The Heroic Journey 15: The Shape of Your Hero



My trip to the U.K. has posed more difficulties than I expected in keeping up with the blog. My apologies. I look forward to getting back in the groove. Meanwhile, here’s an article by guest poster, author, and former WriteAtHome writing coach, David Sims. It’s part of his series on the common characteristics of great stories in the vein of  The Heroic Journey. 


One reminder about what you should be doing with your Hero’s characterization so far. We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears fleshing out.

People usually have two sides – the Identity, the outer self they’ve constructed to present to the world, and the Essence, their inner selves, which they protect from the world by living in their Identity fronts.

At the beginning of the novel the Hero’s living in Identity, and as part of the Hero’s Journey, he finds the courage to step out of the Identity character, the false front, and be who he really is.

This is the growth his character has, resolving the tug-of-war, or inner conflict between Identity and Essence, which is called the Inner Journey.

So during the first ten percent of the novel, you need to show that there’s some fear the Hero has, some wound he’s suffered. He has an inability to face some fact or deal with something, he can’t or won’t confront whatever it is and it’s causing problems. He might be comfortable with his crutch or coping mechanism and can’t even imagine escaping from it.

Basically at the beginning he’s making some initial error or mistake he either can’t see or thinks is the right thing – “I must succeed,” or “I must enable others to be happy,” or “I don’t need anybody else in my life,” or “I must prove this to my father.” The story will raise the Hero’s consciousness, he’ll grow, and this is the character arc.

Here’s the key: The reader wants to go through that with the Hero, that change, that growth. It’s usually patently obvious to the reader and other characters what the Hero’s limitation is, but the Hero himself either can’t see it or can’t do anything about it – until later in the novel the limitation becomes intolerable, and he’ll find the courage to change and end up living in his Essence.

This is because the reader wants to go through some kind of a shift – not a 180-degree reversal of their beliefs, but even a one degree shift. The Law of Small Differences applies here – a lot of things we do to change ourselves aren’t drastically large things (doing that usually keeps you the same anyway), but tiny increments of change, new insights which result in big changes.

So when the novel begins the Hero is living totally in Identity. Shrek’s a lonely ogre in his swamp chasing everyone away, Luke Skywalker’s an orphan farmhand in the middle of nowhere, Harry Potter’s a miserable orphan living with the Dursleys and when Rose DeWitt Bukater steps onto the H.M.S. Titanic she exists cocooned in protective wealth, a hothouse flower.

Here’s where this inner journey ties in with the outer: When the Call to Adventure comes it may be rejected at first by the Hero if it represents the unconscious depths which touch the Hero’s deepest fears or threaten the Identity he’s created.

But there’s still an irresistible fascination with the Herald, the guide, leading the Hero to the Journey, to something “profoundly familiar” to the Hero’s unconscious, but frightening. So there’s something in the Call to kick off the desire for the inner journey, something to say to the Hero “you need more awareness, you need to change.”

The Refusal of the Call could be a reaction against experiencing and expressing fear, or the reluctance to change. A lot of the tension in the story comes from the fear pushing back on the Hero’s actions, throws him back and forth. The Hero may say no, I don’t want to change, or might want to but doesn’t know how, or get told he can’t change. Make sure the reader knows the prospect of transformation of the Hero will be hard and painful.

Meeting the Mentor can be how the Hero overcomes his inner fear and resistance to accepts the Call. He might ask for or seek out a Mentor, or the Mentor just shows up, a la Rocky and Burgess Meredith and later Apollo Creed, or Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore. Or the Hero is forced to figure it out himself.


About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Mary Carson
    Mary Carson04-11-2012

    Give yourself a break. Stop apologizing. Everyone needs a vacation. Your posts are great, and worth waiting for.

    Enjoy your family and let them enjoy you!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko04-12-2012

      Thanks, Mary. We’ve had a wonderful, memorable time.

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