THE HEROINE WITH A THOUSAND FRIENDS
Over a decade ago, I recommended that one of my editorial clients submit her novel to Portland agent, Natasha Kern. Natasha called me and said something to the effect of, "This writer is talented, but the book is episodic; it has no hero's journey."
Over the next six months, I learned all about Campbell's hero's journey. Broken down into ten to twelve steps, it is considered an archetype for the human quest for growth and understanding. We can thank Joseph Campbell, the late mythologist, scholar, and wise man, for identifying this apparently universal story-telling pattern. His academic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, outlines this pattern. Since Campbell's book makes difficult reading, because it is a scholarly work of which the hero's journey is one small part, I recommend The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, written specifically for today's writer. Campbell and Vogler provide contemporary writers of novels and memoir with an ideal blueprint for organizing their stories--or so I believed for many years.
For over ten years, I've walked the talk of Campbell's work, telling students and editing clients that all but a small percentage of novels follow the hero's journey and, if they wish to sell their novels and memoirs, they must adopt this form. The remaining percentage of books, I noticed, mostly included literary writing, both fiction and nonfiction. In these books, characterization or another element of craft or style, and not the hero's journey, defined the structure.
About three years ago, that infamous voice within whispered a question, "Is the hero's journey the only archetypal pattern describing the quest faced by humankind? By every one of us?"
I pushed the question away at first; after all, it seemed like heresy. A decade ago, few writers in the classes I taught had heard of the hero's journey. Now most of them have creative and inspiring workshops on this mono-myth, as it is sometimes called, abound at writer's conferences across the country, At one conference, I recognized two women, who gave enthusiastic praise for speaker whose keynote featured the hero's journey. I was no longer able to keep silent; my secret doubts erupted in a passionate tirade.
"I felt desolate," I said referring to the speech. "The more I listened, the more I felt excluded."
Stunned, the women stared at me, then asked me to explain. "The speaker mostly used male pronouns and cited male characters as examples. I think the hero's journey describes the male quest in life."
My thoughts took shape as I talked with them. When a woman faces a problem, especially a life crisis, she doesn't usually raid her weapon's chest and wage a solo war against the dragon. If she succeeds, she doesn't pose, one foot on the slain carcass, its head to be mounted on the wall of her hunter's gallery.
Excited, the three of us talked about the ways that a woman's journey seems to differ from the hero's journey. For instance, women typically seek help. We gather our friends around us for support, solace, and advice. Sometimes, we rob the dragon of its fire by giving it a task. Other times, we just leave the dragon alone and avoid battle altogether. Yet, in those times when the adversary must be met head on, we often involve a professional such as a mediator, lawyer, marriage counselor, or doctor. Most women don't feel a need to go it alone.
"Take the Oprah books," I said, "and many literary novels. Some have the hero's journey, but most are explorations of relationships, of the deep inner struggles we women face with our loved ones and within ourselves."
And why aren't the protagonists of these books, most of them women, remembered by name when the books are bestsellers and often win prestigious awards? We seem to remember Holden Caufield, Bilbo Baggins, and Hannibal Lechter and so many other outstanding male protagonists. But would readers generally recognize Nettie, Maggie Moran, and Sethe, heroines in Pulitzer Prize winning novels? How about Trudi Montag, an Oprah pick, in the acclaimed Stones from the River? Or Virginia Wolf's Mrs. Ramsey? Scarlett O'Hara stands virtually alone as a contemporary character that everyone recognizes. Why is this so?
For women, life involves a web of relationships, of people joined together from all ages and genders in mutual support toward a common purpose. I believe that the woman's journey tends to be a collective endeavor rather than a solo quest.
Like a detective gathering clues, I continued to search for anything I could find about this "woman's journey," and, case in point, I asked writers, historians, and friends. Independent book editor, Carol Craig, shared her theory: "Literary novels seem to have more heroines than heroes. That's because, in this type of book, the inner journey is the goal. It's not about the outer journey as much as it is about personal growth and emotional success. If the world gets saved in the process, that's just a fortunate bi-product."
I found another clue from Carol Pearson, psychologist and best-selling author of several books on archetypes. Quoting from her book, The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By, Pearson states: "... the female hero's journey [is] more optimistic and more democratic and equalitarian than her male counterpart's." She defines the hero's journey as a "journey of individuation" relevant to both genders. Referring to the Warrior archetype that forms the basis of Campbell's version of the hero's journey, she states:
In our culture, the heroic ideal of the Warrior has been reserved for men--usually only white men at that. Women in this plot are cast as damsels-in-distress to be rescued, as witches to be slain, or as princesses who, with half the kingdom, serve as the hero's reward... The Warrior archetype is also an elitist myth, which at its base embodies the notion that some people take their heroic journeys while others simply serve and sacrifice...
[Although] many women enact the Warrior archetype... they do not see slaying dragons as very practical, since the people who often entrap women are husbands, mothers, fathers, children, friends--people who insist that good women forgo their own journeys to serve others. That is why there often are no true villains in stories about female heroes.
Award-winning essayist and freelance editor, Ratina Wollner, told me, "It's not sexism that is the problem with the hero's journey; patriarchy is the dragon that needs to be slain."
For writers, an important question remains: If the hero's journey is a patriarchal paradigm for human differentiation and growth, then what should we writers--men and women--do about it?
Carol Pearson offers writers an alternative in her delineation of six archetypes: The Innocent, The Orphan, the Altruist, the Warrior, the Wanderer, and The Magician. She suggests that all of us experience these fundamental archetypes throughout our lives, but not in a linear, or chronological, fashion. She offers the alternative of a circle with spokes joining the six archetypes in a web of connectedness. The solution I propose is that we leave the hero's journey in the twentieth and prior centuries where it reflected times when women, people of non-European descent, and immigrants were generally seen as second-class citizens whose opinions and voices were not valued. Without knowledge of alternatives to the male journey, writers have been stuck with this patriarchal plot structure. Contemporary literature and movies need to reflect the validity of a storytelling structure that includes all people. This is, after all, the twenty-first century. What we writers deserve is a choice. Let's dump the designation of "hero" or "heroine," adopt an equally valid archetypal pattern, and call it the "human journey." I have a feeling that were he alive today, Joseph Campbell would agree.
©2001 Elizabeth Lyon