I am at war with self-help.
Specifically, I am at war with texts that are unnecessarily prescriptive and only acknowledge "the" solution to a problem as opposed to one solution of many. There are very few hard and fast rules, and that's why writing is so difficult to teach.
It's possible to teach how to write to a standard or how to make the grade, but it is possible to help people become more comfortable in their writing and to help people make their writing accessible.
Evan Skolnik and I highly differ in his section on Joseph Campbell's Monomyth. He does explain and laud it as an effective storytelling tool, but storytellers have historically found it highly limiting. The Monomyth is what's also known as a "hero's journey", a template involving a hero that goes on an adventure and, through trial and tribulation, comes home transformed.
Are stories that involve the hero's journey bad? No.
Is it a bad thing to use archetypes? No.
Are tropes inherently bad just because we use them all the time? No.
This diagram is one illustration of the stages of a supposed hero's journey. While a discursive model that has inspired great work, reducing a story to this model sacrifices much of what can be gained. It runs counter to the stories that it claims to be inspired by.
"Campbell’s synthetic, undeniably alluring model presented a hero who reluctantly accepts the call to adventure, using the tribulations of his odyssey to reshape himself into the savior humanity needs before returning home" (Bond & Christensen, 2021).
Said to have been inspired by Campbell's interest in mythology (both Western and non-Western) The Hero With a Thousand Faces does provide a model, but only for one character. Any other character exists to either serve the hero or do them damage.
This model can ask the right questions about how the world affects the hero, but not how the hero affects the world. By this logic, the effect the hero has on the world is not as consequential.
Additionally, the same myth can be told by different cultures in different ways. Not only does the story change, but the priorities of the story change depending on the culture telling the story. Sometimes, the depicted "hero" is a representation of an abstract concept.
The monomyth has been widely criticized for its limitations, for its misunderstanding of the concept of mythology. Some amazing criticisms have already been written that detail the origin of the term and Joseph Campbell's research and publications. There's even a book entitled The Heroine With 1001 Faces.
So many good stories are hardly defined by the genre they are said to embody, but rather, how they deviate. It's more productive to read a story to evaluate it for what it is rather than what it is not.
Robin Hood is a figure of legend, but not because he's like a god. Note that this is an evaluation about what Robin Hood is not. His earliest readers were said to have found him to be believable and relatable, someone who could have reasonably lived among them. Even stories of Greek and Roman heroes depicted gods and goddesses with human-like traits. These particular stories did not rise in popularity because they embodied the essence of the hero's journey. People could impress meaning onto them and, in some way, relate to them. The hero could still go on a journey and, with hope, transform, but this is not a guaranteed takeaway.
One of my favorite indie games isn't about a hero protagonist at all. The Novelist revolves around the Kaplan family: an author, his wife, and his son.
Dan Kaplan has writer's block and wants to finish his book. Linda, his wife, wants to finish her painting, but she also wants to rekindle the spark between herself and Dan. Tommy, their son, needs a break from school bullies and to know he's supported and loved by his family.
The player character is a ghost, unearthing the memories of the characters in order to persuade them to make decisions to help themselves or others, but the ghost can only help one family member at a time. Regardless of the decisions the player character makes, at least one of the characters will be disappointed in some way.
April Fehling (2014) reviewed The Novelist for NPR. "As for some mechanics, The Novelist is highly accessible for a newbie. The game universe is small — just a series of rooms in a single house. It's visually appealing; the graphics are colorful and simple. Gameplay is based primarily on reading letters and diary entries on the screen, so there are no complex menus to keep track of."
The focus of this game is on its storytelling which is why I chose this game for this post. Puzzles and battles can be fun in games, but there's a place for simple story-based games that don't demand much of its player aside from their intentional decisions. There is no clear protagonist, defying one preset "rule" of storytelling, but there are clear conflicts and threads to follow.
People often seek out stories that have relevance to themselves, that validate a state of mind, that presents an allegory through which they can continue in their journey of managing certain emotions.
The monomyth highly undervalues and shows bias against different purposes that stories can accomplish. Joseph Campbell's constraints do gatekeep who heros or protagonists can be and prescribe "an ideal" story structure where there isn't an ideal. That's not productive or realistic. However, it can help a writer to understand that this model exists and its wider discourse, if only to be able to modify it for a model that can be personalized to the writer's hero.
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!
This chapter of Video Game Storytelling was very difficult to get through, not just because I disagree with it, but because it's difficult to verify whether this is something sought after in storytelling today. More evidence appears to point to the contrary.
If you enjoyed this post and you want to be the first to be notified about new developments, you can become a Purposeful Prose member! Members get to interact with my posts and write on my forum. If you want to follow along with my discussion of Video Game Storytelling by Evan Skolnik, I highly recommend buying a copy from your local independent bookstore or on Bookshop.org where proceeds benefit independent bookstores! I was especially excited to see that proceeds from my most recent purchase on Bookshop.org went to my local library's bookstore.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Bond, S., & Christensen, J. (2021, August 18). The Man Behind the Myth: Should We Question the Hero’s Journey? Los Angeles Review of Books. https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-man-behind-the-myth-should-we-question-the-heros-journey/
Fehling, A. (2014, February 4). The Novelist: A Story-Driven Game Of Impossible Choices. NPR. Retrieved February 4, 2014, from https://choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/02/04/268438749/the-novelist-a-story-driven-game-of-impossible-choices
Skolnick, E. (2014). Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques (Illustrated ed.). Watson-Guptill.