits roll, we see Shrek, alone in his swamp and happy. He likes his solitary life and has no desire to change it. It is important to set this up because his desire to return to this life is his motivation for leaving the swamp and going on a quest to save a princess. On a deeper level, it is where he is comfortable emotionally—rejecting the world because it has rejected him—and his journey will take him out of this comfort zone and challenge him severely.

Different stories require different treatments. As I’m reading different stories and watching different films, I’m seeing how flexible this idea can be.

While watching ‘French Kiss’ with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline the other day, I noticed that at the very start of the film Kate’s (Meg Ryan) call to adventure has already come. Her fiancé is going to Paris on business and she has been invited to go with him. We find Kate in a flight simulator, trying to overcome her fear of flying. She rips the door open and tumbles out, yelling she can’t do it. We see hints of her Ordinary World in the following scenes, but her refusal of the call to adventure (step 3 on the hero’s journey) is a much more important place for this particular story to start. (More on that in a later post.)

Anyway, as I went through Vogler's book, I thought about Josie and Will, the characters in my work in progress and decided there were questions I needed to ask myself about them. It wasn’t always easy, but I came away with a much deeper understanding of my them and their motivations. I had plenty of ideas for secondary characters and possible scenarios floating around my head and answering the questions helped me narrow down my choices and decide which ones were going to be the most helpful in telling this story.

This post is long enough already, so I’ll post my 'Ordinary World' questions tomorrow.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

This Writer's Journey

Finally, I’ve found the groove for Josie and Will’s story! I started it in November and I’m still only at the start of chapter five. Deadline is in 6½ weeks, so I’d better speed up.

I find I just can’t write if I don’t have a clear idea of where I’m going. I’d plotted out this book, but somehow it just wasn’t working. Help!

Help came in the form of “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler. I’d read about it on Michelle Styles’s blog and had decided to by it just before Christmas.

Vogler has studied the works of a man named Joseph Campbell who looked at traditional stories and myths from all over the world and discovered that similar characters and plotlines kept appearing again and again. Vogler has expanded on this from the viewpoint of telling a satisfying story.

When I first heard of this idea, I wrinkled my nose a bit. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of a character having a prescribed series of events he must go through. It seemed a bit restrictive. Vogler is the first to say that what he calls “the hero’s journey” is only a rough guideline. Not all stories will incorporate all the elements; what goes in depends very much on the needs of the story.

I found, as I read the book, I started asking myself all sorts of questions about my current wip, and by the time I had gone through the book and written all these questions down (and answered them) my mind was boiling with ideas to get my stalled novel kick-started. I also feel I’ve found a deeper layer to my characters.

So, I thought I’d blog about this over the next few weeks. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this. I’m learning how to apply it, but I’ve been fascinated to read books and watch films with it in mind and see its varied applications.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Books and covers

I'm not posting much because I'm wrestling with the current book. It is not behaving itself. I love my characters and I've got some great ideas for later chapters, but getting the beginning right is practically impossible.

On the up side, I just found the lovely cover for my next North American release on amazon. I love this book. I think it's my favourite so far.

I was a bit miffed yesterday evening when my husband disappeared to have a bath and didn't get out again for an hour. We were supposed to be having a little bit of 'together' time.

"How come you were so long?" I huffed.
"I was reading the last two chapters of your book (Her Parenthood Assignment) and I couldn't put it down."
Instantly forgiven.

Monday, 1 January 2007

How did I do?

I checked back on my New Year's Resolutions from last year. I really should hang my head in shame. This is last year's list:
  • To sell a second book - Did this! And sold a third.
  • To finish the above book (still stuck in Chapter Four) - currently stuck in chapter four of wip. Sensing a pattern.
  • To eat more healthily, do more exercise and generally reduce my acreage - the less said about this the better. I am about to do something positive and join my local gym, so I'm hoping I can say something different in 2008.
  • To harness my over-active imagination for writing alone and, therefore, stop making mountain ranges out of minor mole hills - imagination still on the loose and way out of control.
  • To clean my oven. - Pass me the halo. I did this a number of times.
  • To read the Bible in one year - I didn't read the whole thing, but I did manage significant chunks.
  • And last, but not least, learn to touch-type properly - I've improved, but I could do better. Must try harder!

Mind you, if anyone else has ticked off all of last year's resolutions they are a saint. My husband hates New Year's Resolutions. He reckons they're a waste of time because nobody ever sticks to them. He's partly right - about me, anyway. But I'm going to have a think about a list again this year anyway.

What's life without goals? I may not have achieved all my goals for last year, but I tried and I've learnt things along the way. I think I would prefer to struggle and fail than sit on my behind and not even try.