Tag Archives: the hero’s journey

#amwriting: the third quarter of the novel and the character arc

Lately, I’ve had many discussions on the hero’s journey and how we structure a story that follows that most traditional of story arcs.

Usually, the first half of the book is easy for me to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first, very rough draft, I begin to struggle.

The rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. Once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.

The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why.  We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions so they are organic and true. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc:  the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. From there we are barreling toward the final showdown that begins the final scenes, and from there we are racing toward the conclusion. The third quarter of the story is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.

In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state. They must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown.

And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

As I said, for me this part of the rough draft is often difficult to write because often in the first attempt to just write the story down, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed. But if you are following the hero’s journey, by the end of this section, your main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Their world has been shaken to the foundations, and they no longer have faith in themselves or the people they once looked up to.

  • How is he/she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her/his own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes him pull himself together and just keep on going?
  • How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which he is taken down to his component parts emotionally, and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.

By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.

Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the rewrite, the story always evolves into a greater, more polished version of the original.

Taking the rough draft and rewriting it is absolutely the most important thing you can do.  It is when you are deep into the second draft that you realize some plot twists don’t work as you devised them, and they must be reworked. Also, you begin to find and smooth out grammatical errors and awkward prose.

I write my work in four drafts. The first, rough draft rarely is seen by other eyes than mine. It is me thinking out loud through my keyboard and is not ready to be seen by anyone else but me, so if I ask you to look at a section and tell me if I have gone off the rails or not, feel honored! Few are ever offered that privilege.

The second draft is what goes to my beta readers.

The third draft is what emerges after the first readers’ comments have been taken into consideration.

The fourth draft is what goes to my editor.

While your story will have serious issues in the rough draft stage, at least by time you are finished with it you will know your characters. They and their motives will be clear, offering up the ideas you will need to shape the second draft of your manuscript, making it into the believable story of a real person’s journey through life-changing events.


Image: the Hero’s Journey, by scan from an unknown publication by an anonymous poster, in a thread, gave permission to use it. Re-drawn by User:Slashme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Filed under writing

#amwriting: the point of no return

Epic Fails memeIn life we often find ourselves boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things we could have avoided if only we had paid attention and not ignored the metaphoric “turn back now” signs.

Imagine a road trip where you are sent off on a detour in a city you’re unfamiliar with. Imagine what would happen if some of the signs were missing, detour signs telling you the correct way to go, and also a one-way street warning sign.

At some point before you realized the signs had been removed, there was a place you could have turned back. Unaware of the danger, you passed that stopping point by and turned left when you should have turned right, and found yourself driving into oncoming traffic on a one-way street.

That safe place where you could have turned around before you entered the danger zone was the point of no return for your adventure. Fortunately, in our hypothetical road-trip no one was harmed, although you were honked at and verbally abused by the people who were endangered by your wrong turn. You made it safely out danger, but you’ll never take a detour again without fearing the worst.

In literature what is the point of no return? Scott Driscoll, on his blog, says, “This event or act represents the point of maximum risk and exposure for the main character (and precedes the crisis moment and climax).”

Epic fantasy, which is what the novels in my Tower of Bones series are, generally features a plot driven by a chain of events, small points of no return, each one progressively forcing the protagonist and his/her companions to their meeting with destiny. These scenes of action form arcs that rise to the Third Plot Point: the event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death, but which forces the hero/heroine to be greater than they believed they could be.

For me, in a gripping story, the struggle may have been fraught with hardship, but the actual point of no return is the event that forces the ultimate showdown and face-to-face confrontation with the enemy.

What if you aren’t writing epic fantasy? This series of “arcs of action” driving the plot comes into play in every novel to some degree—the protagonists are in danger  of losing everything because they didn’t recognize the warning signs, and they are pushed to the final confrontation whether they are ready for it or not.

During the build-up to the point of no return, you must develop your characters’ strengths.  Identify the protagonist’s goals early on, and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the hero react to being thwarted in his efforts?
  • How does the villain currently control the situation?
  • How does the hero react to pressure from the villain?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the hero and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications (for the hero) arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict, and how will he/she acquire that necessary information?

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgCalamity and struggle create opportunities for your character to grow, so it is your task to litter your protagonist’s path with obstacles that stretch his/her abilities and which are believable. Each time he/she overcomes a hair-raising obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction.

It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: you could be writing romances, thrillers, paranormal fantasy, or contemporary women’s lit—for all fiction, obstacles in the protagonist’s path make for satisfying conclusions. I say this because the books I love to read the most are crafted in such a way that we get to know the characters, see them in their environment, and …uh ohh…. Calamity happens, thrusting the hero down the road to divorce court, or trying to head off a nuclear melt-down. Sometimes our hero finds himself walking to Naglimund, or to the Misty Mountains with nothing but the clothes on his back.

Calamity is the fertile ground from which adventure springs, and most calamities are preceded by a point of no return. Identify this plot point, and make it subtly clear to the reader, even if only in hindsight.


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#amwriting: Morality and Conscience

Severus_Snape memeSeveral years ago, I posted on a writer’s responsibility in regard to portraying morality in his/her work. I think some of those ideas are worth rehashing.

Much of what I discussed back then still stands: When we write a tale that involves human beings, it is likely morality will enter into it at some point.

What is our responsibility as authors, when it comes to telling our tales?  Do we sugar-coat it and pretend our heroes have no flaws, or do we portray them, warts and all?

For myself, I gravitate to tales written with guts and substance. Works like L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s Scion of Cyador, where the hero is a man who struggles with ambition and the desire to have it all. He is a dutiful son, devoted lover, and loyal soldier, gifted with great ability that he must keep secret. He is also a cold-blooded murderer with an unspoken agenda, a man completely devoted to salvaging what he perceives as all that is good and beautiful in his world regardless of the cost. What (or who) does Lorn have to sacrifice in the end to achieve his ambition? And what toll does it take on him in the end?

I said this in my post three years ago, and I still say it: give me the Flawed Hero over the Bland Prince any day.

HTB Stamp copyIn my book,  Huw, The Bard, I describe a murder, committed in cold blood.  I take you from what is the worst moment in Huw’s life, and follow him as he journeys to a place and an act which, if you had asked him two months prior, he would have sworn he was not capable of committing. This terrible deed is not the lowest point in his tale.  It is, however, the beginning of his journey into manhood.

Does my writing the story of this reprehensible act mean I personally advocate revenge murders?  Absolutely not.  But I have lived for 62 years, and my view of morality is that of a person with some experience of life. Personally I believe  no human being has the right to take another’s life, or do harm to anyone for any reason.

Still, I write stories about people who might have existed, and who have their own views of morality. When writing, my characters stories don’t always follow the outline I had in mind for them. They sometimes go in directions I never planned for them to go, which throws my whole story-arc into disarray until I figure out how this new development fits.

In my first completed novel, I never intended for my main character and a companion to fall in love. They did though, and that took the story in a direction that was a surprise to me–and I think was one of my favorite side-plots.

In each story I write, I try to get into the characters’ heads, to understand why they make the sometimes terrible choices that change their lives so profoundly.

Some flawed heroes’ stories end well, and some don’t–those whose ends are less than happily are the tragic heroes.

hamartia definitionPepperdine University’s website says this about the tragic hero:

“Tragic Flaw (Hamartia): the tragic hero must “fall” due to some flaw in his own personality. The most common tragic flaw is hubris (excessive pride). One who tries to attain too much possesses hubris.” 

I believe authors have a responsibility to tell the best story they are able to tell, even if they are only writing for their own consumption.

This means sometimes I stretch the bounds of accepted morality, and make every effort to do it, not for the shock value, but because the story demands it.

I write stories for entertainment, yes. But more than that, I want the tale to remain with the reader after they have finished it. If I am somehow able to tap into the emotions of the moment, and bring the reader into the story, I have achieved my goal.

GRRM MemeMy life is a constant journey to the land of knowledge. I seek understanding, and sometimes I think I have a grasp on it…but not quite. More lessons await.

I am learning the skills of story-telling.  More than anything I want my work to  stand up and measure well beside the works of my literary heroes such as Tad Williams, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and George Saunders, great authors who describe terrible moments and conflicts of morality with such grace and understanding.

This may happen, or it may not, but I won’t stop trying because with every tale I write, I grow as a writer.

I read the words penned by those who have attained mastery of this skill, I am awed, and fired with the knowledge it can be done.


Filed under Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

What are you #writing: Identifying your theme

herowithathousandfacescd2000When 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

  1. a hero going on an adventure,
  2. and who, in a decisive crisis, wins a victory,
  3. 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.

398px-Heroes journey by Christopher Vogler

The diagram is loosely based on Campbell (1949) and (more directly?) on Christopher Vogler, “A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (seven-page-memo 1985). Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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.


Filed under Books, Uncategorized, writing