Thursday, 19 June 2014

Book Review - Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand faces

There’s a number of books on the subject of writing, many of them are written by people who haven’t themselves written books (on any subject other than how to write books), and from these authors I pay the same attention that I would to a person who tells me how to play a game that they themselves haven’t played.

And that was why I found this book so interesting, in this book, you’re not being told how to write, you’re not being told sit down every day and stay there till 2000 words appear on the page, you’re not being told that you must be driven by divine spark (or drink, whichever is closer) to make your masterpiece. 

You’re even being told to write...

Joseph Campbell believed in the Monomyth, the idea that all stories follow a common set of principles, that certain elements are present at all times, and that those particular elements are what we respond to when we hear stories.  I’ve read of it in other books, in books that were written by other people who had studied Campbell, and in those books, I found a lot of people saying how clever they were and how well they’d advised people on the principles of Campbell, and their particular take on his words but never the truth of what he’d actually said.

So recently I picked up the book itself, and the basic structure of it is similar to what I’ve read before, but the reasons for it were clearer. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the monomyth, it consists of several different steps, and I won’t list them in the way that Campbell does because while there’s a bunch of things written out there for free (Wikipedia is your friend it seems), on the subject of the monomyth and how stories work, it’s not the same as reading about it from a man who truly believed in what he was writing.

The monomyth starts with the ordinary world, because even if the story is about an established fighter, a legend in their own lifetime, they have to have a world that they normally live in.  There’s the call to arms, wherein the challenge is laid. The refusal of the call, because the hero has their life and wants to live it. The second call, and then on to adventure, gathering of the friends and helpers who will be with the hero on their journey, then the trials, leading to the darkest hour, and from there the discovery of what will make things right, the return to their world, and the new satisfying life that they have following the adventures.

The difference between this and the other books that have tried to explain it or make money from it, is that it’s clear from the writing in this book that he’s not trying to make money from it, this is what he studied, this is what he believed in, and the book is so much more powerful as a result of it.  I’ve read something similar in The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler, but the examples in that were mostly the ones where Vogler pointed out how clever he’d been in advising others how to use the monomyth and how he’d influenced the course of modern Hollywood as a result.

I liked that the examples given were all annotated at the end, that it’s possible to corroborate anything that he’s written, he’s not just giving examples of where he thinks something is the case, he’s giving examples of where it is the case.  I have to admit that one of my more recent stories was flagging slightly, I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong or where I was going with it, and that was the reason why I picked up the book, I wasn’t happy consigning 30k words to the bin without knowing what I did wrong with it.

Interestingly enough, I’d missed out the first few steps, so on rewrite (which I can’t do yet because I’m putting it out in instalments every day), those steps will be added in and it’ll be a much easier read as a result.  However, what the book did give me is the insight of where I need to start and where I need to finish, something that very few other books actually made the point of.

In all, whatever story you’re writing, whether it’s something for yourself, mass market fiction, or even a scenario for a game or timeline, it’s worth taking note of Campbells theories and applying them to your own work, to see if what you’re doing (even subconsciously) is what everyone else throughout time has been doing, or if there’s something that you’re missing somewhere.

Unlike most other books on writing, this didn’t promise me anything...

But it delivered everything...