Becoming A Storyteller: Qualities of a Hero

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...
Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So many protagonists today start out as ordinary Joe’s or Jane’s. We’re introduced to these characters in the midst of their normal life, then some inciting incident is introduced. The Conflict develops, perhaps snowballs, and the protagonist is forced to leap over each obstacle placed before them as a 100-meter hurdler. We readers are asked to root for these characters as they try to solve their problem and/or grab their want. But too often we see stories that build to enormous heroic actions at the end, but what about the beginning?

Protagonists are the stars of the shows, but are they heroes or heroines?

Qualities of a Hero

What are the qualities of a hero? I’d say: Sacrifice and Selflessness, Determination and Dedication, Courage and Loyalty, perhaps Faith. What would you include? Jot them down.

When I look at my novel manuscript, these are qualities I want to imbue in my character, but I’m not entirely sure it happens. What am I sure about is this, if it does happen, it happens late. The question becomes, why? Why don’t I demonstrate those special qualities early?

And here’s the rub. Is there enough about my character early to make people care? I’m not sure.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), we’re introduced to one of the most famous heroes in American cinema, George Bailey. If you had to pick one heroic quality for him, it would have to be selflessness. Now, we’re given a glimpse of George Bailey early, but we’re almost immediately shown George being selfless. He rescues his kid brother Harry from drowning, then we’re shown a series of events where he puts family and friends before himself. As the movie approaches its climax, we’ve seen his character develop throughout his life, so when he’s ready to throw away his life, we’re all the more moved by it. But it works so well, in part, because George is showing off his selfless quality from the get-go.

Here’s the first appearance of my protagonist in my novel-draft:

A light rain drizzled Adam’s face. He stared off toward the night’s horizon and knew the hard stuff approached. He closed his eyes as the drops slid over the stubble on his cheeks and darkness enveloped him.
Adam struggled against a cold force that wrenched him. He could feel someone’s—or something’s—presence trying to kill him, or swallow him, or end him…somehow. It was unlike anything he had ever struggled against before.
He saw flashes of light—of faces. A woman, or a girl, he wasn’t sure. One moment she was lying silently on a stone slab, after a blink she was screaming for his hand. She was completely still. Blink. She writhed in pain. Blink. A man swung a sword at him. Adam dodged, but was forced against a cold wall and pinned away from the woman.
Just before the attacker’s blade plunged through Adam’s chest, his sight blinked to an old man. The man looked so ancient that he would crumple dead with the next breath. Ashen skin and a white beard, the man’s ice-blue eyes bored into Adam’s. He whispered indistinctly. Blink. The old man was replaced by the woman, dead-still again on the stone slab.
Her face rolled toward Adam. Her eyes opened—pale, lifeless. Her lips parted. She stared at him, then, she screamed. Every muscle in her once lifeless body tensed. Adam’s entire being shook.
“Wake me up!”
The cry careened off the walls and through Adam’s consciousness. He wasn’t sure if it was the woman’s cry or his own.
Adam Anderson opened his eyes.

In my revised opinion, this introduction is not particularly moving. It’s a dream-sequence, and that’s cliched at this point. If I want my protagonist to become a hero, I need to introduce those heroic qualities immediately. My character needs to demonstrate those qualities, even if in a small way, in his first scene.

In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, agent and writer Donald Mass says: “Great characters are the key to great fiction.”

He goes on to say that characters need to be larger-than-life. George Bailey certainly fits the bill there. He also says: “Conflict is the first principle of plot construction, and it is also the underlying secret of great characters.”

In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Maass discusses Heroic Qualities and notes:

Actually, ask most people what heroic attributes they admire and you will get a list of qualities any of us might have: belief in others, the ability to overcome one’s flaws, conviction in the face of opposition, acting in spite of misgivings, steadfast love, moral integrity, tenacity, generosity, a sense of plentitude, unconditional love, and so on…The actions that reveal them can be quite small. Adding such an action to the introduction of your protagonist will have a huge impact on reader identification.

With the rewrite of my novel-draft, I’m going to demonstrate at least one of those special qualities in my character, so that my protagonist can become a Hero from the onset. What are you going to do?

Becoming a Storyteller: The Hero’s Journey

Cover of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces ...

Once upon a time, I was in college and finally part of a program that interested me. Studying at FIU was never my first choice, and it was a swift kick to the nuts that the Creative Writing department was based out of their north campus–basically an hour and a half way in South Florida traffic. I’ll never forget those classes, though, and it was one moment in particular that sticks with me.

I had presented a half-baked fantasy short story titled “The Guardian” and after having it savaged by the peer review process, I felt not unlike my son’s new Socker Bopper, wobbly and already leaking air. I couldn’t say a word during the process and absorbed every negative comment like the body-blow that it was. At the end of the torture session, the instructor John Dufresne (a successful writer best known for his novel Louisiana Power and Light) shuffled his notes as he considered the circle of students before him.

“The thing is,” he said as he brushed back a stray strand of his gray hair, “with a story like this…have you read Joseph Campbell?”

“No,” I said.

“With a story like this, you need to read The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” 

The rest of the class was a blur–really the rest of the semester. I can’t remember if my story was the first or the last of the peer review sessions, but I can remember the blood that pulsed in my ears. It became very clear to me during my traffic-clogged trek home that I wasn’t ready to be a storyteller just yet.

So, I consulted Joseph Campbell.

That was about twelve years ago, and with every story I’ve tried to craft since that day, I’ve used Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as a guide. I’ve structured my novel-draft to mimic the Hero’s Journey. As Campbell said in his seminal work, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

When I think about it, becoming a storyteller seems to mimic those ideas as well.

As a would-be writer, I’m a plotter. I am not a pantser. I need to plot out my course, outline–I can’t just go by the seat of my pants. I need to plan. That’s where the Hero’s Journey helped craft my idea of storytelling so much. It provides the blueprint for a story that works. I could give you a million reasons why I love Star Wars, but Campbell would say there can be only one. (He may or may not be channeling his inner-Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod).

The idea of archetypes is something I became familiar with thanks to my English teacher senior year at LaSalle high school, Ana Garcia. The concept is fascinating and the basis for Campbell’s work. I enjoyed learning about archetypes and later the Hero’s Journey so much that I teach it to my students now. There are many interpretations of Campbell’s monomyth, most notably Christopher Volger’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. While it may be overly simplistic, here’s my quick breakdown of the Hero’s Journey.

  1. The Hero is his Ordinary World– This is where we meet the Hero for the first time and we see what his (or her) life is like before the adventure.
  2. The Call to Adventure– Here, our hero meets the Herald and is presented with a problem, challenge and/or adventure.
  3. Refusal of the Call– During this stage, we see that our Hero is not quite ready to take on the problem, challenge, and/or adventure.
  4. Supernatural Aid– At this stage of the journey, our Hero meets and receives assistance from the Sage. This Sage will be our hero’s mentor during the journey. The Sage character shows the hero the path, but they cannot walk it for them. Eventually, the hero must face the challenge alone.
  5. Crossing the Threshold– Here, our Hero truly starts the journey. They need to “move” from their “Ordinary” world to the world of their adventure. Here the hero meets the Threshold Guardians, who control this passage between worlds. Many times, the Threshold Guardians try to stop the Hero from embarking on the quest.
  6. The Belly of the Whale– This is where our Hero is in real trouble for the first time right at the start of the journey. The symbolism here involves the character reentering a “womb” of sorts, so that they can be re-born as the Hero. Often times, the Hero doesn’t realize the significance of this until much later in the journey.
  7. The Road of Trials– In order of our hero to truly become a Hero, they need to be trained and tested. The Sage and possibly the Sidekicks usually provide this training.
  8. Meeting the Goddess– This stage involves our Hero finally meeting his or her Love Interest (if they haven’t done so already). It’s possible that the Hero has already met this character, so it’s during this stage that the Love develops.
  9. Temptation– Every Hero ends up being tempted away from their journey somehow. During this stage, one that is closely tied to the Road of Trials, our Hero encounters that Temptation. The temptation might come in the form of a person, a situation, or an idea.
  10. Atonement with the Father– In this stage of the journey, our Hero is almost ready to be “the Hero”. Here, they learn or encounter something about their past that is the final piece to the puzzle of becoming a Hero.
  11. Apotheosis– Finally, our Hero is ready to be The Hero! During this stage, the Hero fully understands that they are the Hero, and they understand everything that needs to be done to fulfill the journey.
  12. The Ultimate Boon– This is usually the Climax of our Hero’s journey. Here, using everything they’ve learned along the way, and using all of the tools and special weapons they have obtained, the Hero defeats the Devil. (Traditionally.)
  13. The Magic Flight– Our Hero isn’t out of the woods quite yet. Even though they’ve defeated the Devil, during this stage, they need to escape one final danger.
  14. Rescue from Without– During that final escape, our Hero usually needs help. Here, the Sidekick or Sage swoops in to save our hero right at the end.
  15. The Master of Two Worlds– Here, the Hero is now powerful in both his Ordinary world and the world of his adventure.

This post will be the beginning of a series I’m calling, Becoming a Storyteller. I’m going to present the different techniques and exercises I’ve come across that have helped me along my writer’s journey. While it will most certainly help me, I hope it helps anyone else who might be walking along this path with me.

And just like Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.”