Sunday, July 21, 2013

More on the Monomyth

This is in response to the bit Lynn posted a month ago, with the puppets discussing Joseph Campbell.

If you want to write these days, especially genre fiction, then you've definitely heard of Campbell and the monomyth. I first heard of him freshman year in high school, when my English teacher had us analyze Star Wars. (I really liked that English teacher.) Even then, though, part of me rebelled against the idea of Campbell's monomyth as a formula for writing. Here's some thoughts on why.

First, let's go back to the video. It's a pretty good summation of some of Campbell's character archetypes. But there is, of course, more to the monomyth than that. The archetypes are really a sideshow compared to Campbell's plot formulation. Wiki has a good distillation of it here, so I won't go into specifics. And anyway, the video isn't really about Campbell's monomyth. It's about Hollywood's application of it.

So let's talk about Hollywood a bit. They've been applying Campbell to storytelling since George Lucas became richer than God. I have my doubts, though, about Lucas's claims to have consciously applied Campbell during the making of Star Wars. This has more to do with my concept of Lucas than my concept of the monomyth, though, so we'll move on from that. The story goes that the monomyth really got started in Hollywood when a producer condensed it into a memo and passed it around the studio as a guideline for writing. There are a lot of things about that sentence I find troubling from a creative perspective. Mainly "producer" and "memo". But mostly I'm concerned with the front-end aspect of the approach.

Hollywood has a tendency to think on very simplistic, very linear terms. I suppose it's an advantage when you're working in a multi-billion dollar industry, where each picture has thousands of people working on it and very fixed budget and time constraints. But it's also led to a conception of the monomyth as a recipe. Add one cup farmboy hero, mix with one cup villain and one tablespoon girl-as-reward, spice with wacky sidekick, and bake. Like the three-act structure, uncreative minds have made the monomyth less of an analytical framework and more of an orthodoxy, a cage where stories go to die. (TVTropes often makes the same mistake, taking a Mad Libs/Tangrams approach to storytelling that assumes that if you've got your tropes assembled in the right order, then you're all done except for the bit with all the words.)

"One-size-fits-all" doesn't really work when it comes to art. Hell, it didn't really work that way for Campbell; a full study of his conception of the monomyth allows for a large variation in how the elements are arranged, or if they're even there at all. And many great stories simply don't fit. After all, Campbell was writing specifically about the heroic legends of antiquity, and some stories don't follow that at all. Jane Austen is a nice go-to, since the monomyth is by its nature male-centric, and falls apart when you try to apply it to many stories that have been written by and/or about women. And then there's the modernists; the framework doesn't show up much in Faulker, Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck, and when it does, it's often torn to shreds. Ditto Hemingway, now that I think about it. Umberto Eco does something similar in The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, although those books are really about their own things, and Eco demolishing the monomyth is kind of collateral damage. And then there's works that have more of an ensemble cast; can't have a Hero's Journey without a Hero, after all.

None of which is to say the monomyth is useless, just that it's not a "how-to" guide. Campbell was writing from an analytical perspective, exploring what myth and legend say about society and the human psyche. (So was Jung, whose work often gets mishmashed with Campbell's into sort of a megamonomyth. Which sounds like something the Power Rangers should be fighting.) So the monomyth is best used as an analytical tool, not to create characters or settings or plots, but to examine them as you do the writing. Maybe you're blocked on the next plot development, and picking one of the steps of the Journey will get things moving again. Or maybe a character is showing some characteristics of the Trickster archetype (which is a hell of a lot more than just a wacky sidekick, dammit); what does that suggest about his place in the narrative, and how can you play that up on the second draft? Thinking about your story is always a good thing, and the monomyth is as good a springboard for thought as anything else.

None of this, of course, goes into what really gives a story its flavor, and separates the great and beloved stories from the hackjobs and the flops. Stuff like theme and style are where you make your story your own. Because, after all, you're not telling the Hero's Journey, you're telling your hero's journey.

As a postscript: The reason Adam Sandler's movies don't do as well anymore isn't because he abandoned the monomyth. It's because his man-child schtick gets less and less endearing the older he gets. A man in his twenties acting like the standard Adam Sandler character is cute. A man in his forties acting like that is depressing. Once Sandler gets to his sixties, we might just have to kill him.

1 comment:

Mark Brown said...

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