I’ve had this one on my list for awhile, and was on the Toronto Public Library Hold list for what seems like even longer (though the magic of actually pulling that one off is currently beyond me); needless to say I’ve been rather hyped to finally dive into The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. And after three weeks with this sought after title (seriously, the Holds list is looooonnng) all I can find myself capable of saying is, “Yeah, it’s there. I guess?”
As someone super into the idea of the monomyth and the all-encompassing power and reach of the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, you would think this book would be totally my jam, and in one very important (and damaging) sense—it is. The problem is that it is so much my jam, and nothing new outside of it, I was actually a little bored with reading it (so much so that I skipped almost in entirety the section—i.e. The Book—that was about the Hero’s Journey). Seriously, this thing is three intros (it’s the third edition), a brief setup to H’s J (aka “A Practical Guide”), then talk of eight archetypes that are used over and again, before launching into the bulk of the book (which was the original edition), before finally ending with several chunks the author has written over time while people read, reread, discussed, debated, and chastised him over.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t any good; quite the contrary. If you’ve ever heard general rumblings about H’s J and always wondered, “What is that jazz all about?” then this is a great place for you to start, especially if you consider yourself a writer (though Vogler doesn’t really get into using the monomyth as a writer; at least not to my desire). This is a great overview as filtered through someone that has become obsessed with the Hero’s Journey that also has had multiple occasions to apply it to his work and ultimately have both success and failure.
The question coming out of this that I carried in, I guess, is, “What did I want from this book?” And my answer is a little nebulous but I think boils down to, “Something new about the Journey” and “Applicable, tangible applications for a writer to use it” which I don’t feel like I quite got. Actually—no. I did get two new things (though I wanted one for every threshold); archetypes and moving the stages.
As mentioned, the first part is about archetypes that crop up again and again throughout the journey. Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, Trickster. Despite their obvious inclusion, I have yet to read anyone go into depth on these, so I was pleased with Vogler’s take.
He discusses these elements and what they represent, which is fine (they are all what you imagine them to be), but what really stood out to me was:
Anyone, and even everyone, in your story can play multiple rolls; often at the same time, and definitely shifting back and forth as the story progresses.
Your Mentor can become a Threshold Guardian; your Hero can become Shadow. The Trickster may also be an Ally and then a Guardian and then the Herald that denies a call but ultimately ends up guiding you to victory.
Which set me up for the other important element I pulled from the text.
Moving the Stages
You can move the stages!!! They don’t have to come one after the other as Campbell presents them; they can be moved.
I’ve definitely heard people suggest skipping or outright avoiding some of the stages (Vogler himself suggests not all are necessary for every story; and, of course, there’s James’ aversion to “Refusal of the Call”). But never had I thought of moving them around. Why does “Refusal of the Call” need to happen as soon as it arrives? Why, could that not make a very poignant second act climax (don’t you agree Spider-Man 2)? Now what if you take that refusal and actually hand it to the Mentor, or the Shadow… There’s a lot you can do with that.
Vogler’s ultimate point is that, if your story is lagging, if something just doesn’t feel quite right, pull out your Hero’s Journey map and try overlaying relevant points on your characters, plot, and story. Ignore what doesn’t fit, perhaps, or ask yourself if what you’re missing perhaps has a role to play?
It may not have given me what I wanted, but I do think I’ve taken something away. It will be interesting to take this into the next stage of writing Charlotte’s Journey, to see how our stages stacked up. Did we end up moving stages? When something from our first ideas didn’t work, what happened to it? Was it right all along—just in the wrong place?
In the end, I’d say this was worth it, even if I only read some. I won’t lie to you, faithful reader—I’m considering purchasing a copy for my collection. It just, as they say, feels right.
If only my Shadow Mentor would stop playing Tricks on me so we could finally Harold the Call and get past at least two of those Shapeshifting Threshold Guardians…