exploring art and writing

The Inescapable Hero.

In Archetypes, Writing on October 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm

'The sleep of Reason creates monsters': Number 43 of Francisco Goya's 80 Caprichos, 1799.

This week I went to a lecture where the guest speaker was author/screenwriter/editor Nicholas Blincoe. In the lecture Blincoe stated that he is “not exactly a keen anti-formalist”. The concept of formalism got me thinking about writing structure and the differences between writing casually and writing professionally.

There is a minor similarity between an art education and a writing education: the former tests just how pliable the rules are whilst adhering to a separate but deceptively formal system, and the latter is primarily (and more openly) based on specific structures. And like any art form, the regulations of the written word are also there to be broken. Problem is, you can only subvert or ignore the rules successfully when you’ve fully absorbed and mastered them.

So each area has rules. Both (Fine) art and (Professional) writing have structure. The minor differences become major, however, when you try to move from one to the other. For instance, moving from a fine art environment that encourages the search for boundaries and their attempted debilitation (usually an unsuccessful search, of course), to a professional writing environment that warns of the perils of non-structure unless one is Tolstoy, is daunting. Neither approach is better than the other but they feel worlds apart.

The chief perpetrator of my confusing shift from fine art to professional writing is Christopher Vogler, author of the ubiquitous The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers (1998). This book has been surfacing indiscriminately throughout the last year of my life, long before I decided to re-enter education. A few months ago a friend warned me that his filmmaker acquaintance had given him the book, and as he handed it over he had said: read this book, absorb everything it says, memorise it – and then do the opposite of what it tells you to do.

Now, this could be construed as still technically following Vogler’s archetypal template for storytelling, which I’ll expand upon in a moment, but I think what his friend was getting at was that formal and fixed structure may have its uses, but it can also be suffocating. Vogler himself states this; he refers to it as a “skeletal framework” (19:2007) ripe for tampering. It’s just that a lot of projects remain completely un-tampered-with; the unknown provokes fear, and this leads to low box-office sales, so it’s easier to conform to the formula.

Before I digress into Hollywood-induced diatribes (joke! As if I know enough about Hollywood to slander it), I’ll run through the principle concept of The Hero’s Journey: There’s a hero in every story; they must be active (not passive), thereby causing things to happen; they must go from the Ordinary World to the Special World and return to the Ordinary World with new experiences and wisdom. All other characters are facets of the Hero, no matter what archetype they are; wise man, trickster, lover, villain, and all the rest. Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell are the source of Vogler’s extensive archetype collection:

“[Archetypes are] constantly repeating characters or energies which occur in the dreams of all people and the myths of all cultures. Jung suggested that these archetypes reflect different aspects of the human mind – that our personalities divide themselves into these characters to play out the drama of our lives.” (Vogler, 4:2007)

For this post I have simplified Vogler’s concept horribly. Like the hero, every journey undertaken contains a multitude of layers and stages. The annoying thing about all this is that I can’t stop seeing it everywhere. Every film I watch, every book I read; the hero’s journey is there. The Call to Adventure, the Refusal of the Call, the Threshold Guardians, the Approach to the Inmost Cave, the Return with the Elixir. There is nowhere that it doesn’t exist.

This is why it could be so easy for me to grumble about the Hero’s journey, but I’m finding it to be a useful tool as a newcomer to fiction writing. Whether or not my consideration of it enhances my work or enervates it is unclear at this point. Having read Raymond Carver’s article Principles of a Story (Prospect magazine, 2005), I don’t intend to let careless ruminations cause “careless, silly or imitative writing,” even if I am mostly relying on persistence to carry me through. The Hero’s journey doesn’t prevent the bad writing that Carver is referring to, but it does teach you to constantly consider your audience and that, I think, will make you a better writer.

I can’t dispute Vogler’s template for the Hero. However, allow the art student in me to play devils advocate: does knowing the Hero’s journey spoil the fun? Archetypes, after all, are apparently inherent to human nature, therefore surely all The Writer’s Journey is doing is partly eliminating spontaneity and instinct?

Nicholas Blincoe, in his talk given earlier this week, quoted the author Martin Amis as saying: “as writers we’re five years behind where we are as people”. So I presume I’m not supposed to know the answer to these questions yet. Hopefully I’ll find out in five years time.

‘The Writer’s Journey’,  Christopher Vogler, 1998, Michael Wise Productions. The edition I reference in this post is the 2007 edition.

Other useful books on the subject of the Hero and other archetypes:

‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, Joseph Campbell, 1993, Fontana Press

‘Man and His Symbols’, Karl G Jung, 1978, Picador

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  1. I don’t know how many times I’ve referred to Kal Bashir’s http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html for hero’s journey insights.

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