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 fiancĂ© 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?


Janet said...

Those questions you post at the end of each section are so useful. (I'm copying and pasting.) They really help me focus on the character's motivation at each stage.

liz fenwick said...

You've done it again. This is really great Fiona!!

Carol Hutchens said...

Hi Fiona,
I'm late, but finding your comments very helpful. Thank you.