The transformational arc of the hero is the moral and ethical backbone of many memorable stories.
Handled well, it validates the hero’s actions and helps to sell the story.
But crafting an effective transformational arc often proves difficult for new and inexperienced writers.
What exactly is it that changes in the hero? What causes the change? How does this affect the plot? These are some of the most pressing questions writers face when working with the hero’s transformational arc.
Let’s examine each question relating to change in the hero in turn.
The changing hero
1. What changes in the hero? Typically heroes are good people who have lost their way or have not found it yet. They have potential. They are eminently redeemable.
In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage prefers promoting the war effort behind studio cameras rather than taking the fight to the alien enemy in the field. He is smart, determined, good at his job. But he is also a coward. His transformation is from cowardliness to courage.
2. What causes the change? Change comes when external events trigger the hero’s positive character traits.
In The Matrix Neo is obsessed with a central question: What is the Matrix? He is intelligent, strong, and inquisitive, but lacks the self-belief to implement the answers he receives. But when agent Smith threatens to wipe out all resistance and enslave humanity forever, Neo allows Trinity’s kiss to bring him back from the dead and defeat the sentient program.
3. How does this affect the plot? Character growth supports the plot by motivating and explaining the hero’s actions.
The plot arises when the hero pursues a goal but is prevented by his nemesis from achieving it. It is only when he fulfills his potential that he is able to adjust his strategy, defeat his nemesis, and achieve success. The hero’s transformation from cowardliness to courage, self-doubt to self-belief, from ignorance to knowledge, therefore, affects the quality of his actions and the direction of the plot.
Answering a series of questions, such as those posed above, then, is one way of understanding the relation between your hero’s developmental arc and the plot.
A skilful interweaving of the hero and plot is essential to the quality and success of any story.
In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger points out that studio executives, producers and story editors are fond of asking this question of every writer.
The answer to this question can make or break a story.
If the risks are weak or unclear, readers and audiences have no reason to care about the characters in our story or see any connection between their experience and the experience of our fictional characters — our characters will not evoke a sense of empathy.
Abraham Maslow devised a seven-part hierarchy to explain what drives us as people, and what the stakes are if we fail to get what we need or seek.
1. Survival: Many excellent stories are about survival. This primal instinct is basic to all animals and we are no exception. By centering our story around the hero’s (or community’s) survival, we’re ticking the first box on the list of creating empathy. The movie, Deliverance, is a fine example of this.
2. Safety and Security; Once our survival needs are met, we seek a safe and secure place to keep the dangers at bay. We lock our doors, build forts, raise armies to guard us. Voyage of the Damned and Country utilise this need in their stories.
3. Love and Belonging: But what is a safe home without love and family? We have a deep need to connect with others. We need to love and be loved in return. In Places of the Heart, Edna desperately wants to preserve her family — a family that comprises of more than just her children. It includes Will, the blind man, and Moses, a black male. This need drives the story to its inevitable conclusion.
4. Esteem and Self-Respect: People desire to be looked up to, respected. But this respect has to be earned through knowledge and hard-knocks. Luke Skywalker earns respect at the end of Star Wars after a series of lessons learnt the hard way.
5. The Need to Know and Understand. We are insatiably curious creatures. We seek to understand how things work, how they fit together. We seek to know what life is, where we came from. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is driven, in part, by such a curiosity, while films such as Back to the Future and The Time Machine show characters perpetually struggling to understand how to travel back and forth in time.
6. The Aesthetic: Once we are secure and confident, we seek to create a sense of order in our lives by connecting to something higher than ourselves. This can be a religious or aesthetic experience, but it often involves the search for epiphany. Films such as Joan of Arc, Amadeus, and Never Cry Wolf, use this more abstract need to drive their stories.
7. Self-Actualisation: Finally, we need to express ourselves — to communicate who we are, to declare our skills and talents to ourselves and the world. Artists and athletes express this need through their desire to finish a work, break a record. The need to excel is strongly displayed in films such as Chariots of Fire and The Turning Point.
Used in combination these needs, instincts and desires form the backbone of many successful stories. They create empathy in readers and audiences, linking their own desires to the dreams, hopes and fears of fictional characters.
Use Maslow’s hierarchy to help you establish the stakes for your story‘s fictional characters to motivates their actions and experiences.
We know that creating engaging and effective characters involves observation, maturity, and imagination on the part of the writer. Well-written characters feel real; they radiate naturalness and spontaneity through their thoughts, emotions, and actions — they resonate with verisimilitude. But there is another layer to character creation that has less to do with serving character, and more to do with character serving the story — character as a function of the story argument.
In The Writer’s Journey, Chrisopher Vogler, who built on the work of American mythologist Joseph Campbell, offers a theory of storytelling based on the structure of myth and archetype. Carl G. Jung first used the term, archetype, to refer to the shared ancient patterns that find their way in our dreams and stories. Exploring this further, Vogler argues that myth examines the basic materials of the human psyche through the medium of storytelling. He sees stories as journeys undertaken by the Hero to achieve a goal with physical, spiritual, and emotional dimensions. In this sense, each narrative element has a function to perform — to help create and sustain the story across a myriad of layers. And so too with Character, which draws on the notion of archetype to broaden its universal appeal.
Vogler offers eight character types, or archetypes, that, collectively, fulfill the story argument: Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shape Shifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster. Although these names may sound somewhat arcane, we’ve met them before under different appellations — Hero/Protagonist, Ally/Sidekick, Shadow/Antagonist. Each of these characters acts according to his or her type, presenting one side of the argument while propelling the story forward towards its ultimate conclusion. In this post we look at some of the main characteristics of two archetypes: Hero and Mentor.
One of the earliest renditions of the Hero was Perseus — the monster slayer — who encapsulated the Greek ideal of heroism. At a psychological level, the Hero archetype represents the ego’s search for completion and identity. As a dramatic device, however, the Hero offers the reader or audience a specific perspective, someone to identify with, drawing us deeper into the story. Typically, Heroes grow and learn rough hardships encountered in pursuit of the goal (although some Heroes may remain static, causing others to change around them, instead). They are doers — they initiate and sustain action. Often, Heroes are asked to sacrifice loved ones and/or themselves in pursuit of the goal. Additionally, Heroes are often flawed and may be willing or unwilling pursuers of the goal. Although Heroes may be leaders, captaining armies or groups into battle, they may also be loners, attempting to solve the world’s problems on their own.
A Mentor is closely allied to the Hero, training and guiding him or her during the pursuit of the goal. Vogler reminds us that psychologically, Mentors represent the higher Self — the wiser, nobler, more god-like aspect of us. The dramatic function of the Mentor is to teach and train the Hero, preparing him for the challenges ahead. This is often a two-way process, with the Mentor learning from the Hero as much as the Hero learns from the Mentor. Mentors typically provide the Hero with gifts, be it weapons, medicine, or food, again, intended to aid in the attainment of the goal. Gifts, however, should be earned, either through self-sacrifice, or commitment. Like Heroes, Mentors may be willing or unwilling participants in the task. Occasionally, a flawed Mentor may instruct through counter example — by showing the Hero the dangers of taking a wrong path though enacting it in his own life. Sometimes, a Mentor can mislead the Hero, typically in Thrillers such as Goodfellas or The Public Enemy, which invert heroic values in the telling the tale. Finally, a Mentor, who may either show up early in the story, or towards the end, when he is most needed, provides the Hero with inspiration, guidance, and motivation, granting her gifts to aid her in the task at hand.
Archetypes are shared character types, found in myths and dreams, that reoccur across all cultures. Archetypes form the universal language of storytelling, and, as such, are an indispensable part of a writer’s craft.
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