I watched a youtube video the other day about some of the most overdone tropes in fantasy literature. The Youtuber was someone who had been in the publishing industry and then decided to become an author, so she is decidedly more of an authority on the subject of what publishers want than I am.
Having said that, what publishers Want and what people Need isn’t always the same sort of story.
Her list is of the top 10 overdone tropes. Of those 10 at least seven of them were mandatory elements of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Number ten was the Quest itself…
Why is this a big deal? Because Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is understood to be the base formula for all hero stories from as far back a time as when people didn’t realize there were formulas for storytelling. It goes back to a time when myths were considered true stories and they believed in dragons.
The Hero’s Journey “formula” goes back to when stories were oral. And it transcends cultures!
And yet all of a sudden (and by “sudden” I mean slowly over the last few hundred years of human history or so), it has become unpopular to follow a formula that has been working for centuries… possibly even millennia.
To prove my point, I want to introduce you to someone: Dr. Irving Finkel. Some while back (before the quarantine), I was lucky enough to see a lecture by Dr. Finkel. He’s probably the most famous expert on ancient Sumerian language, culture, and general everyday life.
Here’s a quick little video to show you his personality, which is most definitely reason enough to see a lecture by him all on its own:
What made me want to go see this particular lecture (besides the fact that Sumerian myths are some of the ones with which I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be) was that it stated in the promo that he was going to compare Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker. After over an hour of stories about Gilgamesh and explaining briefly how to read cuneiform, Dr. Finkel had still not really touched on the Star Wars connection.
Enter a young boy who was brave enough to ask what any of this had to do with Star Wars.
Dr. Finkel responded by saying that Luke Skywalker was “a cardboard cutout of a hero because Hollywood needed a formula to sell.”
Quick side note: If you watched the above video to the end, you’ll realize that Dr. Finkel might not exactly agree with how Hollywood portrays ancient cultures. Similarly, if you’ve ever been around for one of my rants about how badly Disney has treated Hercules, you’ll know I tend to have a similar opinion.
Now, no matter how he feels about Hollywood (or how I do, for that matter), in all his talk of Gilgamesh, he described the monomyth of the Hero’s Journey perfectly! He even included the descent into the underworld and several of the archetypes that someone who likes archetypes would recognize: the Temptress, the Sage, etc.
Now, Dr. Finkel would tell you that Gilgamesh was a real person and that is why his tales are written down.
Suddenly that trip to the underworld is much more exciting, isn’t it?
I don’t know if I believe Gilgamesh was a real person, but I know that the Greeks and Romans would have told you that the likes of Achilles and Hercules were real, even though today we consider them to be myths. Yet, even though we don’t consider them to be real people, we are still fascinated by these stories today, and I don’t mean just to study the archetypes!
The movie Troy (some 15 or 16 years back) was about Achilles and was loosely based on Homer’s Iliad. It wasn’t made for any sort of literary or historical study purposes; it was made purely for entertainment, and we, the people were so there for it!
As for Hercules, there have been at least 4 different versions of Hercules over the last 20 years, including one with the Rock:
And also including that ridiculous Disney version where Hera is Hercules’ mom and Hades is the bad guy.
Poor Hades gets made the bad guy a lot in modern times, but if you look at the original stories, he’s just a romantic guy who also happens to be ridiculously rich. Where do you find gold? In the ground, aka the Underworld, which is Hades’ domain.
But before I go too deep down that particular rabbit hole, there is a distinct reason why those stories stick with us in some form or another: the heroes are exemplary people.
Hero stories, especially ones with a religious background (and remember, what many call myth today was religion in the past… still is in some circles) require the hero to be someone that we, the readers, should WANT to aspire to be. They have to be genuinely good people, not perfect: Achilles had to overcome his pride; Hercules had to atone for the murder of his wife and children; even Luke Skywalker kissed his sister.
My point is that heroes had recognizably human traits. They made mistakes, they were flawed, and yet they were good, and not always inherently so. The journey that the hero undertakes is one to prove that he is worthy of being called a hero, and the audience (be it a listener to an oral tale, viewer of a play or film, or a reader of a book) is supposed to want to be as close to that person as possible.
We see it in Christianity as well. Who is the hero of Christianity? Jesus. And can anyone ever be as perfect as him? No, but isn’t the goal to be as close to Christlike as possible in order to get into Heaven?
Either way, the point is that you are supposed to want to be like your heroes. The stories teach us about being a “good” person by showing us the “best” type of person…
But what about heroes today?
YA heroes still have some of the same traits of classical heroes, but even then, there are some fairly major flaws included. Let’s take a moment to compare Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) to Tris Prior(Divergent). Be aware of spoilers ahead, but these books have been out for a long while, so I don’t feel particularly bad about it.
Katniss Everdeen is seen as a hero because her desire to protect her sister led her to start a revolution that, by the end of the series, successfully removes the authoritarian power structure of this dystopian world. She is unnaturally talented with a bow, and even after all her effort, she is unsuccessful in protecting her sister but does somehow manage to find love…
That’s not the best description, but is basically what we see of her. She is touted as a hero because her bow skill and her bravery make her a formidable opponent and she is supposedly always outwitting her enemies.
But is she really? Bravery? She didn’t volunteer because she was brave and chose to put herself into danger. She wanted to protect her sister, which is indeed a noble cause… however… it was a reaction to events thrust upon her. In that entire book series, she doesn’t make any decision on her own that wasn’t a direct reaction to someone else pulling the strings. She rarely understands what is really going on, and often her rash reactions put them in more danger before she womans up to save the day.
And for goodness sake, why is there a need for her to end up with a lover by the end of the series? To show that she has healed from the trauma she went through? I think it might be because Peeta is the true hero of the story. He is the “good” character that we should all have been rooting for, the Christlike hero, while Katniss is a reluctant anti-hero at best…
Moving on to Tris.
Tris Prior fits the “chosen one” trope, but she also has to learn to embrace all of her different sides. Being multi-faceted in a world where everyone is just one trait or another means that she has to live by the rules of only one faction, and yet it is through the combination of the different traits that she succeeds. She runs headfirst into the dangerous faction of Dauntless because she can sense that she doesn’t belong in the selfless faction of Abnegation.
She chooses to be brave, literally! And yet her journey teaches her that in order to be successful, she must embrace the selfless side of herself. Her self-sacrifice at the end of the series is the truest act of both bravery and selflessness possible; it’s the only way that character arc could be fulfilled.
I know they changed it for the movie, and I liked the movie, but the character falls flat because she didn’t learn to truly embrace all her different traits.
Which brings us to the point of this whole thing: Today’s society NEEDS to bring back the hero stories the way they were designed to be told.
Both versions of the Divergent series were entertaining, but the movies were only entertaining, There was no substance to them because the characters never grew. Meanwhile, the books left the reader with a moral about being both brave and selfless, or about being all of who you really are.
From an authors’ standpoint, why should we care? Well, because in all the writing chats and the topics we’ve discussed up to this point, character growth has been a key element in storytelling.
So… why is it that popular film has quit having protagonists that grow/develop?
I think it’s because our society no longer values being a good person over our own personal entertainment. What is popular now? TikTok, which is about being creative in short bursts for entertainment purposes. There are some who give tutorials (saw a few really great art tutorials that were on Pinterest but had the TikTok logo on them), but most of the popular TikToks (is that what you call them?) seem to be the ones where people are copying other people’s dance moves in slightly different outfits or different ways.
It’s all about being good at something someone else has already done. Similarly, we idolize sports players and worship their talents instead of their goodness, and we watch reality TV that highlights the worst of people instead of the best.
That bad behavior seems to have slipped into our everyday life. Furthermore, a person’s worth is based on what services they can provide or how good they are at something instead of how good they are. Look at how people are treating each other right now, during this global crisis!
If ever we needed real heroes in our stories again, now would be the time!
And I think I’m not the only one who feels that way. Look at how popular the superhero movies have been. Tony Stark is far from a perfect guy, but he became the hero that everyone loved by the end of Avengers End Game. He had a full character arc, as did Captain America. Both learned lessons that made them better people, and better heroes.
We need heroes like that in our stories right now. We need myths again! We need stories to be more than just entertaining because what our society currently considers entertaining, highlights the worst of what it means to be human. Do we really need more of that in the world right now?