Writing The Cinematic Novel: The Hero In The Journey
We may not want to admit it, but there IS a formula for writing a best-selling novel. We writers want to think our ideas are special, that the paths our own novels take are unique and one of a kind. That’s only half true, though. Every great story, since the beginning of time, follows a universal story structure. The comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, was the first to document this in his Hero with A Thousand Faces.
In Campbell’s time, mythologists studied the differences in myths and cultures. They studied what made each one unique. Campbell, however, wanted to know the opposite. Why were these tales so special? What made them stick inside the mind of humanity? Why were they being retold generation after generation?
After years of research, Campbell realized that the world of myth, of storytelling, held a pattern. Enter the monomyth, also known as the Hero’s Journey. This is a universal story template. Heroes in myths and tales across the globe all endured a transformation in a series of stages. This pattern, or journey, led these heroes to their end goals and, ultimately, a universal life lesson. In every great tale ever told and every popular novel ever written, this pattern emerges.
Every great writer who has ever lived followed this pattern. Dickens, Austin, Twain, Shelley, Shakespeare. Even more modern authors like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Nora Roberts, John Steinbeck, Kate DiCamillo, Yann Martel, and Ernest Cline. Every single one of these writers follows the underlying pattern of the Hero’s Journey.
As Jessica Brody states in her Save The Cat! Writes A Novel “there’s something buried deep within our DNA as humans that makes us respond to certain storytelling elements told in a certain order. We’ve been responding to them since our primitive ancestors drew on walls and tribes told stories around campfires.”
It All Begins With A Hero
“We are all heroes struggling to accomplish our adventure. As human beings, we engage in a series of struggles to develop as individuals and to find our place in society. Beyond that, we long for wisdom: we want to understand the universe and the significance of our role in it.”
The essential aspect of any great tale begins with the hero himself (or herself…chicks can be heroes too!). This is where we will talk about crafting the perfect cinematic novel. A tale by itself is nothing without its hero. Anyone can have a good story idea but if you don’t also have a main character worthy of having an entire novel written about them, then you won’t have a novel that stands out. So, how do we create a dynamic hero (or heroine) our readers will fall in love with, relate to, and root for?
Make Them Humanly Flawed
Want to know a secret? No one is perfect. Not even your hero. In fact, the more imperfect your hero is, the more relatable he/she will be to your reader. Give them flaws. Be merciless. Riddle their lives with problems and difficulties. Your hero should be such a hot mess it infects every aspect of his/her life.
Why? Because there’s no point in reading a novel about a perfect person. Why would we care about that person? Better yet, why would we care about a story involving that person? We wouldn’t. Readers want a story they can root for, one which reflects something of their own messed up life and turns it into something a little less f***ed up. “Great novels take deeply imperfect characters and make them a little less imperfect.”
Give Them A Goal
So, you’ve got your hero. She’s a hot mess and you’ve riddled her life with hell. Now you need to figure out what your hero thinks will fix her life. Your hero needs to be actively pursuing something to change things. Why? The need to change your crappy life’s circumstances is universal and there isn’t a human on this planet who doesn’t want to succeed in life in some small way. By giving your hero a flawed life they want to change, you’re giving your reader a reason to root for him/her.
Make Them Work For Their Goal
This goal shouldn’t be easy, either. Frodo didn’t just go backpacking around the world to achieve his goal of adventure. No, he found his uncle’s blasted ring and landed himself in a world of trouble fighting against evil itself. Harry Potter didn’t just run away and live his life as a human to get away from his horrible family. He went to wizarding school and fought his own fair share of bad guys. Just like Wade from Ready Player One doesn’t find all those Easter eggs on a game-fueled binge one night. If these heroes had achieved their goals the easy way, there would be no story.
Every goal should have an equal amount of conflict preventing your hero from achieving it. The goals drive the story forward, even if they change throughout it. Alice first wanted to follow the white rabbit. Then she wanted to go home. Frankenstein first wanted to create life, then he wanted to destroy the life he created. Wanting something gives your hero something to do, actions to take, and placing obstacles in their path makes them more realistic.
Give Them What They Need, Even If It’s Not What They Want
No one gets what they want all the time. In fact, several heroes never get what they want. That’s okay though. When this happens, we find out that what a hero wants, what he/she thinks will make their life better is only half of the story. The real journey is in finding out what the hero NEEDS. What we want and what we need to grow and become who we’re meant to be are two very different things. This is the same with heroes.
Your hero may want a new house, a new car, a better job, to solve that murder case, popularity, a deeper relationship with their partner, etc but what they need often goes much deeper than that. Most of the time, your hero will be wrong about what will lead to a better life for them. This is another aspect of the humanity of your hero. It’s universal. We think a quick fix will improve our lives. That surface want-new car, more money, a better relationship-is just a band-aid covering up a deeper, more soul-consuming problem. This is where you have to play the psychologist with your hero.
You as the writer has to figure out what your hero needs and why they need it. Why is your hero so flawed? What made them this way and how can you fix this deep wound of theirs? This is the real stuff of your novel. It makes every great story great. Your hero needs to undergo a transformation on a soul level and that can’t happen without a true need and a life lesson.
Want to know why any reader in any genre picks up a book? For THIS reason. Yes, they want action, romance, suspense, an adventure, a thrill, etc but they really want to read a story that’s about something, something that touches them in a way that’s inherently human. Give them that and you’ve got yourself a perfect story.
Jessica Brody’s Check Yourself List For Great Heroes:
Does your chosen hero change more than any other character in the novel?
Is your hero’s problem or flaw specific?
Does the hero’s problem or flaw create a desperate need for change?
Is your hero’s goal tangible and concrete? (Will we, as readers, realize when or if they achieve it?)
Is there something standing in the way of your hero achieving that goal? (If not, the goal is too easy!)
Is your hero’s need (or life lesson) universal? Would a random person on the street understand it?