What cost for the Hero?

After much thinking about Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, I concluded it was incorrect. The problem is that there are too many exceptions. In his many-step journey, he states that many stories will have these out of order or skip steps entirely.

“Ah, Frank,” I hear you say, “You fine story teller and observer of culture, you and I can both name famous books and movies that hit every note in the Journey.”

But, my friend, I answer back, several of those which you name were written specifically to follow Campbell’s Journey. For example, in the annotations to DragonLance: Legends, Tracy Hickman speaks about following Campbell’s steps when making the outline for the trilogy. Likewise, George Lucas specifically used Campbell when writing A New Hope.

Other philosophers and story tellers have come up with their own hero’s journey with fewer steps. The number of steps and the which journey isn’t important. What they have in common is that each hero has to make a choice in his journey and the price of being a hero must be real. That is, the journeyman can only become a hero at great cost to himself. If there is no cost, there is no story. After all, what is an adventure where there is no risk?

Since Star Wars is a cultural force, we can look at it for examples. To become a hero, Luke loses his right hand and almost loses everything in the final confrontation with Vader and the Emperor. No one can say he paid no price. (One might say that since it is a story of adventure, we know he will come out a hero, but that isn’t the question.)

Anakin also pays a great price in his redemption arc. To die a hero, he has to sacrifice his own life. He doesn’t think of it that way, he dies to save the life of his son (in fact, I would say that seeking to become a hero means one is not yet). Nevertheless, the price is paid.

The cost is something that modern storytellers are increasingly faltering over. They don’t want flawed heroes that the reader can identify with even in the mistakes. It’s overcoming those flaws that make the hero’s journey compelling. Luke starts as a brash, hothead who can’t see beyond the short term. He leaves Yoda to save the life of his friends, risking, to his knowledge, the entire order of Jedi and bringing peace to the galaxy. It is only when he becomes wiser, more mature, more contemplative, that he can face Vader. And that hot headedness still attempts to trip him in the final fight! Luke is far from perfect. He begins with flaws and struggles against those flaws until the end of the trilogy. It is in overcoming those flaws that he becomes a hero.

A flaw is necessary to a compelling hero (like Chaucer, all of the travelers except three had a flaw. Their tales were the least interesting). A perfect protagonist doesn’t give the audience anything to relate to. We all make mistakes. We recognize them (hopefully afterwards instead of knowing its a mistake and doing it anyway). Seeing the hero on the screen or on the page make a mistake and become great in spite of the flaw lets us reach deep down in ourselves and find the hero within. It’s like we say, “Luke wasn’t perfect, but he did this. I’m not perfect, but I can still do this.”

Modern movies and books have a terrible trend where the hero is flawless to begin with. Instead of giving the audience something to relate to, the lack of flaws actually hinders the audience from connecting. You have no mistakes to share at any level with the protagonist.

I’m sure you can think of several pieces of media that fit this description. Staying with Star Wars, Rey has no flaws and overcomes her challenges in The Force Awakens without breaking a sweat. I can only speak to the first of the new trilogy because I was just so disinterested afterwards, I had no desire to see Last Jedi.

Similarly, a protagonist without a flaw often becomes a “hero” without a cost. The victory is then cheap. What good is it to be a hero when it has cost nothing? In life, you can’t get something for nothing. Our fiction used to reflect this. Every hero had to give up something precious to get something else.

To read a fantasy novel where the protagonist reaches within himself to seize what he can become at great cost, check out my book REBIRTHS.


1 Comment on What cost for the Hero?

  1. Good points.

    I think conversely, many authors try to make the hero too flawed because they can’t imagine someone doing the right thing for unselfish reasons, or are scared of making someone too good.

    But having realistic, relatable flaws really helps–flawed, but not too flawed. So the reader neither spends most of the story cringing at hugely wrong decisions nor snoring through a story in which the character does everything too easily.

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