“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” –Henry David Thoreau
Embarking on a Heroic Quest is a complex undertaking. In literature and film, when the Hero (or Heroine) answers the Call to Adventure, there is a specific goal in mind. Slay the dragon. Retrieve the Talisman. Destroy the Death Star. Get the Girl (or Guy). Find One-Eyed Willie’s Pirate gold and save the Goondocks. And so forth. It’s called the external conflict.
But, storytelling is meant to work on more than one level. So, if you are going to (wait for it…) Write Your Own Story, there also has to be some kind of internal conflict. This inner journey is sometimes called the character arc. I like to say that the Hero must get lost to find him/herself.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist, Prince Hamlet, is all angsty because his father, the King, has recently been murdered and usurped. And his creepy, corrupt uncle Claudius is the usurper, and he has swooped in and married Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet broods, procrastinates, and generally comes unhinged, but he cannot act. Over the course of the second act, he eventually finds his motivation and nerve (thanks to his Father’s disembodied ghost and his friend Yorick’s disembodied head!) and hatches a plot to kill the new King. Granted, it’s a sloppily executed revenge, and in the ensuing bloodbath just about everybody (400 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT!) ends up dead, including Hamlet. But the important thing is his journey: whiny, spoiled prince becomes badass avenging angel.
Character arcs in popular films from when I was growing up included Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (whiny, impatient moisture farmer becomes zen, badass leader of an intergalactic rebellion, thanks to the disembodied ghost of Sir Alec Guiness), Mikey from The Goonies (whiny, inhaler-toting misfit becomes driven treasure hunter who makes out with Josh Brolin’s cheerleader girlfriend, thanks to the rotting skeleton of pirate captain One-Eyed Willie and the slightly offensive, deformed, childlike Sloth), or Daniel Russo in The Karate Kid (whiny high school outsider becomes confident, badass karate practitioner, thanks to the non-disembodied, not-very-spectral Pat Morita).
I’m sensing a trend.
“People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.” – Thomas Szasz
The important thing to remember is that Heroes aren’t static. They don’t whine. They don’t make excuses. They make tough decisions. They undertake Quests. They battle Villains. They hang out with the undead. They fall down. They get back up. They endure pain, defeat and humiliation. They do hard things.
And, in doing hard things, the Hero takes a pounding. In Blake Snyder‘s fantastic book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, he calls this stage “All is Lost”, which culminates in the Hero’s “Dark Night of the Soul”. Joseph Campbell calls it “The Abyss”, where the Hero dies and is reborn. It’s Luke Skywalker finding out that his sworn enemy, Darth Vader, the guy who just lopped off his hand with a lightsaber, is in fact his deadbeat dad. It’s Hamlet, his whole world turned upside down, crazy family life and all, haunted by his dead father, lamenting, “To be or not to be…”.
But by facing and surviving these Trials, Heroes don’t just find themselves. They recreate themselves. They transform themselves. They are reborn.
This is why I chose Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and other storytelling devices to create my own personal self-help program. The traditional dramatic Hero generally has a flaw that makes their Quest extremely difficult. In Hamlet’s case, he is indecisive, which makes it hard to exact revenge on his sleazeball uncle. In my case, my ADHD makes it incredibly challenging to write a 110 page, professional grade screenplay; historically, I have lacked the long term commitment, the planning, the time management, and the tenacity to complete such an arduous project.
Though this be madness, there is method in it. As I crossed the Threshold into the Underworld, faced Challenges, battled demons and yes, hit rock bottom, I got stronger. I have learned more about screenwriting, but have also learned more about myself. I have battled Shiny Objects, Distractability, Impulsiveness and Disorganization, and despite many setbacks, have won decisive Victories as well. My script is better for it, but so are my marriage, my job, and my relationship with my kids. All because I spilled the whine and did hard things.
And, unlike Hamlet, I didn’t even have to litter my castle with corpses to do it.