by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
Ever since Joseph Campbell observed that the world’s great legends all contain 12 steps a hero must take to grow and triumph, writers have enjoyed using that structure as a storytelling tool.
It’s a perfectly good structure for tales of adventure, and Christopher Vogler made it even more useful with The Hero’s Journey. But what happens when a character ISN’T going out to fight dragons, discover lost continents, or battle evil warlords?
What if their growth and triumph happen on a personal level?
That’s the question raised by a lot of authors writing about characters whose story doesn’t require daredevil action as a way of showing tremendous courage.
There’s something lacking in the 12-step structure if, for example, declining Aunt Martha’s offer to host a baby shower, or wearing the red-brimmed hat, or deciding to read that forbidden book DOESN’T equal heroic strength.
That’s why screenwriter Kim Hudson created a 13-step version which even Vogler said is a great parallel to the hero’s journey. It could be called the heroine’s journey, but since it works equally well for young men who haven’t yet experienced a great deal of what life has to offer, she called it The Virgin’s Promise.
Does it matter if you’re not writing about virgins?
Nope. What matters is that, if you’re writing about ANY character who’s going to follow a major internal journey (with possibly some external hurdles along the way), your story can be every bit as compelling as those full of swashbuckling adventure even though it stars a less swashbuckling type of person.
Often the greatest challenges faced by these characters -- let’s call ‘em heroines -- are the kind that real-life people (yes, like us!) face every day.
“My sister keeps joking that I married the wrong man.”
“My boss always says I need to widen my focus.”
“The kids don’t think my writing is important.”
“I’d love to branch out, but where would I ever find the time?”
We’ve all hidden our light, now and then. We’ve gotten used to putting others before ourselves. We’ve given in when we really wanted a different outcome. We’ve let somebody else determine how we behave.
So we understand what such characters might need to overcome, and we’d love to see them do it.
All they need is a path to follow.
A heroine embarking on the 13-step journey is going to emerge as a better, wiser, stronger, happier, and (due to the struggle) also a slightly more dented version of her original self.
She’s going to take risks that yield joyous rewards, and some that result in painful failures. She’s not always going to believe in herself.
Sometimes she’ll falter. Sometimes she’ll crumple. And sometimes she’ll shine.
She’ll inevitably run into barriers -- problems that come not so much from dragons or pirates or brigands as from her friends. Her neighbors. Her family.
They might care for her deeply and wish her all the best, but they’re not seeing her as the complete person she COULD be. All they see is what they want her to be, and if she isn’t living up to those expectations?
The results can be worse than a fire-breathing dragon.
What makes such a heroine all the more impressive is how she copes in the face of these setbacks. It’s hard to move past the dreams and desires of people she cares about, especially when that isn’t something she’s been taught to do throughout her life. Becoming her own best self is often a pretty solitary journey, and not one she undertakes with giddy optimism.
Even if she feels good about whatever journey she’s embarking on, of course she won’t triumph immediately -- otherwise we wouldn’t have much to read about. No, she has to go through trials different from the Hero’s Journey, with her 13 steps including:
- Paying the Price of Conformity
- Balancing her dependent and new Secret World
- Getting Caught Shining
- Seeing the Kingdom in Chaos
- Wandering in the Wilderness before
- choosing her Light and ultimately
- making sure the Kingdom is Brighter.
We see women brightening their kingdom all the time, whether or not they’re starring in a novel. Heck, you’ve probably done it yourself...
Having a wonderful meeting with a publisher and taking mental notes to share with your friend who wanted to be there. Or volunteering for a project that expands in scope but persevering all the way through completion. Or making sure to share credit with those who played a part in some triumph you’ve just achieved.
Women are great at such things.
Men can be wonderfully generous as well, as we’ve seen from many a hero, but women seem to have a more instinctive knack for noticing how other people feel about things and then seeing how they can make things better.
Which is why, all too often, real-life and fictional heroines do such a good job of caring for others that they neglect their own best interests, staying confined within the limits that society or family or friends have set for them. Until they recognize the down-side of such a situation...which is where their story begins.
We'll explore that in more detail next month at my WriterUniv.com class on “The Hero's Journey, For Heroines,” but meanwhile I'd love to hear some real-life examples.
So here’s a prize-drawing question:
If you’ve ever managed to go beyond the limits that other people set for you, could you say what you did? Regardless of the courage involved, whether it involved a quick adjustment or a life-changing event, somebody who comments will win free registration to the September class!
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After winning Romantic Times’ “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops for writers from London and Los Angeles to New Zealand and New York, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. With 48 titles there so far, she’s always hoping for more.