Monday, September 11, 2017

Hero's Journey, Virgin's Promise, and story structures

Okay, confession time:
I've always been kind of dubious about just how "Universal" the Hero's Journey really is. It's usually introduced (to me, anyway) as "Joseph Campbell claimed that all the great stories follow this pattern," but it seems to me that it's actually more "all the stories that Joseph Campbell really enjoyed follow this pattern." And it seems to me that it's a pattern that's very much grounded in what we might call Western Civilization, and to some extent in Western concepts of masculinity.

More importantly, though, it seems to me that The Hero's Journey is mainly just a template for a certain kind of Coming Of Age story. It doesn't, for example, work anywhere near as well if your "hero" is a forty-year-old man. (That's not to say that it can't be done, just that doing so requires a fundamental subversion of the original template.) For Luke Skywalker, it works fine. For a superhero origin story, it works fine. But for a character who's already established as capable and empowered, it really doesn't fit; it's not, for example, a pattern that fits well for Conan the Barbarian, or any of the Die Hard movies. And it doesn't even always work for superheroes; I re-watched The Incredibles recently, and Mr. Incredible is *so* very clearly following a Heroine's Journey/Virgin's Promise story arc. (Talk about your Price of Conformity. Sheesh.)

But the Virgin's Promise/Prince's Journey/Heroine's Journey template seems in some ways even more universal than the Hero's Journey ever was. If the Hero's Journey is fundamentally a pattern for a Coming Of Age story, the Heroine's Journey seems to work for almost any story where the protagonist is struggling against all the forces (in ourselves and/or others) that want to preserve the Status Quo and resist change.

...Which is a struggle that you can have at any age, and in a great many different environments. That doesn't mean it's universal. It's probably not going to work for a story where, say, the primary structure is built around learning enough about the monster that's eating people to either kill it, or at least successfully escape. And while it could be a single character's arc in some sort of team setup (I'm thinking of Leverage, or X-men as examples) the overall show is going to have a different setup and different story beats.

So I'm increasingly suspicious that "universal" story structures are actually just common patterns for particular kinds of stories, and that there are probably a lot more of these patterns than the two I've looked at so far, *and* that some stories may start with one template and then slide (with varying degrees of success) into another.

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