Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Heroine's Journey

I think it's safe to say we've at least heard of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth (also known as The Hero's Journey). It is a storytelling structure Campbell identified from his study of mythology. The variations are myriad but the basic structure is well-defined:

  1. Ordinary World - The hero's normal world before the story begins
  2. Call to Adventure - The hero is presented with a problem, challenge or adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call - The hero refuses the challenge or journey, usually because he's scared
  4. Meeting with the Mentor - The hero meets a mentor to gain advice or training for the adventure
  5. Crossing the First Threshold - The hero crosses leaves the ordinary world and goes into the special world
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies - The hero faces tests, meets allies, confronts enemies & learn the rules of the Special World.
  7. Approach - The hero has hit setbacks during tests & may need to try a new idea
  8. Ordeal - The biggest life or death crisis
  9. Reward - The hero has survived death, overcomes his fear and now earns the reward
  10. The Road Back - The hero must return to the Ordinary World.
  11. Resurrection Hero - another test where the hero faces death – he has to use everything he's learned
  12. Return with Elixir - The hero returns from the journey with the “elixir”, and uses it to help everyone in the Ordinary World
George Lucas famously worked with Joseph Campbell himself when he was writing the outline for the film which would become Star Wars. But all of this is preamble to which I think is the more interesting question...

Have you heard of the Heroine's Journey?

The legendary Jo Walton wrote two posts at which touched on this question, and there is a lot of really juicy stuff to consider, here.
I said that the Hero’s Journey made rather an odd life, with a distinct lack of what most people do, such as making things and having children. Lois said that traditionally in most cultures men went out and came back again, off to have adventures and then home to settle down and inherit from their father, whereas women went out and didn’t come back, inheriting from strangers—their husband’s parents. You can see this in a lot of fairy tales.

There aren’t many books that give a heroine a Campbellian Hero’s Journey. If there is a parallel canonical Heroine’s Journey it’s one that ends with marriage, and that’s seen as a kind of ending. In genre romance, the woman’s agenda wins. But in many books ending in marriage closes the doors of story, as if it isn’t possible to see past that—once the heroine has chosen her man there’s no more to be said. And there are the stories where the adventure ends with becoming a mother—I thought about the great line in Mockingbird “The longest trip I ever took, from being a daughter to having one.”

In fairy tales you have the hopeful young girl. Her great virtue is kindness to the helpless. She is often aided by those she has helped, by animals, old people, servants, and dwarves. She has a good mother who is dead, or turned into a tree or animals, who may give magical help on occasion. She has a bad shadow mother, often a stepmother. She may have rivals, sisters or stepsisters, but she rarely has friends or equals. Her aim is to survive, grow up, and marry a prince. Older women are represented by the two formats of mother, and old women by witches, who may be benevolent but are generally tricky to deal with.

In myth it’s rare to have women who journey, who are changed by what happens to them.
Can you think of a heroine who leaves home and journeys and is changed by what happens to her? The first one that came to mind for me was Tazendra, part of Steven Brust's Khaavren Romances. She plays the Porthos character based on the Dumas d'Artagnan Romances, so her role is part of the ensemble rather the starring role.

In a second post, she looks at the Heroine's Journey through the lens of anthropology.
Lois said that traditionally in most cultures men went out and came back again, off to have adventures and then home to settle down and inherit from their father, whereas women went out and didn’t come back, inheriting from strangers—their husband’s parents.

These anthropologists are leaving their own culture and traveling into a strange culture and finding a family there. That does feel right. It’s surprising how often the protagonists do “go native” and settle down on the planet. I find this an intriguing thought...

It’s also especially interesting when thinking about another book that almost fits — Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Seeing Ender as on a heroine’s journey in that story rather than a hero’s journey makes a lot of sense.
I like stories that stray from the beaten path, that take risks with established convention. I love my favorite superhero film, The Incredibles, because Brad Bird starts with a brief glimpse into heroes in their prime (which is to say, 'single') and then jumps forward and picks up his story after most people's 'happily ever after, the end.' I thought that was a simple but brilliant idea and it paid off handsomely. Elastigirl (Mrs. Incredible) straddles the line between the hero's journey and the heroine's journey. It is an even more (heh) incredible aspect of an already fun and thought-provoking film.

Speaking of unconventional, Carole McDonnell's protagonist Satha forges her own hybrid journey in the unique novel Wind Follower. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.
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