Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Monomyth

I remember when I first read Joseph Campbell. I was taking a class at a community college on the weekend so I could graduate from high school early. That particular class was Ancient Literature and to this day, I look back at that class fondly. The teacher loved his topic and the students -- all from such a wide variety of backgrounds-- wanted to learn. But it was also the first time I was introduced to Joseph Campbell and his theory of the Monomyth. The idea was we're all basically telling the same story over and over again. We just change certain aspects of the formula. You can apply this as far back as Gilgamesh and to as recent as Harry Potter. Our heroes go on a journey and we expect them to meet with trials and nearly die and reconcile with their past before they come out of the whole ordeal a better and/or a different person. It resonates with everyone because, well, we like stories we can relate to. And don't we all go on our own journeys?

Here is a handy picture guide for you

Needless to say, I grew kind of obsessed with comparative mythology for a time. It may be linked to the fact that I just like the origin of things. I want to know where it all began, even if the story is a bit ambiguous. Additionally, I just like comparing things to other things. I like observing the monomyth in stories people may not have thought of. I also like watching/reading things in which I note how characters are very similar to people I know in real life. It may be my own personal quirk or just human nature to categorize and organize things.

Like Final Fantasy X is a great example of the Hero's Journey

The Monomyth is, as one of my friends puts it, something to love and hate. On one hand, if you apply the formula with your own spin on it, you are creating an epic tale. On the other hand, formulas can get tiring after a while and people sometimes become too reliant on it which causes the end result to become kind of stale.

Despite my keen interest in Campbell's ideas, I never wrote a story monomyth style. I took some concepts -- like the trickster for instance. I adore tricksters but that will likely be a different entry for a different time. Conversely, I always try to write original tales when it comes to my writing. I always aim to write something I haven't seen much of before. True, I always get frustrated when I fall into the "The Simpsons Did It" conundrum. But I try to work past that and find a different spin on ideas that had been used before.

This brings me to my nanowrimo story which I just finished last week and won that contest for the first time despite all the times I tried before and just failed. Part of it was due to the fact I really got into my story. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I actually took an idea I came up with as a teenager, dusted it off, changed a few things, packed away the 90's cheese in it, and went nuts. As I wrote it out, I felt this is it. This is my best story. These are my best characters. This is my best writing.

I was worried too, because I didn't want my main character to turn into the typical everyman. But when I came up with the MacGuffin -- his earth mother -- I got thinking on what kind of person would desire such a thing so much he would compromise The Mission to go and meet her. And thus Gabriel was born. He's spacy. Not necessarily stupid, just more that he gets ideas and runs with them without thinking them through -- most of the problems he gets into ties into this character flaw of his. He's well-meaning but incredibly ignorant of everything outside the world he grew up in. And he's a tiny bit lost like anyone is at that age -- and not only is he lost on trying to figure out who he is but also he gets perpetually lost physically as well.

When I started this story, I did intend for it to be a road trip-coming of age story with a looming alien invasion sprinkled in to keep things interesting. And not only did I want it to be about Gabriel growing up but his travel companion, human truck driver Theo, to rediscover herself in the process. I feel I failed Theo a little but I have ways to change that in the rewrite.

I don't know if it was the banter between earthy Theo snarking at spacy Gabriel's ignorance that kept me going. Or that I really wanted Gabriel to realize all what he thought he knew was a lie. Or that I wanted him to get the MacGuffin in the end. The story just flowed. I still need to fix a lot of things. This is mainly because I took some great advice from a friend. "Don't worry about filling every blank yet". And I realized it was me wanting to fill in every little detail, whether it comes up or not was what held me back all these years.

My reaction when he told me about blank spaces

Anyways, as I came upon the climax of the story, I realized something I promptly fell on the floor and rolled around. My story fit the Hero's Journey to a T. The story begins with Gabriel tripping over the threshold of his space pod on earth. He thrusts himself into adventure. In flashbacks, he actually leaps at the call to adventure and tries to finagle his way to be placed on the scouting mission to Earth. The time he spends in the desert after he got caught and escaped from authorities is the belly of the whale. He doesn't have any of his alien goodies to help him on his adventure. Just his telekinesis and telepathy and his wits. He has several encounters along the journey of both the "Men in Suits" and the other hybrids trying to get him to focus on his mission.

Men in Black was Copyrighted

As with the Monomyth, he has a lot of female figures that he must confront. He is tempted by the MacGuffin. That is what propels him forward. He is tempted to carry out the mission even though it may result in deaths. He is also tempted by just giving up on everything too and spends a period of time lost in a cornfield pondering just that. He nearly dies and comes out of it more powerful than before. He confronts the Father -- the Mothership oddly enough -- and brings to his people knowledge of the truth which is the ultimate boon. And the title he takes as the end result is probably the Master of Two Worlds.

Just, I didn't even intend for my story to follow the Hero's Journey Formula, yet I sort of subconsciously did. Is the Hero's Journey THAT pervasive into our collective unconsciousness? Granted, I think I have a few spins on the formula. The Woman as a Temptress is clearly the hybrid named Michael (she's a chick) but she does not offer physical temptation but the temptation of duty to please the aliens.

Another ancient storytelling device I used I realized later was The Allegory of the Cave. Gabriel spends his entire childhood and teen years being told that the humans on Earth are warlike and need to be appropriately guided to peace. It is in their nature and thus in his nature as a hybrid. This is why he could never expect to rise far up the ladder and must be forceably be corrected for bad thoughts. Gabriel found out later that warlike is a simplistic way to describe humans and peace is not what the aliens are going for.

Another picture for your convenience

 The reason why I started this entry because it got me thinking. Does my story work because it really works? Or does it work because it follows the formula? Either way, I am waiting until December to revise and begin the second draft. I want to do it now because I have so much I want to do to fill out the world I built.

 But I believe in this story and I look forward to seeing it through.


  1. I had to read The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell way back in the day for a mythology class, too. We put the Matrix and Star Wars into its formula.

    Another good "every writer should read" book is Story, but Robert McKee. I recommend that because in that book, McKee points out that what makes the world's best stories great aren't that they're original; it's that they're well-told. Patterns like The Hero's Journey and the Allegory of the Cave have been refined and polished over hundreds of years. To think you can tell a better story without using those techniques, McKee writes, is the hubris of the amateur. So at least know that if you are following the formula, according to some very wise and talented folk, you're doing it right!

    1. I think that is pretty key. Formulas aren't necessarily bad only if you rely too much on them. A good telling of a formula is definitely not a bad thing.

      I will have to check out this book.