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.

a little bit victorian

I received this morning a thoughtful critique on the prologue of ‘The Artificer’s Angels’, my steampunk novel. The gentleman in question had several good things to point out: a contradictory description, some wayward sentences breaking the flow, and imagery problems, all of which I was very grateful for.

But at the end he wrote this:

I also wonder if you are trying to emulate Victorian-style prose. If so, I think you might want to reconsider. The reason is that Victorian prose is really difficult for modern Americans to slog through, unless they are reading a book that was actually written in the Victorian era – then they recognize that they have no choice. The only other time I believe American readers would tolerate flowery prose and long, long sentences is if the writer were depicting the action from the first-person POV of a Victorian.

Now, I understand that this is an opinion, and should be weighed like all critiques. But it’s also a projectory opinion. “Other people won’t like it”, and that bothers me, especially since he said nothing at all whether he thought it distracting.

I’m not even a particularly flowery writer.

Ironically, a few minutes later I read a blog post by Mister Dave Kellet, writer and artist of the Sheldon webcomic. It included this:

One of my favorite things that Victorian writers figured out was how the inclusion of scraps of letters, telegraphs, and diary entries within their larger novels could help enhance a story and fill out a world.

Call me crazy, but I wonder if I would rather err on the side of more Victorian. Unrelated short steampunk stories between parts of the novel. Nano-fiction sprinkled here and there, to go with my pen-and-ink illustrations, my omniscient camera, and my insistence on spelling out titles like ‘Mister’. I’d not considered adding more material to flesh out the setting prior, but now I find the thought exciting.

Am I just being contrary? How does that sound, slogging modern American readers?

the final stretch – finishing a novel

I am over 90% finished with Blue Crystal revisions, as of tonight.

It’s kindof boggling. I’ve been working on this novel for over two years. Three full blind drafts. Test readers have pointed out things that need to be edited, of course, and I’ll need it to be polished, typos spotted. For instance, I have the hilarious tendency to write ‘kill’ instead of ‘kiss’. Hmm. Subconscious logic there…

It’s midnight now. I have exactly ten days to finish before NaNo comes around, and I think my test readers might not forgive me if I delay the last chapter for a month. So, for accountability… Every midnight, I’ll try to post a short post on my progress. It’s not a great read, I know, but I react very well to support. I’ll probably need it.

introducing a group, part ii

After my last post, about how to introduce several characters, and the distinctions between character and setting, I thought that I’d go visit Gav Thorp’s blog ‘Mechanical Hamster‘ and ask him if he would be willing to say a few words on the subject. I really love Gav’s advice– he writes some really excellent articles on writing tips and craft. Anyone interested in advanced creative writing should stop by and browse through the archives.

Much to my delight, Gav obliged me and wrote a long, detailed post on how to handle secondary characters that really addressed some of the problems I was having. You can find it here, and I think it’s well worth a read.

Thanks, Gav!

checking in

By tonight, I’ll be at or above 35,000 words on my novel, roughly 1400 from where I’m standing now. I’m frequently a bit below par, but I blame that to writing late at night, past the midnight line. I’m not dead, just very, very focused. Sorry I haven’t been around a lot!

I’ve said this before, but I think I need to say it again. Complete rewrites are beautiful, wonderful things. They’re a lot, a lot of work, but the improvement to the plot and composition are fabulous, and well worth it.

Since I’m finally very happy with my plot and the balance between characters, I’m going to keep up my NaNo pace through December (I’ve heard of a NaNoFiMo– National Novel Finishing Month– next month). Depending on how long this new draft takes me, I’ll be done a little before or a little after the new year.

So, based on that, January through March are going to be editing and revising months. I’ll start agent-shopping this April.

Wish me luck!

starting the 3rd draft

I’ve started the 3rd draft of Blue Crystal today.

I haven’t finished my plot-scrub. I’ve made some changes, questioned some motives, filled in several characters, but the detailed chapter-by-chapter plot lies incomplete on my notebook. I think it’s time to admit that I’m not much of a plotter. Which isn’t to say that I won’t be using all the ideas that I did come up with for those chapters.

I’m resetting the word count bar. I’m also putting up the first five hundred words in my excerpt page. Go take a look– I think this draft is already much better than the last.

writing craft: the art of repetition

Since I’m taking a break from my book, I’ve decided to write a bit about craft and technique.

Repetition is a subject that I don’t see nearly enough coverage in craft essays. True, it is not a necessary element to a book, of less importance than characterization or plot. A writer does not need to know this to make a good story. Still, it is a tool that a writer may use to strengthen the elements in their story, and well worth thinking about.

When a reader sees a character behave in a certain way, they make judgments about that character. They will expect this character to do something similar when placed in another situation like the first. The reader judges the character by his actions and his insinuations. This is characterization.

When the character repeats himself as expected, this is called consistency.

And if three characters do similar things for similar reasons at different times, though their situations and their personalities differ, this is a repeating motive, one of the elements of repetition. It enhances a theme in your work, it sets the tone of your story. It plays with the prejudices the reader has toward your world, your events, and your characters.

Repeating elements can be used for foreshadowing. Say that four characters have a gun in a story. The reader will anticipate a time when someone draws it, will assume a need for weaponry (either in the situation, or because of characterization), and adjust their attitudes accordingly. It will be off-putting if no one makes use of said guns in some manner. Even if they’re not drawn, reliance on a weapon when fighting something like hunger can be a potent mental image.

Repeating elements are a base. They make the reader familiar with the setting. Let a church be a setting for a particularly happy scene. Take that same church, put some different characters in, and have something terrible happen. Put the church in again a third time, and the reader will have some very strong emotional connotations with that location.

dacha, the literary funeral

As previously mentioned, I killed a character and abruptly had trouble writing again. I kill a lot of characters. The path my literary endeavors have taken me on has been littered with bodies of fictional friends and enemies. I don’t usually have this problem writing, and I’m not sure why it’s bothering me now.

So to commemorate Dacha, and perhaps to gain some ‘closure’ (I don’t really believe in the concept myself, but what’s the harm?), I thought I would write her a eulogy.

Dacha was a remarkable woman, impressive in girth and skill. She may not have had the qualifications to present a heroic figure, but she fared well as a secondary character. She made my hero uncomfortable for her own amusement, worked with my heroine to protect and help her, and littered my book with pieces of colorful, if course, dialog.

Such phrases included:

“… You know, that’s almost scarier than me naked.”

“Weapon? Oh, honey, I don’t need a weapon. All I have to do is sit on you and fart. You won’t be getting up again, I promise.”

“Aha! Dickless, spineless, and brainless! … He must think with his stomach.”

“Sure I’m a lady! I’ve got the teats to prove it and everything!”

Rest in peace, Dacha. You died victorious, and were avenged swiftly. And your loss made my test readers cry aloud: a dozen outraged, horrified gasps of, “No, not Dacha!” disturbed the air of the library reading room that night.

Until the third draft, my friend.

writing fantasy: the dilemma of familiarity

Recently, my mother found a book at a library sale with very rich writing. It was an older book, hardback, the red of the cloth cover faded and an unexciting title, the spine gently folded and indented with use. Contemporary marketing would sniff. And then my mother pointed out the first page. The prose felt rich and alive, taking a broad image of Italy and expounding on it with beautiful, subtle analogies to paint a vivid picture. I read enough to know that it was a particular strength of the writer in question.

I thought about the style and technique the author used, and after a time it pained me to realize that I can’t do the same, not easily, in fantasy. Robert Jordan might have, but then, Robert Jordan’s work could be used as bludgeoning weapons in the military if they ever ran short. Non-series fantasy writers have to contend with the fact that if they want to draw in a sense of such familiarity with their world, they’re going to have to sweat blood to weave it. One doesn’t write that the spell growled like a Harley motorcycle when using a historical setting.

I once heard it mentioned that fantasy was the easiest genre to write, because there were no rules, but that fantasy is also the hardest genre to write well. To take full advantage of the blank canvas, the author is stripped of many of their literary tools. The more original the setting and story, the less you have to work with.

I’ve found people who can do this well; Patrick Rothfuss (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors the more I go into his debut novel) has such an intricately built world that his novel feels like a bath, completely submerged. Rich prose, mature characters make up for the unfamiliarity. A gripping plot won’t let someone put the book down. Yet, it seems that worldbuilding aside, the process of creating familiarity from scratch is not a well covered topic.

A few things I’ve noticed about fantasy books that are exceptional (and I consider most of these inseparably linked to each other):

Maturity. People are people. As readers, we can accept mostly fleshed characters and improbable reactions to situations. But I think at some level, we know that it wouldn’t happen like that. The behavior of people around, the background and the appropriateness of their reaction to what happens around them are vital. We know if someone is pulling something contrived– it’s what bothered me in the otherwise enjoyable ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’. Convince me that your people are people, even if they’re bugs, aliens, or elves. I know all about people.

Repetition. Repeating themes, or elements in the story, bringing old settings back later in the story settles the reader down. It’s a familiar place, or a familiar situation, and since they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect. One bad fight in the dark, written well, with consequences, will set expectations up for another. Realize the effect repeating elements, themes, settings, and characters have, and use them.

Depth. Also known as world-building, character building, and just about every other sort of building that you can do for a story. Know everything– be able to write hundreds of pages on the culture, history, art, economy, geography, mythology, and religions you’ve invented. Show very little of that, and only when required by the story. This is about as easy as swallowing a ring of car keys, reaching down your own throat, and plucking them out again.

(See? Another analogy that wouldn’t work in a fantasy novel quite as well). And last…

Consistency. High king of fantasy, duke of literature, lord of all he beholds. Cross him, and your literary efforts will crumble to ash and salt in your hands. Do not break the rules that you lay down.

a study in writing bullies

From Psychology Today:

Studies reliably show that [bullies] have a distinctive cognitive make-up—a hostile attributional bias, a kind of paranoia. They perpetually attribute hostile intentions to others. The trouble is, they perceive provocation where it does not exist. That comes to justify their aggressive behavior. Say someone bumps them and they drop a book. Bullies don’t see it as an accident; they see it as a call to arms. These children act aggressively because they process social information inaccurately. They endorse revenge. [link]

I was bullied constantly from the first grade until I managed to escape high school early. I always considered school to be a form of hell, a juvenile detention program invented by a sadist that really ought to only be served to those children who had already committed some crime. I have been to twelve different schools before making it into community college. Some are worse than others, but wherever I went I had a talent for attracting bullies.

The more I think about writing my bully character for the ‘Villain Month’ event, the more I just really want to go kill someone. Which really was my reaction back in school, too. Funny (or not) how that doesn’t seem to go away.

The good side? Well, I’ve had experiences with this type of person. I know what a really, really nasty bully sounds like, the tactics they use. And my heroine has the same reaction to bullies that I did (aggravate them further and make them really want to kill you). The bad side? I don’t think I could ever empathize with them, or get into their head without feeling ill, oily. I once tried to write about such a depraved character once that I felt ill for a week afterward. So I’m researching them academically instead.

Psychology Today’s article is quite good. I’m feeling sick already.

The lengths I go for this novel…