How Monomyth Theories Get It Wrong About Fiction

Updated on April 3, 2018

Illustration of a type of "monomyth":

Monomyth theorists have many variations of this general idea.
Monomyth theorists have many variations of this general idea.

In Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell compares world literature and mythology and focuses on the similarities that unite (supposedly) all human fiction. This is where we get concepts like "the hero's journey". His idea is that most, or all, fiction would follow these patterns. Indeed, you can say that many pop culture giants like Star Wars: A New Hope, Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix follow the "monomyth" pattern of a "hero's journey" story. So, knowing that underlying framework on which all story is based makes us better writers, right?

I don't think so. I struggle with Campbell and others' idea of universality in literature. Certainly, some universal ideas must exist, because we're all the same species and all inhabit the same planet. But what I don't like is that this "monomyth" idea basically glosses over the essential differences that make cultures, tribes, nations, groups, and individuals unique.

Here are my main gripes about the "monomyth".

1. It Ignores Unique Aspects of Works of Fiction

Monomyth concepts like archetypes are generalizations. While I'd be lying if I said generalizations were never useful, they don't paint a complete picture of a story, character, or anything else because they're not getting all the specific qualities that make that thing unique.

For example, if I say Sayaka, a character in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, is "a sad teenage girl, suffering because of unrequited love", that is true. And it can unite the reader's mind between Sayaka and other such girls from other fictional works they're familiar with, helping them understand her. But not all sad teenage girls suffering from unrequited love are alike, either. Some of them, like Sayaka, tangle with the supernatural, trying to make a deal with the devil to obtain their love. Others live in a strictly realistic world, and have to find more mundane coping methods like therapy, talking to a friend, finding someone else who does return their love, or confiding in a parent. To give Sayaka then some kind of pithy label like "Sad Unrequited Love Girl", "Lovesick Teen", etc. is to generalize her, ignoring everything that makes her special and unique as a character. It ignores everything that makes her story different from others. As such, the comparisons between her and similar fictional characters can't run very deep, and are only helpful for literary analysis up to a point.

To me, monomyth theories are like saying "all beverages are liquids occupying a container" as if that were enough to tell you the difference between a cosmopolitan and a mojito. Just because two stories contain the same basic elements does not make them the same. And it's just intellectually lazy to treat them as if they were the same, by ignoring all the mountains of rich detail that make them different. For example, a literature teacher might say Harry Potter and The Hobbit are both "hero's journeys". In both cases, however, the "hero" leans heavily on help from others. And that's, like I said, not a very useful comparison. Describing the aspects of something that make it a "hero's journey" and not just a trip to the supermarket don't actually say all that much about particularities of that work of fiction that make it stand out. I might be able to describe a dozen novels using monomyth nomenclature, but doing so means leaving out a lot about each one that is significant.

2. It Discourages Reading and Connoisseurship

"And then hero returned from otherworld to carry the boon back to humanity! Now we never have to read another book ever again!"
"And then hero returned from otherworld to carry the boon back to humanity! Now we never have to read another book ever again!"

Whether you want to blame technology, the kids themselves, their parents, or higher demands of schools, children reading for fun is on the decline (1). But to encourage reading, kids, teens, and adults all need to know what they're getting from a book that they can't get from a TV program, cartoon, or web video.

Basically, while other media can be clever, what makes fiction books a "higher art" than TV is the amount of work each author puts into the craft of writing. Writers are, for the most part, creative individuals with profound, interesting things to say, veiled by metaphors and analogies the astute reader will pick up on. Reading and getting a lot out of reading requires literary connoisseurship, which requires familiarity with great works of literature. The Bible and Shakespeare are often referenced in classic literature, and those works of literature go on to be referenced and symbolically referred to in contemporary literature. Watching the movie Easy A without having read or being familiar with The Scarlet Letter is technically possible, but yields less intellectual pleasure than experiencing the movie with some knowledge of the book it symbolically connects to.

Monomyth studies, however, discourage that intellectually stimulating pursuit of literary connoisseurship. Why bother reading both the Aeneid AND Watership Down if they're essentially the same story? Well, because they're fundamentally NOT the same story at all, if you look closer than their superficial similarities. They're the same type of story; foundation myths. And that's where the similarities end. I worry that people might dismiss literature as a discipline altogether if they decide that all of it boils down into one story, or a few story types.


3. Monomyth Examples Are Cherry-Picked

There are plenty of stories that do not fit into the monomyth at all. One example I keep thinking of is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. That story has no "hero", because it is divided up into essentially eight stories, stories of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters. But the stories are heavily based on real life, and real life does not follow neat little patterns like the monomyth. Like the Joy Luck Club, a lot of East Asian literature, including anime and manga, does not fit the "hero's journey" monomyth because of the lack of a singular hero, as collectivist cultures such as those of Korea, China, and Japan focus not on individuals, but on groups and society as a whole. That's not to say there are no East Asian hero's journeys, but the hero's journey does not apply to a lot of fiction from collectivist cultures. Which Power Ranger is "the hero"? Which Evangelion pilot is "the hero"? You can't decide that easily, because in a lot of Asian fiction, multiple heroes work together as a team. The team itself is "the hero", but the "hero" being a team is not something ever discussed by Campbell, who heavily focused on examples of heroes from Greek mythology.

In Campbell's day, I think that scholars made the mistake of thinking that Greek mythology, the Bible, and Western literature were human mythology and literature; that they could apply to the entire world. He searched Buddhist and Hindu texts for just enough similarities to The Bible to make them seem like they were the same, and the common cultural myth that all religious teachings are essentially the same was born. Never mind that in many cases different religions teach things that are completely opposed to each other; like the Jewish kosher dietary laws vs. the Hindu belief that all animals may be eaten save for the sacred ones, including cows (while some groups say that meat should be avoided altogether). If monomyth gives rise to mono-religion, how do we decide which animals to eat and not eat? How would we decide whether we went to heaven, hell, had no afterlife, or reincarnated endlessly until our souls could be freed from an endless recurring cycle? There are endless ethical and existential questions answered very differently by the world's different religions, whatever their similarities in myth.

Any way you slice it, monomyth examples are cherry-picked. People like Campbell selected a few stories that supported their ideas, glossing over not only dissimilarities between their example stories, but ignoring stories that don't fit the patterns they're trying to establish.


4. No Story Actually Is a Monomyth

The monomyth idea is supposed to represent a way to understand "universal" literature. But here is no single instance of a story that is present across every human culture and society. The monomyth simply does not exist.

The people who write monomyth concepts always have to add caveats, disclaimers if you will. This is because no fictional work completely follows any of their formulas in terms of exact order of events. Most fictional works have some elements of the monomyth, lacking others. There is a kind of folly in this, a desperate madness, trying to make stories as different as The Last Unicorn and The Little Mermaid the same - when they're different. It's dishonest to make huge, sweeping generalizations, like "in both, you have a beautiful, female hero, born as a supernatural creature, who must become human temporarily in order to get what she wants". But who these heroes are, what kinds of worlds they live in, what they want, and their antagonists are all totally different. Stories are not the same, and no amount of obsessive, frantic searching for similarities between all of them will ever make them all the same.

5. Monomyths Are Not Useful for Writers

Tropes are tools, but trying to follow a monomyth pattern when creating a fictional plot is a bad idea. Your goal probably isn't "I want to write something as lame and cliche as possible", whatever your purpose for writing.

What actually helps writers in my opinion is connoisseurship, reading and understanding a lot of literature and then figuring out:

  • What stories are similar to the one I'm trying to create?
  • How will my story be different, and how will it be similar to others like it?
  • What am I trying to say that I don't think anyone has said before?

Writing is an art. It takes a lot of thought and planning. It takes skillfully combining the familiar with the fantastical, balancing the two so the story neither appears boring nor completely unconnected to reality. It takes being fresh and interesting, while giving the reader things they can connect with their personal experiences. It means, essentially, using old tropes in new ways. For example, the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin didn't invent things like castles, knights, princesses, lords, ladies, dragons, or magic. But what he does is use these fantasy elements in a provocative, interesting, original way. That means writers should try not to fit into some kind of monomyth mold! They should try to be different. So knowledge of the monomyth is not a useful tool for writing.


It has long been a popular fantasy among amateur students of myth that all peoples share the same stories. This is clearly an example of wishful thinking.

— Alan Dundes, a professor of folklore

Conclusion

So, Campbell's idea of the "hero's journey" or monomyth is false, not academically credible, not universal, and not a useful tool for writers. Is it useful for anyone? Well, it is a good idea to compare stories with similar plots. But differences making each story unique are also important, and should be celebrated and treasured, instead of being swept under the rug to fit into some kind of crazy New Age hocus-pocus "theory" about stories in general. I love Evangelion because it isn't like Macross, and I love Macross because it isn't Evangelion. If every story were the same, what would even be the point of story-telling or story-listening?

Questions & Answers

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      • Empatheon profile image

        Εμπαθεων 

        2 months ago

        "I'd like to talk about 'The Last Jedi'."

        Yeah, let's open infected wound one more time. My sister once told, that analyzing TLJ reminds squeezing a cyst. It hurts, is messy as pus and blood flows during the process, but you want it off your skin, so you squeeze it anyways and hurt yourself by doing so. We've seen TLJ together and right on our way back from cinema, we were trying to explain strange cognitive dissonance about it. While technically it may be the best SW movie ever (great design, cinematography, nice extension of '70s retrofuturistic aesthetics, great sound production, nice soundtrack from Williams), it lacks the most important: real SW soul. It looks like SW, it sounds like SW, but it doesn't feel like SW. The real starwarsy values (whatever they are) are missing here, it's only empty shell, imitation. So all problems naturally must come from story choices of Rian Johnson, and you have to put the whole thing apart to find, what's so wrong about it. And then you dive deeper and deeper and find more and more problems in this disjointed mess.

        So, we were pondering on every element of story, but we couldn't nail the essence of main problem. But then something basic and obvious struck me - Star Wars should be treated as fairy-tale in space. Well, would TLJ pass as good fairy-tale, if a test would be made? So I asked her: "Listen, if you were to start your own family and have kids, would you think of TLJ as appropriate story for them and helpful to you in task of teaching them some important lesson on life, world, relationships with other people? Would you show them this movie of your own free will?". Response was quick and predictable: "Fuck, no!"

        "Then you have it. It's completely self-defeating product, made for nobody. What's the point of making nihilistic fairy-tale, nobody would show to children? Children crave meaning, they want to become grown ups, so decent fairy-tale should show them how to become a decent adult. It should have some clues, direction for them, role models. In TLJ everyone is broken, runs in cirlces, makes pointless things and whole thing is completely uninspiring and mechanical."

        I see you've written note on The Last Jedi, so I guess in meantime I could pinpoint some things which bother me most about it, and it's not even plot holes, everybody's favorite dead horse to beat. It's the handling of Rey-Luke relationship, introduction of modern, mundane social commentary on weapons trading and politics, which breaks influence and importance of the spiritual - the Force and destiny. It cheapens down whole mythological side of fiction and destroys escapism potential of Saga, which was main driving thing for most of fans, who want refuge from ordinary world.

        "Monomyth also seems to me to be toted by some as an "easy answer" to the problem of writing a movie or novel. I'd hate for writing to become a paint-by-numbers kind of thing."

        It's completely understandable, especially if you're tired of endless stream of generic superhero movies and Holywood blockbusters written on knee by screenwriters who took the job after somebody else, who was actually fired 10 minutes earlier.

        I guess Bashir makes a good point on this - if you want to go pro, it's necessary to eat, breathe and speak monomyth, even during sleep, because as creative gun for hire, you can never know, what will be next job opportunity, and of course you need to coin story before deadline to get paid, so you don't have much time for meandering. Sometimes you can get already half-developed story or messed up work of previous writer, who didn't know how to put story in new direction desired by his corporate bosses, so knowledge of story structure can give you insight, how to fix it with minimal fuss. Sometimes it can actually save you from taking impossible task to tackle, when after thousand rewrites story becomes usalvagable mess and you know that realisticaly there is too many problems on every stage and it would be better to throw all this away and start from a scratch with new idea.

        If Otto Rank's pattern turned into something like craft standard for artisans, all screenwriters know it, then they can be easily interchangeable. Craftsmanship can be better or worse, but everybody is on the same page, when it comes to knowledge of canon. One architect can finish what other architect has started, because they all know exact same steps in projecting buildings in such way, they won't crumble in catastrophe. But still, you can be fond of some houses more than others, while all of them stand firmly.

        It's nothing of easy in making memorable movie or novel. Or anything else, for that matter. To create something consistent and pleasing demands lot of attention. I would say, it's not about monomyth really, but Sturgeon's law (or Sturgeon's revelation) in general.

        "90 percent of everything is crap."

        If so, this simple truth concerns storytelling as well, whenever we believe it must adhere to the limits of monomythic structure or not. 90 percent of it, will be questionable anyway. I'm just sad, TLJ didn't come closer to that 10 percent, but that's just me.

      • Empatheon profile image

        Εμπαθεων 

        2 months ago

        "I see that you're new to this site. Have you considered creating your own article about this topic?"

        Yes, I've found your text and Owlcation by accident, while I was trying to refresh my memory of differences between original Campbellian monomyth and simplified version of it, by Otto Rank, which is more popular in Holywood right now. It supposed to be part of my research for bigger thing: presentation of my view on what could be successful Star Wars formula for future installments.

        As I started to grow tired of repetitive TLJ critical reviews, bashing same issues all over again, instead writing another piece in grim tone, I've decided to do something completely different. Create some sort of manual or guidebook on making successful SW stories (for dummies). Partly, because I couldn't believe that people at Disney, after such expensive buyout and initial success of "The Force Awakens" (lucky fluke caused by high-fidelity rip of ANH), could simply become so reckless with their new franchise, up to the point of putting its existence in jeopardy. I thought with all these means and budget they would thoroughly dismantle it, learn how it works in smallest details (also on mistakes of prequels), analyze phenomenon to get knowledge on how to replicate it's original success, hire some specialists, dramaturgists, God knows who - anybody with proper insight. But actually, no, they went completely in the dark. I guess, now you can work in Lucasfilm and know nothing about Star Wars - almost just like you could work in restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine without any skills whatsoever to prepare good pasta... Oh dear...

        So, my initial goal was to write a cooking book of sorts for inept. There were personal reasons at play; after that devastating disappointment, I thought it's time to move on with my life and say goodbye to Saga finally. My part as SW fan should had come to an end a long time ago, yet still I was on this nostalgia bandwagon, reliving my youth once more, instead focusing on my present goals. But on the other hand, how sad and difficult is cutting all bonds with favorite story of one's early and teenage life, especially in time of crisis when it's in shambles, suffering? It's always better to close past chapters of your life on high note, with good memories. So choice was simple - there will be no poisonous review of "The Last Jedi", which it deserves, but instead something more like analytical tribute to Star Wars; dive into anatomy and substance of it with focus on important beats, tone and some personal insights based on fanboyish experiences with various Expanded Universe material, demonstrating hits and misses, do's and don'ts, ideas beneficial and harmful to vibe.

        Somehow after demise of Albert Broccoli, his wife - Barbara knew exactly how to make Bond movies and not to mess up the formula. James Bond franchise exists for 65 years already, while seamlessly finds audience within every new generation without changing much. After watching 5 Bond movies, you basically know all of them. You can say in details what ingredients you need to include, to make a proper Bond movie: unique rich madman with some memorable henchmen, attractive women and romance, gadgets and other mechanical toys like cars, boats, trains, tanks, etc., prestige upper class locations and travel through majestic vistas and famous sightseeing places around the world, good manners, clothes and martini ("Shaken, not stirred"). These movies are very formulaic, and much simpler than Star Wars, but it's not impossible to determine more complex formulas either. So why it hasn't been done and made into practice at Disney/Lucasfilm?

        Once more it turns out, that professional critique has no idea about what Star Wars are, and is infamous for notoriously misjudging value of these movies. Read old reviews of "The Empire Strikes Back" - now you have the same thing with Last Jedi, just backwards. Reading reviews on Rotten Tomatoes is pure gold:

        "Fanatics will love it; for the rest of us, it's a tolerably good time." writes Peter Rainer of Christian Science Monitor, Top Critic.

        Yeah, yeah - fanatics love it so much, they even sign petitions to remove it from canon, demand Kathleen Kennedy's head or want this film to be remade. Tough love, I guess...

        Nevertheless, if you want to write your guidebook on "How to make Star Wars properly this and every time after", you need to go back to fundamentals. And George Lucas has started his work inspired by Joseph Campbell - it's well known influence, as he wanted to create modern myth. So that was my obvious starting point for research and some insights. When I bumped into your note, I guess everything turn like in that xkcd comic/meme:

        "Are you coming to bed?"

        "I can't. This is important."

        "What?"

        "Someone is WRONG on the Internet."

        ;)

        Let's say, your theses on Hero's Journey uselessness were too provocative, to leave them unanswered without counterarguments... especially after spending some time with texts on cultural significance of original Star Wars.

      • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachael Lefler 

        3 months ago from Illinois

        Hi, thank you for taking the time to leave such an insightful comment!

        I see that you're new to this site. Have you considered creating your own article about this topic?

        No, I haven't seen Kal Bashir but he sounds interesting.

        I'd like to talk about 'The Last Jedi'. I thought it was a fun experience at the theater, but watching it at home online has let me see a lot more of the flaws. I see the new trilogy as a deconstruction, or attempted deconstruction, of Star Wars and the familiar tropes associated with it. However, this is poorly executed so it comes across as a middle finger to fans of the original trilogy. Which is most Star Wars fans. I don't know why they would shoot themselves in the foot by insulting their old fan base in an attempt to cultivate a younger fan base. Bleh.

        Anyway, all I worry about is that people will see patterns in fiction rather than the fiction itself. As in, I want people to appreciate the unique aspects of a work of fiction.

        Monomyth also seems to me to be toted by some as an "easy answer" to the problem of writing a movie or novel. I'd hate for writing to become a paint-by-numbers kind of thing.

        Great comment though!

      • Empatheon profile image

        Εμπαθεων 

        3 months ago

        Sorry, I don't know where the first part of my response is, so I try to paste it one more time:

        Thank you for having me, Rachael!

        I was somewhat unsatisfied with my initial response to your note, so I decided to give myself a second thought about this topic (and made some research on monomyth reductionists), but what's the most important, to finally tackle your direct points of critique in more analytical way. Nevertheless I hope my first, more emotional comment was at least partially interesting for you.

        OK, but now let's dive deeper into your gripes with monomyth.

        Have you ever heard of Kal Bashir? He runs his website and posts videos on Youtube, in whole dedicated to story structure theory, considering process of creating character arcs, dealing with subplots, themes, and everything else. I would call him the ultimate monomyth reductionist. For Bashir "The Song Remains the Same" - comedy, drama, romance, horror or any other genre - it really doesn't matter - there's only one story, story about protagonist's transformation.

        What I find hilarious, beside his mash-ups of two movies plots crammed on one paper sheet, is his rushed, bored and monotone way of deconstructing dozens (or maybe even hundreds) movie plots he made in his video analyses. Yeah, he has seen all these movies, but obviously thematic richness of several decades of storytelling didn't impress him much. You know, it's just one story, really.

        But on the other hand, if you listen to him closely, he gives very deep justification of this way of thinking about story. Kal states that this structure simply mimics the most basic psychological human notion of change or transformation.

        You can't change without build up or having reason to do so. You also can't change, if you're not ready. Just as you can't resolve very serious conflict like whole war in single battle or duel, you can't resolve story in first scene. That's universal. So monomyth gives you some kind of primal road map for this build up and resolution of hero's problem. Bashir often talks about State of Perfection / Imperfection arcs (or vice versa), and states, that beginning must determine end, as we need some kind of transformation in the middle. There wouldn't be any drama, if protagonist could resolve problem at the beginning - the story can have place only because he wasn't ready or didn't have any means to do so. That's why hero needs his journey; to become ready and gather all means to overcome obstacle(s) he could not tackle in undeveloped state, when problem was presented.

        But even if we accept that as completely true, would it equalize all art in our eyes? Well, no. Because even if I would agree with him on structure, I could still argue about quality of choices, elements in the story, as well as poor delivery. Eg: unconvincing Call to Adventure, poorly written Crossing the Treshold, unbalanced Way of Trials outshining Ordeal / The Ultimate Boon, mediocre choice of Reward, that doesn't fit character's development and he wouldn't give a damn about it, if was living person and so on. Every story may go same path, but not every one is told as good in that as other.

        Kal Bashir shows you structure alright, but he doesn't judge the quality of choices artists do take within it. I've watched his "The Last Jedi" structure breakdown, and yes, he made some things more clear to me about this movie, but didn't change my mind about execution of it. I just have better idea, why I despise this film so much. ;)

        So... now, let me dive into specific points of your note:

        1. It Ignores Unique Aspects of Works of Fiction

        That's of course true, but I don't consider it a real problem. Making your story unique in some aspects depends entirely on you and your personal interest. No theory should ever stop you from enriching your work in that manner. But when monomyth ignores what lies outside story structure, it doesn't forbid that, right?

        Certainly, it won't be helpful in coining original ideas in terms of world building, lore, comic relief, dialogue writing or even choosing who should be your protagonist, but it won't be harmful to it, either.

        If it ignores unique aspects of works, it simply stays neutral to them. No harm done here. Carry on.

        2. It Discourages Reading and Connoisseurship

        Quite contrary, actually. At least for me.

        When you're interested in people and invested in their strains of fate, you'll never stop after just one story.

        Monomyth is something like psychotherapy session. As an author (or reader) you're shrink for heroes. You can have the same couch, visiting hours, methods of inquiry, but patients are different, they present problems and flaws which are different, and satisfying solutions for solving those will differ as well. You can't help everybody with exact same means. And that changes everything and encourages you to gain more experience: in diagnosis and in treatment.

        If you can pull it out with one character, you soon become curious, if you can repeat that again, but this time with somebody completely different.

        Connoisseurship comes with vast experience. I would argue, that being familiar with monomyth structure helps in your comparisons, because it's like finding lowest common denominator of a set of fractions.

        There are some artists particularly good in developing beginnings of stories, but are unable to end them in satisfactory ways (in TV shows realm - JJ Abrams and his "Lost", Chris Carter and "The X-Files") and some quite opposite, can't write decent beginnings, that would grip you from the start, but you find their final acts very good and judge their work in category of lost potential. Finally, there are some artists who can nail every step of story just perfect, and then you have masterpieces without weak points; captivating page-turners in which you sink in completely. If you can overlay the structure of monomyth on any work, it's easier to pinpoint exact points, where it fails and find remedy for that. So it generally should be helpful in critical examination and comparisons - not harmful.

        3. Monomyth Examples Are Cherry-Picked (or Problem of Collectives)

        Can groups be treated as collective hero? Actually, I'm from Poland, and we, Poles have had this romantic notion of Christ of Nations during few hundreds years of our history. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_of_Europe] The idea of national messianism basically presented whole nation as one symbolical hero. This group myth from art was adopted in politics, became popular and served similar role as exceptionalism in US. It's the most direct example from my background I can think of in support of collective heroes case.

        If groups can experience transformation, become ready to solve problem presented in premise of stories, which couldn't be solved without development, you can see where it goes. If same rules can be applied here as well, why not?

        But once you adopt this sort of point of reference in your analysis, you should keep it through to the end of it. When you assume that hero is collective, there is no point in asking later which individual is main protagonist of a story.

        Besides, there are group monomyths in classic form - for example: "The Wizard of Oz". I am not fond of this particular story, because it's supporting heroes are somewhat more like moralistic devices, build up around lacks of certain virtues they should pursue, than actually flesh and bone characters and it's little too much up to face, for me... but still the story is quite successful and alive all these years.

        Most writers won't write monomythic arcs for every character, because it's difficult, time consuming, complicates composition and potentially can break suspense of disbelief (somehow that's too convenient, if whole group of diverse characters experience life changing transformation together; usually everyone needs something else to change, therefore there is no Ultimate Universal Adventure Good for Everybody).

      • Empatheon profile image

        Εμπαθεων 

        3 months ago

        Omission of Refusal of the Call part, would make hero somewhat inhuman, because usually throwing away old ways of life to pursue entirely new goals is hard enough for people, so it's natural for them to object, protest and trying to keep things as they were. Habits are difficult to tackle, so Refusal of the Call is perfect opportunity to remind that during your story. It helps in making fiction closer to reality.

        I guess you can have a protagonist who doesn't refuse the call, but then you need to explain why he strangely accepts his fate without any objections or reluctance (maybe he had his fair share of Refusal of the Call in his past and in present he's determined to move over old mistakes and seize a chance of his own development? Maybe he's aware of being confined to monomyth structure, and sees no purpose in resisting the fate? ["Yeah, yeah... I'm your big hero here, I've got a thousand and a half worlds to save, alright, alright... I suppose you will tediously nag me, unless I won't start my Big Journey of Important Cause, so let's go with this nonsense already. Besides, the narrator of this story has a big family with eight mouths to feed and is kinda impatient, so we don't have time for any decent Refusal of the Call in this low budget pulp, baby."].

        Purposefully Underdeveloped Protagonists can work quite well in parodies and pastiches, when you want to play monomyth for laughs or mock it. They can transform, but in meaningless way, get pointless, unhelpful advice from mentors, fail trials and get away with that, ignore the Great Boon or discover that it was completely inconsequential for story.

        Nevertheless, every phase of monomyth has a purpose when presenting change in it's completeness. It's possible to play some of these in more indirect ways, for example by mentioning something instead giving full description, but it also is risky and can backfire; audience can get to conclusion that maybe author simply was uncapable of telling full, compelling story, didn't have good ideas on portraying change of protagonist and thus he was bound to narrative snake oilery, to obscure storytelling shortcomings?

        Of course, you can tell your story backwards or in many different, unchronological ways and then argue that somehow that ordeal has broken monomyth, as you arranged it's phases in non orthodox way, but... not really. From psychological perspective of your protagonist the logistics of transformation must stay the same. Otherwise your story wouldn't make any sense; it would either break causality or show somebody without proper reasons to act.

        Unchronological stories can be very engaging and demanding from the audience. I consider them some sort of puzzle fun, in which on your own you need to sort them out in memory, to find out proper chain of events. But once that is done, monomyth emerges again and thus you can finally understand whole point of a story. "Pulp Fiction" can be good example of that.

        To slowly get going to an end of this lengthy text, the main problem of attitude in your note I see, is fear of unoriginality and cliches. But think of this: generally people as such are as cliche as you can get: through history they have the same problems, the same dilemmas, suffer from the same err routines, try to prove something in the same manner, represent the same psychological types, so demonstrate similar behavior, just set in different time periods, surroundings and boundaries of social conventions.

        If so, what new you can say about them? Nothing.

        And that conclusion should be in some way liberating. When you accept the fact it's impossible to bring anything new on humankind with your story, you will be able to concentrate on actual quality of storytelling. OK, you won't say anything new, but instead you can think on what can you do, to tell it well.

        For me taking challenge of some ultimate originality is lost cause from the start. First of all, it's paralyzing. Sure, I guess it's possible to coin some unique rules for fictional universe, for example: imagining entirely new system of magic, based on limitations never thought before for fantasy novel, but then when it comes to characters and motivations, you're gonna end in clicheland anyway, as people (real or fictional) want and need limited numbers of things. There are also limited numbers of stances and possible reactions to certain actions and events. As well as limited options of showing transition that will be meaningful.

        If you accept that, you will also accept monomyth as no-nonsense tool for creation of meaningful transformations.

        That's also main reason, why this structure shouldn't be confined only to art/fiction making, but instead should be applied to real life, where it truly belongs, where it's presence is even more important. When I read "Power of Myth" I think that was true intention behind Joseph Campbell's work on comparative mythology. He wasn't trying to make a tool just for writers - monomyth was thought as more general purpose.

        If you ask somebody, how meaningful he considers his own life is, the positivity or negativity of answer will depend mostly on resemblance and fulfillment of personal Hero's Journey. If one considers his existence pointless, usually his life won't resemble anything like monomythic structure at all, just total mess and chaos. But it's entirely different story, when one will frame himself as protagonist of personal story. By adopting this mindset, it's actually easier to answer important life questions; projecting change of yourself you really need, knowing what could be lifelong quest you should pursue, which could help you become who you want to be, keeping existence free of pointless detours and time waste. If you know how you want to influence the world and what you want to bring to it [Return with Elixir], then you can guess what can be optimal Great Boon worth pursuing and preparing to take. And if so, you can try to find someone, who's gonna be sympathetic to your cause in more [Mentor] or less [Magical Help] substantial way. But first you need to find your own call and stop resisting, deflecting or procrastinating it.

        I would say, if more people would have adopted this point of view on life - becoming practicing Champions of Monomyth - the inner growth of their community would be also less disrupted. Why? Because they could, in more fluent and aware manner, assist each other in gaining valuable self-knowledge, thus ending prolonged times of self pity, acedia, melancholy, nihilism or suffering of purposeless and restless people.

        That's why I don't get this notion of Hero Journey's uselessness. In fact, I'm on polar opposite position: it's the most useful thing we can have and it shouldn't be just toy of some obscure mythopoeians, narratologists, writers or art critique, but become something more: bedrock and central core of culture. Anchor of everyday introspection, main conversational topic of strangers who want to get accustomed with each other or maybe - after demise of Christianity - recurring religious theme of new faith, celebrating each phase of Hero's Journey in it's liturgical year, preparing worshipers for their initiation and challenges on current stage of life? Here, a child is born and with it a new monomyth is conceived, like shadow of every mortal. Carousel of destiny.

        As pattern it is scalable and can be self-similar like fractals are. You can join many into one or build greater, metamonomyth consisting of lesser ones. If something is truly universal, you can use it on every occasion, build it on grand, epic scale or play intimate at the same time. The set of usages is almost boundless, when it comes to human life!

      • Empatheon profile image

        Εμπαθεων 

        3 months ago

        Maybe some decent love story can achieve perfect dual monomyth for both of characters, while showing transformative force of their feeling, starting with simple crush, and then building it up, challenging them, involving in overcoming external (relationship is inconvenient for everybody else, because of shakespearean reasons...) and/or internal difficulties (naivety, idealization of other, inability to self-sacrifice or fear of intimacy). I guess you can take heroic stance on love and write your story in such way, so both of your protagonists would need to earn the right to be together by showing some virtues and taking risks so they could be together. In this way you can intertwine two monomyths, merging some of their stages.

        4. No Story Actually Is a Monomyth

        You're focusing on specific events here, not general dynamics of character's transformation. Monomyth depicts stages of change, not the change itself. Different characters can have very different transformative paths, but still you should be able to determine where certain stages of change can be found.

        General categories don't trump specific exemplifications.

        Other thing is, there are plenty of stories written specifically and consciously as monomyths, so such strong statements don't make much sense.

        5. Monomyths Are Not Useful for Writers

        And last, but not least my favorite cherry on top!

        This statement is probably sole reason, why I've decided to give your text another go and write second, extended response, Rachael.

        First of all, there may be more temperamental/personality based issue at play. Obviously, we can find some people who don't consider any of story structure theories particularly helpful, while others do [the same division occurs considering theory of music]. I guess that mostly depends on preferred modus operandi; while some writers are "Gardners", others are "Architects". If you don't like to plan ahead your stories, but rather go with a flow, you probably won't welcome any theory with open arms. But on the other hand, if you prefer to conspect whole thing out, before you even scratch first sentence, then you will find it extremely useful. Not only because it can be helpful in inventing general direction of story, but also in identification of potential problems with plot choices in each phase of it.

        Let's say, you want to tell a story of spree killer (something thematically very alien from stereotypical fairytale-ish monomyth story about inner growth). How do you go about it, to show transformation from somebody innocent into serial murderer? Well, by taking exactly the same steps.

        I. Ordinary World.

        Quite obvious - you need to show world in it's nominal state and protagonist in undeveloped state.

        II. Call to Adventure.

        What could ever tempt human being into even consider killing other people? Well, you need to find answer for that question and show initial psychological urge, motivation that will trigger chain of events in your story. Why protagonist tends to become nihilist or doesn't value life in the first place?

        III. Refusal of the Call

        People are slaves of their habits and usually prefer what they already know. The unknown is too scary, risky and excuses are cheap.

        Even future murderers may cling to human reflexes (or social conventions if they are psychopaths) and initially oppose their bloodthirsty inclinations. Protagonist wasn't born as killing machine, and it's good to show that in some scenes of internal conflict.

        IV. Meeting the Mentor.

        We need to tell a story about spree killer, so internal struggles aside, our protagonist needs some inspiration to move on. Somebody or something is going to polish his motivation and help him in becoming monster we need for a story sake.

        There are many options of playing that phase without pulling out of obvious mentor figures, because meeting another, better developed psycho is too convenient (check if not Hannibal Lecter or Dexter); we can choose something indirect instead: protagonist can find out misanthropic literature, argue on the internet and getting convinced by some random uncaring people, that unleashing living hell on others is good idea when overcoming trouble.

        Maybe our hero is copycat or was inspired by news coverage of previous big massacre perpetrator?

        You need to add some information on deeper motivations for transformation, if you want to make it believable. Now it's good time to present final, well polished reasons of protagonist future actions. Worldview, self-knowledge, affirmation of goals.

        V. Crossing the Threshold.

        End of doubts. Beginning of determined actions. When people make their minds on something, they can finally start acting.

        In killer story you need to show first conscious acts of ruthlessness or cruelty. Protagonist transgresses limits of ordinary moral behavior, but still is quite amateurish in what he's doing. Maybe kills some animals? Or somebody terminally ill on deathbed, who poses no real threat? There are plenty of options and choices in every phase of monomyth from which you can choose. Knowing that, you can shuffle pieces of the puzzle and try something what works best for your story.

        VI. Tests, Allies, Enemies. [Path of Trials]

        The appetite grows with what it feeds on. Our protagonist gains some experience and starts to draw plans for bigger carnage. But prior, some practice is required.

        I guess, if you want to harm a lot of people, you need to acquire skills, get more powerful means of destruction and try them out in some kind of rehearsal.

        Basically, as a storyteller you need to bridge that gap and show how learning curve is changing during more important challenges, as well as risk is rising; how protagonist gets his weapons, where does he practice with them, and possibly how he deals with somebody who almost ruined his grand plan, caught him or witnessed some suspect or erratic actions.

        VII. Approach.

        Final preparations stage. Maybe last chance to quit?

        VIII. Ordeal, The Great Boon.

        It's a story of spree killer, so this phase is quite obvious. Whenever it's school shooting, workplace bombing, it's only matter of your characterization and choice of protagonist.

        IX. Reward. Seizing the sword.

        Blood, blood, blood... All those hated normies lie at feet of our twisted, vengeful hero. If you have rich imagination enough, in this phase you should portray exhilaration of committing the most horrific deeds. Destiny fulfilled finally.

        X. The Road Back/Resurrection.

        It's time to run, engage cops or simply prepare for suicide to not get caught. Time for last thoughts

        XI. Return with Elixir.

        What's a big deal after all? Well, you need to show how protagonist's actions influenced the world. What has been changed, what is the same?

        Writing it all down can be very helpful - you can actually plan, how many scenes for each phase you really need, to tell story in comprehensive and compelling way, to keep yourself on right track. That's useful, especially if you're easily distracted or troubled by not finishing what you've already started. When you know whole journey, it's easier to bridge all gaps and plan your own creative effort and division of labor.

        But now in contrast, let's say, you would like to skip some monomythic stages of this story. That obviously could harm it, as it would lose some vital information that readers need for suspension of disbelief.

        For example, if you decide to omit Mentor stage, you will lose great opportunity to show what actually drives your protagonist. Why he's determined to break the deadlock or old habits and trying something new? In presented example, if you skip that phase, readers won't get any information whatsoever about motives of later killings. That can be off-putting, when characters act in certain way without reason to do so.

        On other hand, if you skip Path of Trials phase, audience can have justified objections about realism of The Great Boon. If our mass murderer's never spent a day with weapon in his hand, polishing his skills, how he could pull off an effective performance later, in grand finale? The story would become simply unbelievable without this part of information. We need it for a reason.

      • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachael Lefler 

        3 months ago from Illinois

        Interesting take. I thank you for taking the time to write a long and engaging comment. :)

        I get your point that the coming of age story, tied tot he Hero's Journey structure often, is important for teaching young people how to navigate the world and learn to as you said, mature and learn, not simply grow older. Growing wiser is an important thing for everyone. Even adults who struggle with moral questions can learn from the moral questions posed by fiction. One challenge though is that coming of age in real life is messy, and complicated. There is usually not one bad guy who has to be defeated. It's rarely as simple as it is in some fiction. What I like is fiction that presents the hero of the story with a moral problem that's not so easy to decide upon. For example, in Ender's Game, Ender is manipulated into killing off an entire race of sentient aliens. When he's doing it he thinks he's in a training simulation. But he feels the guilt of killing them all the same. Later books are about Ender's attempt to do something to mitigate the guilt he feels over it. It's about how we handle things like feeling responsible for our part in corrupt systems even if we had little or no real choice but to play such a part. I see a conflict like that as more memorable and interesting than a story with a more obvious bad guy, where beating said bad guy will automatically solve everything.

      • Empatheon profile image

        Εμπαθεων 

        4 months ago

        Writers moaning about constrictions of monomyth - well, that's something new!

        But somehow after witnessing the manner in which Rian Johnson completely ruined new Star Wars with his "Last Jedi" post-modern mess (and the backlash he caused as the aftermath...), I beg to differ on this subject.

        Does every story must be monomyth-based? Of course not. Most of short stories for obvious reason don't have capacity to deal with whole structure of hero's journey, so instead they concentrate merely on single element of it. These can still work for readers and have merit, if written well, despite episodic character.

        So why do so many authors decide to go full campbellian? Because if your goal is to create something timeless, appealing to wide audiences and maybe even be profound in some way, the most effective way od doing so, is by telling full-fledged story about challanges of growing up and overcoming difficulties standing on way of protagonist's maturity.

        Monomythic stories work out best, when they are written with purpose of being helpful "coming of age guides" in disguise of fiction. Why? Because basically that's main purpose of mythology - by means of culture it tries not only to transmit values crucial for certain community lifestyle, but also by inspiration helping in adapting to role of an adult. That's the most classic take on art - it's not only being made for fun or to surprise us, but should be more meaningful. Heroes - when not overdone - easily become role models. Monomyth done properly should depict in reliable fashion protagonist's complete yet bumpy road to maturity achieved in one long transformative adventure.

        People love these stories for a reason. In reality not everyone finds out purpose, mission or desired place in society (There is no Call to Adventure, or it's missed or misunderstand for years), not everyone has friends who gonna care about his development as human being (No Supernatural Aid). And even if you have important, yet difficult life goal, it's very uncommon to find insightful, inspiring person, able to equip you with wisdom, skills or knowledge helpful in achieving it (sorry, we're lacking true Mentors in real life). You're on your own and very often that freezes you in your immature state.

        Therefore it's not difficult to answer question, why properly written classic monomythic stories will never cease to be highly popular and successful. Because in fiction coming of age can be condensed and elegantly streamlined into uncorruptable formula. All necessary steps to adulthood are known and fortunetely present within hero's journey. In real life, riddled with infantilism, responsibility avoidance and aging but not maturing Peter Pans, we can only dream of such a clear path to self realisation. It's not coincidence why myths serve so well in role of fodder for escapists.

        I consider act of monomyth crafting as inseparably tied to strong moral obligation towards all of those people, who cannot experience their own transformative process otherwise than by indirect patricipation in it, in form of substitute - art.

        If you don't intend to help others to grow, don't play with hero's journey, as you wouldn't play with tragedy [which is cautionary negation of monomyth and shows what can happen if you fail in maturing].

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