“I’ve always tried to be aware of what I say in my films, because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers — teachers with very loud voices.” –George Lucas
As a teacher myself, one of the writing techniques I share with my students comes from Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book, Campbell explains how he studied mythological stories and folklore from around the world and discovered that every culture has hero stories that share common elements. Campbell calls this shared structure a monomyth.
How can this information help writers? Well, it certainly helped George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars series. Lucas has admitted that he read Campbell’s work and used it to help guide revisions of his original Star Wars movie. Many modern writers have followed suit. So if you’re trying to write a good hero story, you may want to see how many elements of the monomyth you are including.
Because there are seventeen of them, I’ll be dividing my discussion of these elements into three posts, one for each of the major divisions in Campbell’s theory: separation, initiation, and return.
In today’s post, we’ll look at the separation phase of the hero’s journey, the part that gets the hero out of his homeland and sets him on his way to do something heroic.
- Call of Adventure–Destiny calls the hero to do something dangerous and important. In Homer’s The Odyssey from ancient Greece, this would be Odysseus being called to the Trojan War. For Luke Skywalker, this is Princess Leia showing up via hologram courtesy of R2D2, pleading for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s help.
- Refusal of the Call–The hero isn’t so sure he wants to go. Odysseus tried to pretend he was going mad in order to avoid the Trojan War. After all, his son Telemachus had just been born. Luke Skywalker isn’t so sure he should go with Obi-Wan. After all, his aunt and uncle need help on the farm.
- Supernatural aid–Something or someone supernatural helps the hero out. Sometimes this is a god or goddess, like Athena helping Odysseus in The Odyssey. Other times, it’s a special power, like Luke using the Force, or an actual object, like light sabers in Star Wars or the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.
- Crossing of the First Threshold–The hero must take his first real step away from his home and into a dangerous new world. Odysseus must cross the sea to leave Ithaca. Luke enters the cantina at Mos Eisley in order to find a ride off his home planet of Tatooine.
- Belly of the Whale–Yes, like the Biblical story of Jonah! The hero has some sort of near-death experience that causes a rebirth for him. I’ve heard a number of theories for when this happens for Odysseus. Some argue it’s when he escapes the Cyclops’ cave. Others say it’s leaving Calypso’s island. I think it might actually be later in the story when he enters (and manages to leave!) the Underworld. In the first Star Wars movie, Luke and his new friends get pulled into the “belly” of the Death Star by a tractor beam.
Are you already applying these elements to other hero stories you know? My students and I have a fun time comparing Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. (Yes, girl heroes count, too!)
I’ll be back with Part II of the monomyth next week. In the meantime, can you think of any other hero stories that fit these elements?
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