the hero’s journey – refusal of the call

Be not afraid of greatness:
Some are born great,
Some achieve greatness
And some have greatness thrust upon them.
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


The third ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot: Refusal of the Call.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

The refusal of the call. The reluctant hero. The glance back. The lingering doubt that leaves a peculiar letter sitting on the kitchen counter.

This is an odd step in the list because it can be easily omitted. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, two chapters. Or it can last most of the story. (As said, Campbell’s ‘list’ is squishy.) The reason, though, that this is an important step and belongs in the list with the rest is that we expect people to be reluctant to pursue herculean tasks. It humanizes them, for one, and it puts the road ahead in better perspective. People who charge up mountains make the mountains look small.

Tolkien used the Refusal of the Call in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins wanted nothing to do with this mad ‘adventure’ that Gandalf had invaded his home with until the dwarves started wondering if Bilbo was too pathetic to do the job (and his regrets echoed for a long while after when things got hard). Later on, Frodo tried to make Gandalf take the ring from him– surely, such a great wizard would be able to handle such a quest better than he.

On the other hand, in George Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Jon Snow recruits himself for his quest, as part of the Night’s Watch. He even has to talk his family into letting him leave. Yet there is still a Refusal in his story line– first as he rides North with the watch, and wonders what the hell he’s doing. Then later his refusal is personified not as an escape home, but by clinging to the attitudes he was raised with through his training. Not all refusals directly counter the call to adventure.

Omitting the Refusal of the Call colors the tone of the story. Take ‘The Princess Bride’, for instance. The eagerness of Westley to rescue Buttercup would not be denied. He would not falter. He would not change his mind. Death itself can not stop him– all it can do is delay him for awhile.

Incidentally, The Princess Bride is a strange story that doesn’t follow the pattern exactly. No mentor, no refusal of the call, no First Threshold. The Call to Adventure is behind the scenes; there must be a call to adventure, because Westley is not with Buttercup. This in itself is a fundamental flaw in the universe, and there is no more to be said on the matter. It is as if the story begins halfway through the formula. This is a good example of a very good story that breaks and stretches out Campbell’s theory, yet still has identifiable parts to it.

After I visit each of the twelve points, I’m going to go through several stories to analyze how their plots are structured. So far this list includes The Princess Bride, A Game of Thrones, and The Hobbit– something that runs with the formula well (The Hobbit), something that breaks and stretches the formula (The Princess Bride), and something amazingly complicated (A Game of Thrones). If anyone has any suggestions about a good foil, feel free to make suggestions.

Next up: Meeting the Mentor.

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the hero’s journey – the call to adventure

Onto the second ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot– what Joseph Campbell called ‘the call to adventure’.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

Once we have a good feel for the character, the character’s circumstances, the way the world works, it’s time to break it a little.

Cue the eccentric billionaire with a suicide mission to the man with the brain tumor: “Live like a king! Die like a man! You’re on your way out anyway. You know that!”

Cue the cliche reveal of ‘The Chosen One’. Cue the call to explore the south pole– bad living, bad pay, bad food, horrid weather, honor and glory on return. Cue the messenger with news of unknown connections to royal blood. The twins’ dream that calls them to vigilantism. We know these forms. The rise of something new and looming on the horizon, the approach of something that cracks open the life the characters previously had known.

This can be the sudden crash of something new into a character’s life. Or perhaps it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. The run-down sister whose abusive boyfriend has hit her one too many times, for instance. Or maybe it’s even a temptation, or an escape from the ordinary world, a flight from life as it’s previously known.

The difference, though, between “The Ordinary World” and “The Call to Adventure” isn’t the magnitude of the event, by any means. The Ordinary World certainly builds events up, provides motive and setting, leading on to the Call in one way or the other, whether the Call unexpectedly smacks the character in the face or appears well in the distance. The trick to identifying the Call is simply the effect on the protagonist, a turning point that clearly stands out from the rest.

I think The Call to Adventure is probably one of the more obvious points of The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, so I’ll leave my thoughts there. The next point is something that I’ve had to study more thoroughly, because at first glance, it’s one I didn’t like: The Refusal of the Call.

More soon!

the hero’s journey – the ordinary world

Lately I’ve been studying The Hero’s Journey, or, in its original form, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The simplified form of this goes through twelve ‘steps’ to define a story.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

Alright, now, I know naturally stories are much, much more complicated, and normally I’m the first on beating down formulas and writing rules and such fluff. But on the other hand… people would look pretty awful without a skeleton, and it’s certainly not what you see when you look at them. There’s also a ton of variance to the formula– steps can be rearranged, added to, deleted altogether. But probably most of all, having seen it appear naturally in my own work, I think this bears a closer study. Think of it as a way of studying story elements.

So, act one, part one. The beginning– The ordinary world.

The ordinary world, supposedly, in the starting point– the native setting before thrusting the character into something unfamiliar and alien, so as to better contrast the difference between the two. Which makes sense. If something changes in the story (and it would be pretty dull if nothing ever happened), you need to show what it changed from. The shire before Bilbo’s road East in The Hobbit. Grace’s reckless, lonely character in the movie Miss Congeniality, fighting with the microwave in her empty apartment. The Secret of Nimh’s Mrs. Brisby seeking help for her ill son.

What strikes me, though, is that none of these worlds are really ordinary, and they’re not necessarily comfortable. Bilbo Baggins may have been a comfortable bachelor who somehow needed to do nothing but eat tea and cakes and blow smoke rings (I’m not sure how, as he wasn’t filthy rich before the end of The Hobbit– how rich was his Took/Baggins inheritance?), but the other two examples begin the story with problems.

That’s how the world works, after all. Problems everywhere. I very much doubt, in that sense, that there ever is an ordinary world– just, the world currently untouched by the larger adventure that’s in the midst of approaching. Ned Stark, in A Game of Thrones, had enough work to do before the King sent word that he was coming to Winterfell, and as much of a fuss of hosting the royal family went, we never left that stage until Ned admitted that the king had asked him to be his Hand. The prologue, the executed deserter, the direwolf puppies in the snow, the arrival of the royal family, Jon’s issues with his stepmother (I loathe that woman– if you want to hear my anti-Catelyn Tully-Stark rant, I’ll be happy to supply it), Arya’s problems with her perfect sister Sansa, the grim warnings that ‘Winter Is Coming’… ordinary. Business as usual. Or, at least, that’s the way it seems.

I wonder if that’s the first element to The Ordinary World. To begin your story with a metaphorical warning. Winter is coming, in one way or another. The introduction of problems provide reason, and sometimes motive, for the launch of the story, but they aren’t the story in and of itself. It’s stepping around rubble before the character stops, looks up, sees a mountain towering over him, and begins to wonder if this was really the way they even ought to be headed.

Furthermore, I think if you have a multiple character story, this ‘formula’ can occur for each character, in different ways. Everyone starts somewhere. Everyone has their initial ups and downs– a relationship, a housing situation, a romantic let-down, a lost job. In A Game of Thrones, Jon Snow called himself to adventure to escape his stepmother (bypassing the ‘Refusal of the Call’ altogether) at a pace related to, but ultimately independent of Ned Stark’s adventure. Tyrion Lannister’s and Daenerys Targaryen’s didn’t start until much, much later, despite being some of the most important characters to the series, and they receive their calls in such different ways that we never much notice that it is a ‘call’ element. Furthermore, because their viewpoint builds up the story before they’re fully involved, their ‘ordinary world’ is much better established for it.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I’ll get to the Call to Adventure later.