I am very pleased to introduce my friend, and co-collaborater on the Moonlight is Third anthology, Charlotte Bond – author, podcaster and fellow geek. Charlotte is the one who first drew my attention to Chris Winkle’s article on the heroine’s journey, which I talked about last week, so I asked her back to share her views on the subject.
There are lots of books and articles out there about how to plot and write a good novel. They’re always worth reading because, even if you don’t subscribe to the same method as that particular author, it’s always interesting to see how other people work. In this vein, I was directed to an article entitled “Using the Heroine’s Journey”. Being a co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper (a podcast dedicated to discussing women in genre), I thought it was an interesting article for friends and fans to read so I re-posted it on my own Facebook page. I got a generally consistent response from my writer friends along the lines of: “Yeah, it’s okay, but I don’t agree.”
So what’s this theory or, more precisely, “mythic structure”, all about? What was good about it, and where did it fall down? Let’s start with a summary.
There is a plot device out there known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’. A description of it can be found here. Basically, it is a template for a storyline which is found in novels, myths and poetry everywhere. It follows a single male protagonist as he goes out to conquer the world. It’s a pretty good, solid structure and, if you’re looking to write your first novel, then considering this plot outline a good place to start.
However, it was put forward in a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell published in 1949. I think it’s fair to say that writing and attitudes have moved on a fair way since then. In fact, Maureen Murdock felt so strongly that this was the case that she decided to come up with a corresponding mythic structure entitled ‘The Heroine’s Journey’. The article by http://www.mythcreants.com examines this mythic structure and gives some fairly helpful working examples along the way.
The biggest positive of this particular mythic structure is the emphasis it puts on conflict. I attended a romance writing course and the plot structure we were given was pretty much the same as the hero’s journey, with the added emphasis that there must be conflict not only to drive the plot forward but to make the characters interesting to read. The fun of a romance novel is seeing two people at odds in character and personality gradually overcoming their differences to realise that they’re perfect for each other. Pride and Prejudice is a prime and well-known example of this. I’ve beta-read plenty of first draft stories (including my own!) where an absence of conflict has made it a general, lack-lustre affair. Adding or increasing this element can improve a weak story no end.
However, the mythic structure of the heroine’s journey places far more emphasis on internal conflict rather than external conflict. In the hero’s journey, the protagonist is basically influenced by outside events which convince him to go a quest to find something in particular; in the heroine’s journey, the focus is on more of an internal journey, leading her on a quest for identity rather than a magical object. The hero might be battling the physical forces of good and evil, but the heroine is battling the duality of her own self as well the contradictions present within those around her. So, like the article says, the heroine’s journey is a good template for a story which focuses on a character’s quest to find herself (or himself as the case may be).
Where does this structure fall down? For me, and for my friends it would seem, the huge downside was the general assumption that one journey is feminine and the other is masculine. Why can’t women go on a quest to find a magic sword while men go on a quest to find themselves? Admittedly, it says right at the very beginning of the article:
I will refer to the central character as the heroine… [h]owever, it applies to male characters just as well…
But that doesn’t really help much. After all, if it can be applied to men as well, why is it specifically referred to as ‘the heroine’s’ journey?
The risk with using a template like this to plot your story is that all your women will be the same, as will your men. You won’t be pushing the boundaries. For example, the story given in the article is one that I’d certainly like to pick up and read – but how different and equally fascinating would it be if the protagonist was male? Or, since we are a modern age, if it was a homosexual character? Such characters are great choices for examining duality, internal conflicts and themes of prejudice. Yes, the article says it is a structure that could be used for a man – but from the very title, even before we get to the detail of it, we’re already encouraged to think of it as a female’s journey. That’s not helpful.
You might assume from that the heroine’s journey would be empowering, but weirdly the first thing the protagonist does within this mythic structure is ‘reject’ her feminine side. Admittedly at the end she incorporates the masculine side into herself to become a better, more rounded person, but that’s just the end, which means that she spends pretty much all of the story trying to get away from her feminine side before she realises how useful it is. This can be an engaging story in some circumstances, but it shouldn’t be seen as the defining heroine’s story.
In summary, it’s the title of this mythic structure that is all wrong. ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ is as misnamed as the original ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Both of them are useful plotting tools, but in this modern age, no writer should come to a story with preconceived notions about how characters should act based on gender. If you’re going to use either of these structures, then try thinking of them as the ‘external quest’ structure and the ‘internal quest’ structure; decide what it is your character is looking for and then plot accordingly, with their gender being a mere side detail.
You can find out more about Charlotte and her work at her website.