the ordinary hero’s journey


“To evolve out of this position of psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a death and a resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey–leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.”–Joseph Campbell

I love this definition of the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell said it best, unsurprisingly. When I read The Power of Myth, a transcribed discussion between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, about the powerful role myth plays in our society, everything changed for me, in a literary sense. I could never reconcile the big heroes, the Odysseus and the Jonas and the Jesus, with my own small heroes, the characters I’m creating, who aren’t journeying to defeat an army or escape a whale, or aren’t sacrificing life for the greater good. Except that, metaphorically, that is exactly what my characters are doing. That’s how they see it anyway. And so should I. Recognizing the hero in my characters is like truly seeing them for the first time. So my Odysseus, in my current WIP, is a 14-year-old girl who feels completely unanchored in a falling apart ship in heavy seas. But the seas are the world around her and the boat is her disconnected family, and the girl’s journey never goes farther than along Route 22 on her bike.

I can’t choose the hero or the journey and then create it. I know some writers can. But I have to dive in, writing messy and unhappily, letting it marinate, skimming off the top, shaking and tossing and scrapping things along the way. And then I have to listen to it. I have to let it settle and see through to the bottom.

And it whispers to me, but I ignore it half of the time. Until I get a little more still. And finally I hear it.

It’s a long process with no guarantees. But it feels authentic and organic. So I’ve decided to trust it.

How do you figure out your hero? How do you know what journey he or she is going to take?