Our Characters and Ourselves
I’ve been thinking about an obscure point of storytelling, and I wonder if this isn’t something that a lot of us have been aware of but maybe haven’t thought about too deeply.
(I’m gonna get a little writer-wonky in this post, so please bear with me.)
We know as fiction writers that our story (Act One) starts in “the Ordinary World.”
Then something happens (the Inciting Incident) that propels our hero out of her or his everyday life and into “the Extraordinary World.”
Dorothy is whisked away from Kansas, Luke bolts from the planet Tatooine, Wonder Woman leaves the island of the Amazons.
What happens then?
Usually we conceive of Act Two, the Extraordinary World, as a sequence of obstacles that our protagonist must overcome. It’s her hero’s journey. It’s her struggle to restore some form of equilibrium to her world.
Maybe I’m the last one to catch onto this, but lately I’ve been thinking of this passage in a different light.
The light of “knowing.”
What happens to our hero first, as she is propelled into the Extraordinary World, is that people see her immediately in a wholly different way. Not the way others perceived her or related to her before.
Think of Dorothy or Luke or Diana. Or Michael Corleone after he kills Sollozzo and police captain McCluskey. Or Toby Howard (Chris Pine) in Hell or High Water after he and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) start pulling off bank robberies.
In the Extraordinary World, these characters are perceived at once and by everyone in an entirely different way.
And they react to this.
They react positively.
They become empowered by it.
Each of our heroes realizes that he or she is someone else, or at least seems to every other character to be someone else.
A strong case could be made that this is the point of the whole story, of every story.
Our narrative—any narrative—is about the hero’s journey from one self-conception (an obsolete, no-longer-working version) to another (brand-new, scary-but-absolutely-necessary) version.
Confronting the challenges of the Extraordinary World, our hero comes to know herself in a way she never did before. She discovers a new self, a just-now-being-born self, and she comes to embrace it as the answer to her dilemma.
This happens in real life too.
We fall in love.
We take a new job.
We move to a new country.
At once, everyone we meet sees us with different eyes.
We perceive this ourselves. We react to our new challenges not as our old selves but as this newly-hatched, revised-and-updated version of ourselves.
Of course this happens to us as artists every time we embark on a new project. We’re writers. Our Muse is calling us to shed an old skin and grow a new one.
Each new book, play, or screenplay is a new hero’s journey, a fresh crossing of the threshold into an ever-different Extraordinary World.
I’m working on something new now, and I’m trying to apply this (new-for-me) insight to it.
When my hero crosses the threshold into the Extraordinary World (I’m asking myself as I evaluate what I’m writing), do the other characters in the story perceive him and relate to him differently than they would have, had they encountered him in the Ordinary World? Does he see this? How does it affect him? Is he in fact different? How? Why?
Who is his old self?
Who is his new one?
I’m asking this of myself as well, as I too cross into my own Extraordinary World.
Will a new me appear? Has it already?
Who is he?
How is he different?
In the end, our stories and our real lives are about our heroes (and we ourselves) incorporating this new knowing, this novel self-knowledge, and growing and changing with it.
Very interesting read. Awareness of how our environments, be they new or old, affect us is vital to our progression in continually improving ourselves. Just picked up War of Art and can’t wait to get started. Thanks for sharing your talents with us!
Perhaps not be the people who see the hero differently, but the way that hero sees the world has changed and now he reacts differently.
Just like a butterfly can not be a caterpillar again, transformation is definitely a change of state.
When you cross the threshold of the old self into the new self, a new level of awareness sets in. From the old self, nothing should be left behind, as if the new self has always existed.
For a butterfly, which now can flies and sees the world from above, there is no reason to question why it spent much of life creeping and eating green leaves to get there. The old self no longer makes sense.
hey man, the butterfly thing, I’m stealing it from you. It’s awesome.
basically it is the story of my life. Thanks you are a blessing.
This was beautifully stated. As a new writer I’m glad to know it’s not necessary to hold onto the old self (ideas and connections) that was my struggle. Letting go to grow much like the butterfly, is natural.
Thanks for this new perspective on the hero’s transformation. I also like what Paulinho Uda said in the comment above – “the old self no longer makes sense.”
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Steve. Appreciated.
That’s precisely it. You’ve made it so clear. I never thought of it that way but it’s so true. The old self fades away as the new hero emerges. We see the hero’s identity crystallize through changed thoughts and actions. And as for others’ perceptions., they recognize the newness in subtle or obvious ways and that confirms it. This is so helpful! Thank you!
Fascinating. Exciting. Brings us as readers as well as writers to a new world. Thanks!
I know you are talking about writing fiction, but marketers have adopted the hero’s journey in a big way — one that I’ve never wholly agreed with.
The prevailing view of the hero’s journey in marketing circles goes like this. “You’re not the hero, your buyer is. … Make your customer the hero. It’s not about you.” blah, blah, blah
They only want to see it one way, like a switch is flipped in the buyer’s journey and all problems are solved. That’s unrealistic, and why these insights make sense to me.
We need a greater sense of awareness for how that buyer/customer/hero is really changed, and if they or anyone around them recognize it.
Hell or High Water is a great example. Watched movie on Dish several times. Great script and story. Seemingly simple but profound in many ways.
I know now what I must do.
I love how Donald Miller puts it in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: “No character transformation, no story.”
I’ll follow the “Hell or High Water” thread for just a minute, relative to the hero’s journey of the writer. So far, I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from Taylor Sheridan (HoHW, both Sicario films, Wind River… haven’t seen Yellowstone yet).
Taylor Sheridan is a good example of “the hero’s journey from one self-conception (an obsolete, no-longer-working version) to another (brand-new, scary-but-absolutely-necessary) version,” and how one’s life experience can inform their story-telling. (See an Esquire magazine profile of him from June 2018.)
Sheridan’s mother lost their ranch because of some ill-advised loans (part of the inspiration for HoHW; Sheridan’s cousin was a US Marshal forced into retirement… another bit of inspiration for the Jeff Bridges “Marcus” character). Sheridan went to college, dropped out and worked cutting grass and painting houses, fell into acting (bit parts), went broke, camped in the hills above LA and came down to shower at the gym once a day.
Things weren’t working. Something of an All is Lost moment?
He’d go back up into the hills after his shower and read, read, read. Gretel Ehrlich (“The Solace of Open Spaces”), Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry. He met a group of American Indians and joined in sweat lodge and sun dance and drove to the res in South Dakota (an experience that was part of the inspiration for Wind River).
Crossing the Threshold into the Extraordinary World, with wild and supernatural mentors?
He tries again with the acting. Quoting from the Esquire piece: “After two seasons [in a minor role on Sons of Anarchy], he asked for a raise. The producers said no, so he quit. Sheridan considered taking a job as a ranch manager in Wyoming, but he couldn’t bring his family. In early 2011, he swore to [his wife] Nicole that he could write them out of their misery. She dipped into their meager savings and bought him the screenwriting program Final Draft.”
Another All is Lost moment. Who said there was only one?
He went back and reread the scripts for every project he’d ever auditioned for, making sure he understood the structure.
“Story Grid,” anyone?
He banged out “Sicario,” but then threw it in a drawer, figuring nobody would produce it. Then he wrote “Hell or High Water” — and finished it in six days. And that script sold.
I’ll stop here, and just say that the Esquire profile would be worth your time. And it illustrates the hero’s journey — from a beginning self-conception (a homeless house painter masquerading as an actor) to another new identity (a writer who finishes things, and sells).
Here’s what I’m getting out of this, big picture: We come here to read what Steve and Callie and Shawn have to say because they’ve trekked the landscape we want to explore. Aren’t they voicing the Call to Adventure, and standing on the other side of “Crossing the Threshold”? (I’ll leave it to them to sort out who is Obi-Wan, who is Yoda, and who is Qui-Gon.)
Joseph Campbell’s name has appeared in this space more than once. In the opener to “The Power of Myth,” he writes: “We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path.”
That’s why I like reading about how the journey has gone for other writers. Why I look forward to Wednesday and Friday mornings.
Sorry so long.
Keep ’em coming, Joe!
Not long, Joe – just the right amount. Very useful to me at the moment. Thanks.
Okay. Having a temporary green light to keep ’em coming, may I say: Arrgh! How have I not known about Gretel Ehrlich? She manifests a writer’s hero’s journey, herself.
Taylor Sheridan says in the Esquire profile that, homeless but freshly showered, he’d go back to his tent in the hills to read Gretel Ehrlich’s “The Solace of Open Spaces.” He’d read the opening line over and over:
“It’s May and I’ve just awakened from a nap, curled against sagebrush the way my dog taught me to sleep—sheltered from the wind.”
Huh? That’s goooood. So I dug deeper. Gretel Ehrlich had gone out to Wyoming in 1975 to work on a documentary film when man she loved died, not yet 30. “I had not planned to stay, but I couldn’t make myself leave.” She stayed in Wyoming and took on as a ranch hand and started writing full-time. “Instead of producing the numbness I wanted, life on the sheep ranch woke me up. The vitality of the people I was working with flushed out what had become a hallucinatory rawness inside me. I threw away my clothes and bought new ones; I cut my hair. The arid country was a clean slate. Its absolute indifference steadied me.”
Is that not an artist Answering the Call and Crossing a Threshold? Some excerpts:
“During the winter, while I was riding to find a new calf, my jeans froze to the saddle, and in the silence that such cold creates, I felt like the first person on earth, or the last.”
“In the Great Plains, the vistas look like music, like Kyries of grass, but Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect — tumbled and twisted, ribboned with faded, deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into a pure light.”
“John, a sheepman I know, is tall and handsome and has an explosive temperament. They call him ‘Highpockets’ because he’s so long-legged. The ranch he was born on takes up much of one county and spreads into another state; to put 100,000 miles on his pickup in three years and never leave home is not unusual.”
Now I have a crush on a 72-year-old woman. Thanks a LOT, Taylor Sheridan…
Now that explains why the Laura Croft Tomb Raiders movies always fail and why Star Wars A New Hope worked.
In a good tragedy, we see how the main character is surrounded by public perceptions that cannot be overcome: Peer Gynt. I learned so much about great writing in a Scandinavian lit course in college.
Strindberg was also amazing with this. I recommend reading Strindberg’s By the Open Sea if anyone hasn’t read it.
To me, it is all about public perception imprisoning the main character. Who wouldn’t relate to that?
Thank you so much for taking the time to write these posts — I always get so much from them, and you have a way of making things so clear. This one is particularly helpful to me.
Steve I going to take exception to: “…a heroine being regarded by other people, immediately in a wholly different way. Not the way others perceived her or related to her before.” (not an exact quote) One of our heroine’s biggest obstacles is that they won’t see the change in her or if they do, they’ll oppose it. For instance, ask any family member or friend about your next New Year’s resolutions. Many times if one person of a group suddenly changes positively, it upsets the power and/or relative status of the others. They may attempt to push that person back down. I like that in a story, it gives the protagonist more problems.
I have a theory…that the return of the hero to the village IS the gift. The gift is they returned. Changed. As an example to the people.
If we truly are changed by the journey, our greatest gift is that we don’t keep it for ourselves , but give our gift.
Your post reminded me of that, and I think our thoughts are running parallel. Thanks.
You just added a new first chapter to the book I’m writing. Thank you for the insight. As always, your thought provoking articles keep me thinking.
I’d like to add another angle to this subject, mainly that the change can happen instantly, or over the length of the story. So time is a key part of this. Characters evolve; it’s what gives a story substance. When you can look back and see where a hero started, and where she’s headed (or going to head). Characters, like real people, either evolve fast, slow or not at all, and each of these has a direct bearing on the story. It’s really a core reason to tell it in the first place.