So, watching Clash of the Titans last night got me thinking about mythic archetypes and modern storytelling. The Hero’s Journey thing sometimes gets a bit of an eyeroll as being a cliché, but like a lot of clichés, it got that way because it works.
To recap the essentials, it goes like this:
The hero gets a ‘call to adventure.’ Something needs doing, and he’s going to have to leave his ordinary life to do it. Usually he drags his feet a little, until something forces his action, he leaves the security of his known world (literally or figuratively) and journeys into the unknown.
I tend to obsess on the end of the journey, the death and sacrifice part. Because this, for me, is what bumps a book up to the keeper shelf.
Last week, I talked about how the stakes for the hero have to be so primal a caveman could understand it. It’s life, death, heart and soul on the line. But many times, there are two layers to that. What the hero thinks she’s trying to do, and what is truly at stake for her. At some point in the story, whatever the hero’s personal goals or wishes are, she has to be willing to put them on the line for something greater than herself (and as such, achieve the true goal).
Think about Ripley in Aliens. Her personal stakes are to get out of the alien hive alive and nuke the site from orbit. However, she puts her own survival, and that of her few remaining allies, to rescue Newt, the plucky kid, from the aliens. Even though she lives (oops, spoiler), it’s the willingness to sacrifice herself that counts.
In a more figurative example, look at the romance novels that stick with you. Or the other movie I watched yesterday: “The Princess and the Frog.” This movie followed the Hero’s Journey down to the letter, and while the characters put themselves in physical danger for each other, in the end, each one of the pair was willing to give up his or her dreams for the other one’s happiness. A lot of times in a relationship story–which includes buddy stories and family relationships as well–the hero is willing to unselfishly put even the relationship itself on the line for a greater cause.
This fills the ‘death’ slot in the hero’s journey matrix because it’s the death of a dream. But as we know from Perseus (and every other mythic hero) returning from the Underworld with whatever he needs to solve the world’s problems, death is only temporary in fairy tales and myths. Even if the sacrifice remains… well, sacrificed, the greater goal is achieved.
This is why the stakes have to be high for a really satisfying story. So that when the hero puts it all on the line at the end, it’s a true sacrifice for him.
So, let me know in the comments: Most satisfying moment of sacrifice in a book or movie.
(If you are interested in reading more about mythic archetypes and modern story telling, check out Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.)