Women Heroes in Literature, Movies and Pop Culture

rita vrataski-3

Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) fights a war against aliens

Some time ago on my birthday, I watched the popular — and somewhat controversial — Hunger Games. Well, controversial among some critics and followers of critics, anyway. I came across a particularly juicy article by critic Jeffrey Wells on Hollywood Elsewhere, in which he attributed the movie’s success to “reviews by certain female critics” who are “susceptible to the lore of this young-female-adult-propelled franchise.”

Whether this was true or not — and I highly doubt this — it brings up another stirring question: that of gender-bias. Is it truly still hard for a man like Wells to accept and enjoy a story which feature’s a female heroine?  Is it so hard to see a woman as a person first: championing a cause, delivering a world from evil and injustice, overcoming a great obstacle to become enlightened?

I think of my favorite stories in literature, peopled by men and women; all heroes: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Fahrenheit 451, King Lear, Solaris, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, Doctor Zhivago, Brave New World, Martian Chronicles, and To Kill a Mockingbird — to name just a few. The gender of the hero I empathized with was irrelevant. What remained important was their sensibilities and their actions.

Katniss fights the system in Hunger Games

Katniss fights the system in Hunger Games

It got me thinking … What does it take to be a hero—a female hero— particularly? And does there need to be a difference? The tweets and FB-talk and Internet buzz imply that male heroes differ from female heroes; they embrace differing quests and archetypal roles and reflect different qualities. In his 2013 web-article “Saving Science Fiction From Strong Female Characters” SF author John C. Wright attempted to elucidate a more realistic portrayal of women heroes in science fiction. Unfortunately, the article relied heavily on well-established androcratic stereotypes.

The male hero stereotype in literature and films of western culture—and science fiction particularly—is often characterized by strength, courage, integrity & honor, intelligence, assertiveness, single-mindedness, faith in his quest, and boundless determination: he is the altruist warrior, often acting alone against an unfair society through his conscience. All traits honored, respected and esteemed in men. In a woman, these Boadicean qualities often qualify her as “a bitch” or a “tomboy”. She may be considered unwomanly, unlady-like, intimidating, and with lesbian tendencies. Not the sort of girl you would take home to Mummy. The exciting Becky Sharp to the prosaic but sweet Amelia. And God forbid that she is more intelligent than her male counterpart!

Kara Thrace (Starbuck) fights Cylons in Battlestar Galactica

Kara Thrace (Starbuck) fights Cylons in Battlestar Galactica

For a woman to qualify as “hero” then, must she shed her feminine qualities of compassion, kindness, tenderness, and nurturing, to express those hero-defining qualities that are typically considered “male” to become less than either? Goddess untouchable? Women deserve better than that in literature and other story media.  I have seen too many 2-dimensional female characters limited by their own stereotype in the science fiction genre—particularly in the adventure/thriller sub-genre. If they aren’t untouchable goddesses or “witches” in a gynocratic paradigm, they are often delegated to the role of enabling the “real hero” on his journey through their belief in him: as Trinity enables Neo; Hermione enables Harry; Mary Jane enables Spiderman; Lois enables Superman; etc. etc. etc.

aeryn sun gun

Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) fights “humans” in Farscape

In an opinion piece in The Detroit News, Tom Long tells us that the women in top hero-style movies have usually been and still are portrayed in “romantic, sidekick or comedic roles. Often they’re waiting to be rescued (think Princess Leia). And some of them are part of action ensembles [think X-men].” Token figures to provide added “spice”, edge and diversity. This is, according to Gitesh Pandya, editor of a box office analyst site, because female-driven action movies have a hard time selling. “Most of the action films that have become huge hits are either male-driven or ensemble.” Pandya goes on to suggest that this is because more tickets are purchased by men than by women. “The film industry has been male-dominated for so long, the people who are creating and financing these films typically put men in there as heroes.” And yet women read far more fiction than men (by a 4:1 ratio according to some sources). We are in dire need of balance and we hunger for a female hero.

Lucy: victim, predator or neither?

Lucy: victim, predator or neither?

“What does it mean for our nation or our world if we treat [women] by a different script? What are we clinging to when we cling to that script that women need men’s protection?” said Ann Folino White, assistant professor at Michigan State University. She does well to call it a script when the storytellers of a culture define our humanity: who and what we are, our values and what we strive to be. Storytellers are the shamans of our culture and our time. We are the visionaries of our future.

The recent SF action film Edge of Tomorrow provided a refreshing kind of woman hero; Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) is equal—in fact superior—to her male protagonist, William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) in skill, intelligence and heroic stature. What I mean by heroic stature is that her heroic journey of transformation does not play subservient to her male counterpart’s journey.

trinity-syndromeIn so many androcratic storylines, the female—no matter how complex, interesting and tough she starts out being—must demure to the male lead; as if only by bowing down to his superior abilities can she help ensure his heroic stature. Returning us right back to the cliché role of the woman supporting the leading man to complete his hero’s journey. And this often means serving as the prize for his chivalry. We see this in so many action thrillers and action adventures today: Valka in How to Train Your Dragon, Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie, Neytiri in Avatar, Trinity in The Matrix, and so many more. There’s even a name for it: the Trinity Syndrome.

Tasha Robinson writes in her excellent article entitled, We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome: “The idea of the Strong Female Character—someone with her own identity, agenda, and story purpose—has thoroughly pervaded the conversation about what’s wrong with the way women are often perceived and portrayed today, in comics, video-games, and film especially…it’s still rare to see films in the mainstream action/horror/science-fiction/fantasy realm introduce women with any kind of meaningful strength, or women who go past a few simple stereotypes.”

edge-of-tomorrow-emily-blunt-victory

Rita Vrataski poster girl for the war

I give Edge of Tomorrow full marks for not doing this. For example, after Cage makes his case to his Squadron to go on a mission, they remain reluctant until Vrataski emerges. “I don’t expect you to follow me,” says Cage. “I do expect you to follow her.” The Angel of Verdun—or better yet, the badass Full Metal Bitch.

When a female lead is stronger than the male protagonist, some reviewers (OK—male reviewers) categorize that movie as a “woman’s story”. I’ve been told by some of my male friends that they couldn’t possibly empathize with such a character—mainly because she is a woman and she is stronger than the male lead that “they want to be”.  It would appear that men are less willing to empathize with a woman character than a woman is willing to empathize with a male character; something in itself interesting. Invariably, in many of these “goddess” stories, the male counterpart is so much “milk-toast” compared to that awesome female-warrior. And have you ever noticed that, while the male hero gets the girl, the female hero usually ends up alone? Great examples include: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Xena: Warrior Princess; Sarah in The Terminator and of course Vasquez in Aliens. These women are amazons; they stand apart, goddess-like, unrelenting, unflinching—untouchable. It’s actually no wonder that my ex-husband dislikes Sigourney Weaver to this day—she could crush him underfoot and eat him for breakfast at a moment’s notice. And probably would!

In a superb article in NewStatesman entitled I hate Strong Female Characters, Sophia McDougall says:Divergent

“…I want to point out two things that Richard II has, that Bond and Captain America and Batman also have, that Peggy (Carter of Captain America), however strong she is, cannot attain. They are very simple things, even more fundamental than “agency”

  • Richard has the spotlight. However weak or distressed or passive he may be, he’s the main goddamn character

  • Richard has a huge range of other characters of his own gender around him, so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness. Even dethroned and imprisoned, he is free to be uniquely himself. On the posters [women are] posed way in the back of the shot behind the men, in the trailers they may pout or smile or kick things, but they remain silent. Their strength lets them, briefly, dominate bystanders but never dominate the plot. It’s an anodyne, a sop, a Trojan Horse – it’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.”

There is another type of female hero. She is equal to her male counterpart. Her story is not secondary to his story; her heroic status and hero’s journey is equal to his and not because he’s been reduced to a lesser character, diminished by her or overshadowed by her; in fact they may share the same journey. Examples include: Bonnie and Clyde; Peter Chang’s Aeon Flux; Aeryn Sun and John Crichton in Farscape; Starbuck and Apollo in Battlestar Galactica…And now Vrataski and Cage in Edge of Tomorrow.

rita vrataski-cage

Cage and Vrataski discuss strategy

As with the above examples, Vrataski and Cage in Edge of Tomorrow form a team, in which together they are more than the sum of their parts. A marriage of independent autopoiesis, combining skills, abilities and vision. This is also why, in my opinion, the ending of Edge of Tomorrow is totally appropriate: not because it’s “the happy ending”; but because it carries the message of enduring collaboration of equals in a gylanic society.

So, in the end, I do agree with John C. Wright that science fiction requires whole female characters, but not for the reasons he gives.

The gylanic hero is emerging in science fiction and action-thrillers, one who will teach us more about what humanity needs now more than ever: the heroic gifts of altruism, compassion, faith, courage, passion, and endurance. She is already there, in movies and TV shows like Lucy, Edge of Tomorrow, Hunger Games, Divergence, Orphan Black, FarscapeBattlestar Galactica: fighting the dragons of prejudice, ignorance, cruelty, greed and intolerance–in partnership with her male counterpart.

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Aeryn Sun and John Crichton collaborate in Farscape

A list of SF books with whole and relevant female heroes–gylanic heroes– follows below. There are many more. I’ve listed these because they are ones I enjoyed and know, several being my own. Please add yours:

GYLANIC HEROES

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press). 2008. A series of books about teens forced to fight to the death on television.
  • The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey and Nimit Malavia (Chizine Publications). 2012. A novel about the women of a harem in an ancient Middle Eastern kingdom, who forge themselves into an army after they’re exiled from the city of their birth — and then return to claim the city for themselves.
  • The Splintered Universe Trilogy by Nina Munteanu (Starfire). 2011-2014. This trilogy, starting with Outer Diverse, follows the quest of Galactic Guardian Rhea Hawke, a wounded hero who must solve the massacre of a spiritual sect that takes her on her own metaphoric journey of self-discovery to realize power in compassion and forgiveness.
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books) 2012. a young girl overcomes her assigned caste in a dystopian Chicago to realize her true self-identity, revealed to be dangerous to the very existence of her ordered society
  • Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen). 1999. A woman’s journey through deception and betrayal to find honour.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan (Simon and Schuster) 1985. A woman’s quest into the unknown for benevolent intelligence in the universe.
  • Darwin’s Paradox by Nina Munteanu (Dragon Moon Press). 2007. An eco-thriller about a woman unjustly exiled for murder and her quest for justice in a world ruled by technology and scientists.
  • Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (Harper Collins). 1993. A story that examines social consequences to transhumanist generic engineering.
  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman (Laurel Leaf). 2003. A fantasy alternate world adventure about a young girl who discovers that the fate of the universe lies in her hands.
  • A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Anchor). 1998. A chilling fable of the near future, about a monotheocratic government where women are strictly controlled and assigned roles.
  • The Last Summoner by Nina Munteanu (Starfire). 2012. A young baroness discovers that her strange powers enable her to change history … but at a cost. Vivianne begins her journey in the year 1410, on the eve of a great battle. She dreams of her Ritter (knight), who will save her from her ill-fated marriage and the strange events that follow. But early on, she realizes that she is the Ritter she keeps dreaming about. She must save herself and her world.

Other Relevant Articles of Interest from The Alien Next Door:

 

Gylany: a social system based on equality of men and women

Androcracy: a form of governing system in which rulers are male

 

Riane Eisler (in The Chalice and the Blade) provides examples of sociobiologists who draw on nineteenth-century Darwinism by citing Edge-of-Tomorrow-emily bluntinsect societies to support their androcratic (social and political rule by men) theories. If humanity is to truly rise victorious over the scourge of climate change—a function of our current lifestyle and paradigms—we will need to adopt a cultural evolution that embraces a partnership society heralded by new and renewed symbology, language and “myth”: It starts with embracing gylanic heroes in literature and movies. Watching them, reading about them, writing and sharing these stories for the future they speak to.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Power of Myth in Storytelling

moon-through-treesIf a being from another world were to ask you, ‘How can I learn what it’s like to be human?’ a good answer would be, ‘Study mythology.’ ”—Joseph Campbell

For Joseph Campbell, perhaps our era’s most influential student of mythology, myths express our basic need to explain, celebrate and immortalize the essence of life. Given that life itself has no “meaning”—it simply is—it is our stories (pulled from the ethers of our “muse”) that give meaning to life. We tell stories about how the world began, our struggles to survive, our victories against greed and evil. Each culture clothes its stories according to the place and time and associated issues. And each defines its heroes and villains accordingly. At the root of all these lies a universal and timeless human experience; where metaphor and imagery of myth transcend culture, time and place to encompass all of humanity and our striving journey toward truth, grace and peace. This is why all myth, from Plutarch’s Theseus & the Minotaur to George Lucus’s Star Wars, resonates with us, regardless of whether it was created yesterday or thousands of years ago.

Greek, Roman, Norse, African and Asian myths all address fundamental questions about our humanity: the fall of Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts, Romulus and Remus, Oedipus, Medusa, Perseus, King Arthur, Oedisseus, Vassilisa, Siegfried and the Nibelungenleid, Beowulf and Grendel, Jonah and the whale, Isolde and Tristan, Persephone and the underworld, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hercules, Osiris, Gilgamesh … the list is endless.

Artist as Mythmaker … and Shaman

“There’s an old romantic idea in German, das Volk dichtet, which says that the ideas and poetry of the traditional cultures come out of the folk. They do not,” says Campbell. “They come out of an elite experience, the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe.” He is referring to the artist, who speaks to “the folk”, who answer and create an interaction. “The first impulse in the shaping of the folk tradition,” says Campbell, “comes from above, not from below.” He is referring to the divine source, the muse, the gift of “seeing” bestowed on those willing to open themselves to it. According to Campbell, “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” Like the shamans of ancient times, the storyteller— whether painter, writer, actor, singer or filmmaker— interprets the divinity in nature for others. We interpret unseen things for a tangible world.

Artists are the mythmakers — the shamans — of today. The ancient shaman’s authority came from individual psychological experience, not a social ordination (like a priest). A shaman’s powers were symbolized through her own familiars and the deities of her own personal experience. Her personal truth. As artists we wholly participate in our “landscape”. Like Dante, we journey to the depths of our world, become its deepest truths to emerge later and share.

The Mythic Hero’s Journey in Story

In my opinion, the best stories follow the mythic hero’s journey plot structure. This is because “hero’s journey” stories are transformative for not only the protagonist (our hero) but for readers following along and identifying with her. Stories that pull a reader through the three steps of a human being’s evolution (separation, transformation, and return) promise great depth and fulfillment. This is what great storytelling does: they take us on a transformative journey of learning, through challenges of change to realize a prevailing victory. Writers are the shamans of today and the heroes we write about are our agents of change. Through our artistic drama of metaphor, we make commentary on the world and what it means to be human.

The hero archetype is particularly interesting, given that he or she is essentially us as we journey to prevail over the obstacles of our fears, weaknesses, and disappointments. Every hero is on a quest or mission (whether she realizes it or not). The true mark of a hero is in her willingness to sacrifice something of value, perhaps even her life, on behalf of an ideal or a group and ultimately for the greater good. A hero is the ultimate altruist. And she is you, the artist.

The Power of Mythologist

I recall a discussion with a young friend some time ago about her knowledge of writers vs. book titles (she knew few names of writers, even those whose works she had enjoyed, but could happily recite book titles). I realized that she chose her books based on their cover and the “promised story” within—with no attention placed on the author and no intention of following that author’s other works.

I found that focus limiting; not just because I was an author myself, but because my young friend had made the choice not to connect with the artist and his or her inherent worldview. Not acknowledging the artist is to ignore that artist’s “voice” and their subtle but deep “sharing”.

“When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything s/he has done,” says Campbell. “Don’t say, ‘oh, I want to know what so-and-so did’—and don’t read the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has given you … the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view … When you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such —but he hasn’t said anything to you.”

Related Posts:

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, moon-through-treesshort stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Hero’s Journey: Part 3, Defining Your Hero

Edge Of Tomorrow - Emily Blunt warriorTo write a truly compelling story is to resonate with the universal truths of metaphor within the consciousness of humanity. According to scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell this involves an open mind and a certain amount of humility; and giving oneself to the story…not unlike the hero who gives her life to something larger than herself: “Anyone writing a creative work knows that you open, you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself….you become the carrier of something that is given to you from … the Muses—or God.”

This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since, as Campbell says “the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” I call this tapping into the universal truth where metaphor lives. A story comes alive when these two resonate.

All stories contain common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies. As writers we are the creators of our culture’s current myths. These are best summarized under “the Hero’s Journey”, which is essentially the 3-act ancient Greek play, handed down to us thousands of years ago. The hero’s journey draws from the depth psychology of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. In his now classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes the hero’s journey as steps of the “rite of passage” of self-discovery and self-integration. To be a hero is to be on a journey home. The hero’s journey is the soul’s search for home, a journey of transformation we all take in some form.

Describing the Hero & Her Journey

The hero is the ultimate altruist, sacrificing her life for the greater good. She is warrior and lover who slays the dragon of the status quo, so to speak. She enacts the ultimate in sacrifice in her quest to change the world (and/or herself) for the better.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey tells us that writers are storytellers who utilize the principles of myth to create masterful stories that entertain and resonate with our psyche: “The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world… The Hero’s Journey is a pattern that seems to extend in many dimensions, describing more than one reality. It accurately describes, among other things, the process of making a journey, the necessary working parts of a story, the joys and despairs of being a writer, and the passage of a soul through life.”

In my opinion, the best stories follow the hero’s journey plot structure. This is because “hero’s journey” stories are transformative for not only the protagonist (our hero) but for readers following along and identifying with her. Stories that pull a reader through the three steps of a human being’s evolution (separation, transformation, and return) promise great depth and fulfillment. This is what great storytelling does: they take us on a transformative journey of learning, through challenges of change to realize a prevailing victory. Writers are the shamans of today and the heroes we write about are our agents of change. Through our artistic drama of metaphor, we make commentary on the world and what it means to be human.

The hero archetype is particularly interesting, given that he or she is essentially us as we journey to prevail over the obstacles of our fears, weaknesses, and disappointments. Every hero is on a quest or mission (whether she realizes it or not). The true mark of a hero is in her willingness to sacrifice something of value, perhaps even her life, on behalf of an ideal or a group and ultimately for the greater good. A hero is the ultimate altruist.

In some versions of The Holy Grail the hero reaches a huge chasm with no apparent way to get across the Grail castle. The space is too great for him to jump. Then he remembers how Grail teaching instructs him to step out in faith. As he puts one foot out into the abyss, a bridge magically appears and he is saved.  Of course, this is all metaphor. Anyone who has left a job, school or a relationship, or fallen in love, has stepped out into that abyss, separating them from the familiar world they’ve know.  The journey and the abyss is often not a physical but a spiritual adventure, as our hero transforms from ignorance and innocence toward experience and enlightenment.  In the end, our hero returns with a gift to the world.

Kinds of Heroes

Heroes may be willing or unwilling. Some can be downright unheroic to begin with. We call them anti-heroes. Anti-heroes are notably flawed characters who must grow significantly to achieve the status of true hero. Often the anti-hero starts off more like a villain, like the character Crais in Farscape or Tom Cruise’s character in Rain Man. The wounded anti-hero may be a heroic knight in tarnished armor, “a loner who has rejected society or been rejected by it,” according to Vogler. Examples include Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The catalyst hero provides an exception to the rule of hero undergoing the most change. This type of hero shows less of a character arc but precipitates significant change or transformation in another protagonist (often the principal narrator). Examples include David Adams in Ben Bova’s Colony or The Illusionist of the same name. In both cases, the main protagonist (the one who changed the most) was another character, affected by the hero’s actions.

In Awakening the Heroes Within, Carol S. Pearson provides further categories for hero-archetypes, including: innocent, orphan, martyr, wanderer, warrior, caregiver, seeker, lover, destroyer, creator, ruler, magician, sage, and fool. As with Vogler’s archetypes, these aren’t necessarily fixed for an individual hero, who may embrace several of these archetypes during her transformation in response to events and ordeals set before her.

Pearson grouped these hero-archetypes according to stages of a hero’s journey and elements of his responding psyche. For instance, the Ego relates to the preparation for the journey and includes: Innocent; Orphan; Warrior; and Caregiver. The Soul (the unconsciousness) relates to the journey itself and includes: Seeker; Destroyer; and Lover. The Self (individuation) relates to the return from the journey and includes: Ruler; Magician; Sage; and Fool. A hero may use any of these archetypes at various times in her life, but she can also use all of them within a day or an hour.

The table below shows how Pearson breaks these down into six main archetypes with associated task, plot structure and hero’s “gift”.

A Hero’s Role & Gift

Archetype Task Plot Stucture Gift
Orphan Survive difficulty How she suffered & survived Resilience
Wanderer Find herself How she escaped & found her way Independence
Warrior Prove her worth How she achieved her goals Courage
Altruist Show generosity How she gave to others Compassion
Innocent Achieve happiness How she found the promised land Faith
Magician Transform herself How she changed the world power

References:

Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
Pearson, Carol S. 1991. Awakening the Heroes Within. Harper. San Francisco.
Pearson, Carol S. 1998. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. Harper. San Francisco. 3rd Edition.
Pearson, Ridley. 2007. “Getting Your Act(s) Together”. In: Writer’s Digest. April, 2007.
Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

Previous Articles on The Hero’s Journey:

Part 1, The Hero & the Journey

Part 2, Heroes and other Archetypes

Edge-of-Tomorrow-emily blunt

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Hero’s Journey: Part 2, Heroes and Other Archetypes

420px-Edmund_blair_leighton_accoladeThe world of fairy tales and myth is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts” or motive, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who “block” the quest, tricksters who confuse things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero and her quest.

Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. An archetype models a personality or behavior; a mother-figure is an archetype. This is what makes archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Archetypes are found in nearly all forms of literature, with their motifs mostly rooted in folklore.

Assigning an archetype to a character lets the writer clarify that character’s role in the story. Archetypes are an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell). Joseph Campbell went so far as to describe the archetype as something that is expressed biologically and is wired into every human being.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, lists the seven most useful archetypes for the writer.

The Hero

The hero sacrifices his own needs on behalf of others. He provides a character for us to identify with and is usually the principal POV character in a story, with qualities most readers can (or want to) identify with. The hero “transforms” through her journey as she encounters other archetypes on her journey, whether it is a physical journey or a psychological journey toward “home” (salvation or redemption) through sacrifice. The true mark of the hero, says Vogler, is in the act of sacrifice: “the hero’s willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even her own life, on behalf of an ideal or a group,” and ultimately for the greater good.

Heroes may be willing or unwilling. Anti-heroes are notably flawed characters that must grow significantly to achieve the status of true hero. Often the anti-hero starts off more like a villain, like Tom Cruise’s character in Rainman. The wounded anti-hero may be a “heroic knight in tarnished armor, a loner who has rejected society or been rejected by it,” says Vogler: Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The catalyst hero shows less of a character arc, but precipitates significant change or transformation in other protagonists. A good example is David Adams, in Ben Bova’s Colony.

The Mentor

The mentor often possesses divine wisdom and has faith in the hero. He often gives the hero a “gift”, which is usually something important for the quest; either a weapon to destroy a “monster” or a “talisman” to enlighten the hero. A good example is in Star Wars, when Luke’s mentor, Obi Wan, provides him with his father’s lightsaber (Luke’s magic talisman).

The Herald

Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually they don’t). They deliver the call to adventure. The herald is a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. Existing in the form of a person, an event, or just information, they shift the hero’s balance and change her world.

In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes to her as a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.

The Threshold Guardian

This archetype guards the threshold of “Separation from the Ordinary World” on the hero’s quest to achieve his destiny. Threshold guardians spice up the story by providing obstacles the hero must overcome. Threshold guardians are usually not the main antagonist. In the Harry Potter series, this role is fulfilled by Malfoy, Snape or Filch, even. They help round-out the hero’s journey and develop his character arc. The threshold guardian can be a “friend” who doesn’t believe in the hero or her quest. Ultimately, this is the role of the threshold guardian: to test the hero’s resolve in her quest.

The Shape shifter

The shape shifter adds dramatic tension to the story and provides the hero with a puzzle to solve. They can seem one thing and in fact be another. They bring doubt and suspense to the story and test the hero’s abilities to discern her path. Yoda in Star Wars is a bit of a shape shifter, initially masking his ancient wisdom with a foolish childlike appearance when Luke first encounters him.

The Shadow

The monster under the bed, repressed feelings, deep trauma, a festering guilt: these all possess the dark energy of the shadow. This is the dark force of the unexpressed, unrealized, rejected, feared aspects of the hero and represented by the main antagonist or villain.

Voldermort in the Harry Potter series; Darth Vader in Star Wars. These are shadows and worthy opponents for the hero, bringing out the best in her and usually demanding the ultimate in self-sacrifice (the hero’s destiny).The shadow force, if internalized by the hero, may serve as a threshold guardian, to overcome; ultimately challenging the hero to overcome her greatest weakness and prevail.

The Trickster

Practically every Shakespearian play contains a jester or fool, who not only serves as comic relief but as commentator. This is because tricksters are usually witty and clever, even when ridiculous. The comedy of most successful comedians touches upon the pulse of a culture by offering commentary that is truism (often in the form of entertaining sarcasm).

Recommended Reading:

Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.
Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

The Hero’s Journey: Part 1, The Hero & the Journey

hero's journey-boat-moonAll stories consist of … common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies. They are known collectively as The Hero’s Journey — Christopher Vogler, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers”

“The Hero’s Journey” myth follows the three-act structure of the ancient Greek play, handed down to us thousands of years ago. Drawn from the depth psychology of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and the scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it duplicates the steps of the “Rite of Passage” and is a process of self-discovery and self-integration.

The Power of Myth & Archetype

Campbell recognized that myths weren’t just abstract theories or quaint ancient beliefs but practical models for understanding how to live. Ultimately, the Hero’s Journey is the soul’s search for “home”. It is a journey of transformation we all take, in some form.This is why the Hero’s Journey model for writing is so relevant and why it appeals to all readers.

Jung proposed that symbols appear to us when there is a need to express what thought cannot think or what is only divined or felt. Jung discovered reoccurring symbols among differing peoples and cultures, unaffected by time and space. He described these shared symbols as archetypes: irrepressible, unconscious, pre-existing forms of the psyche. Joseph Campbell suggested that these mythic images lay at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind of humankind. Where we are all the same.

The Hero’s Journey in Storytelling

Compelling stories resonate with the universal truths of metaphor within the consciousness of humanity. According to Joseph Campbell this involves an open mind and a certain amount of humility; and giving oneself to the story…not unlike the hero who gives her life to something larger than herself: “Anyone writing a creative work knows that you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself….you become the carrier of something that is given to you from … the Muses or God. This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” I call this tapping into the universal truth where metaphor lives. A story comes alive when these two resonate.

Vogler suggested that using the principles of myth,helps “create a masterful story that is dramatic, entertaining, and psychologically true.”

The Hero and the Journey

Heroes are agents of change on a quest. The hero is the ultimate altruist, sacrificing her life for the greater good. She is warrior and lover who slays the dragon of the status quo, so to speak. She enacts the ultimate in sacrifice in her quest to change the world (and/or herself). The hero’s task has always been to bring new life to an ailing culture, says Carol S. Pearson, author of The Hero Within. Julia Cameron reiterates this in her book, The Artist’s Way, when she describes the concept of art as a healing journey (not just for the individual but for a culture). This is because the writer/artist changes society by changing themselves.

Campbell describes a 12-step journey of the hero within 3-acts and influenced by five major archetypes (herald, mentor, threshold guardian, trickster, shadow and shapeshifter). Our hero starts her journey in Act 1 — in the Ordinary World — and will eventually separate from the Ordinary World in Act 2— entering the Special World, where she will transform through her many challenges. In Act 3, she re-enters the Ordinary World, changed, with her gift to the world. I’ll go into more detail about how you integrate other archetypes and the steps of the journey in “storytelling” in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.

For now, let’s concentrate on our hero and what her journey means to her. She begins her quest with one giant step. How does she do it? How does she muster up the courage and resolution to proceed (often against all odds) on a journey that promises only challenge and hardship. She does so because our hero, whether she realizes it or not, has faith in her quest (even if she may not have faith in herself).

In some versions of the Holy Grail quest, relates Pearson, the hero reaches a huge chasm with no apparent way to get across to the Grail castle. The space is too great for him to jump across. Then he remembers the Grail teaching that instructs him to step out in faith. As he puts one foot out into the abyss, a bridge magically appears and he is saved. Anyone who has left a job, school, one’s home town, or a relationship has stepped out into that abyss, separating them from the familiar world they’ve known.

Just as “the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table set off to seek the Holy Grail,” says Mary Henderson, author of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, “the great figures of every major religion have each gone on a ‘vision quest’, from Moses’ journey to the mountain, to Jesus’ time in the desert, Muhammad’s mediations in the mountain cave, and Buddha’s search for enlightenment that ended under the Bodhi tree.” The journey, and the abyss, is often not a physical adventure, adds Henderson, but a spiritual one, “as the hero moves from ignorance and innocence to experience and enlightenment.”

Here are the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey:

ACT ONE: Separation

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold

ACT TWO: Initiation & Transformation

  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to the Innermost Cave
  • Ordeal (Abyss)
  • Reward/Seizing the Sword (Transformation and Revelation)

ACT THREE: the Return

  • The Road Block
  • Resurrection / Atonement
  • Return with the Elixor

I’ll talk about these in more detail and show you some examples in Part 3 of my Hero’s Journey series. Next in the series is “The Hero’s Journey—Part 2, Archetypes”.

Recommended Reading:

  • Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.
  • Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
  • Campbell, Joseph. 1988. The Power of Myth.
  • Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 266pp.
  • Pearson, Carol S. 1998. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. Harper. San Francisco. 3rd Edition.
  • Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

Edge-of-Tomorrow-emily blunt

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Finding the Courage to Write…and Publish

nature-streaming“Being creative means giving yourself the freedom to be who you really are,” says Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice.

But that takes courage. A lot of courage.

Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write, admits that “what makes writing so scary is the perpetual vulnerability of the writer. It’s not the writing as such that provokes our fear so much as other people’s reaction to our writing.” In fact, adds Keyes, “the most common disguise is fear of them, their opinion of us, when it’s actually our own opinion of ourselves that we’re worried about.” Keyes suggests that ultimately “mastering techniques [of style and craft] will do far less to improve writing than finding the will, the nerve, the guts to put on paper what you really want to say.”

In fall of 2013, I attended a writers’ conference, where I launched my short story collection about evolution “Natural Selection” along with several other authors launching their works. I recall one admitting to feeling terror when her first short story—whose main antagonist was based on her mother—was accepted by a magazine. Her first thought was: OMG! What have I done?

Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought. The closer he gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them “drag it around” as Stevie Nicks would say…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not of failure but of “success”. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

How do you get past the fear of being “exposed”, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion.

If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. Says Keyes, “the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.”

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter, whose business is to report the truth and sometimes hold a culture accountable.

“Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places … to steal the trophy and get out.”stone-path-in-forest

Every writer, like his or her protagonist, is on a Hero’s Journey (see my other posts here). Like the Hero of our epic, we too must acknowledge the call, pass the threshold guardian, maneuver the abyss and face the beast before we can return “home” with our prize.

“If you long to excel as a writer,” says Finke, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” And worry about the rest later.

Are you afraid to write, to answer the call of your creative urges? Good. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.—Ralph Keyes

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.