When I read a book, I connect to the sense of wonder that each event or plot twist in a story evokes for the protagonists. I am extremely partial to those books in in which the protagonist faces his/her own demons and finds a hero within themselves, a person who faces the unknown and finds the courage to do what he/she believes is morally right.
Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s LOTR series. He clearly knew that personal growth and the many forms that heroism can take are central themes of his stories, and while there are many side-quests taking the different characters away from the physical journey of the One Ring, Tolkien never strayed from the concept of the hero’s journey.
What is the “hero’s journey”? The concept of the heroic journey was first introduced by the American mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949). In this ground-breaking work, he discusses the monomyth, or the hero’s journey. He describes how this motif is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve
- a hero going on an adventure,
- and who, in a decisive crisis, wins a victory,
- and who then returns to his home changed or transformed.
Take Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit: When Bilbo Baggins faces the giant spiders he also faces his own cowardice, and he is filled with amazement that he could do such a thing. This is the first step in his realization that he has courage apart from the invisibility conferred on him by the ring he found earlier. He has courage, and yes, he is afraid, but he is not afraid to be courageous. This is a core concept of this book, and of the entire Lord of the Rings series, set in Middle Earth.
In my own work, personal growth and the hero’s journey are often the central themes. This is because those are the stories that intrigued me most as a young reader, and they intrigue me now as an adult.
What is the central theme of your work? Here are a few themes commonly found in popular genre fiction, besides the Hero’s Journey:
Every one of these themes will force the protagonist to grow and change in some way. Every one of them will challenge his ideas of morality and push him to act in ways that force him to evolve. That kind of growth is what makes characters intriguing and memorable.
When we are constantly prodded to make our work focus on action instead of introspection, it becomes easy to wander way off track. Ask yourself if the action has been inserted for the sake of the shock value, or if this scene is necessary to force change and growth on the protagonist. How will her fundamental ethics and ideals be challenged by this event? If there is no personal cost, there is no need for that scene.
Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time.
You never know when you will need those ideas, so never just throw them away–always keep the things you cut in a separate file. Remember, just because that idea doesn’t work for this book, doesn’t mean it won’t work in another book.
I label that file “outtakes,” and believe me, it has come in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.
Keeping in mind the underlying theme of your story while you are laying down the first draft is important. If your inspiration seems to faint somewhere along the middle, it may be that you have lost track of what you originally imagined your story was about and your characters no longer know what they are fighting for. Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it the death of hope?
Sometimes we are so busy setting traps and roadblocks for our protagonist and his nemesis that the action takes over and becomes the theme. The action is there to force the character to grow, not simply for the sake of action. When we are deep in the creative process, it’s easy to forget that characters must evolve.
Remember, there was a fundamental theme in your mind when you first imagined you had a story to write, and once you identify that core concept, you may find you are no longer stuck.