In last week’s post, I began a multi-part series on how to start a Hero’s Journey story. Our goal is to include these elements in the opening scene:
- Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
- Raise questions that the reader wants answered
- Provide a goal for the protagonist
- Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
- Set the physical scene with only essential details
- Begin building a bridge to the back story
- Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
- Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure
To illustrate each element, I provided an example from my book Reapers (See previous post), and we are now on #3.
3. Provide a goal for the protagonist: “Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul.”
Exploring the protagonist’s ordinary world is always more interesting if the character has something important to do, in this case, to find who was going to die. He might accomplish this goal early in the story, or he might fail, and then we will replace that goal with a bigger one (a method that I will explain in detail in a future post).
Readers enjoy following a character through a series of actions when they understand the protagonist’s goal. They cheer the character toward that end. They feel the tension when danger approaches. They understand what is at stake. They sense the pain of loss if the character fails.
Without a known goal, the action feels like aimless wandering, and any character traits we are trying to develop or back story elements we are trying to explore result in a tedious experience for the reader. In a word, the opening is boring.
4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws:
“Reapers like me always stayed on call.” From this we see that the protagonist is dedicated.
“She was a ghost, probably level two, far too opaque to be newly dead and glowing too much to have wandered for more than a couple of weeks.” This tells the reader that the protagonist is skilled and experienced.
“I had to use all my senses to figure out who was about to die.” He is passionate about completing his goal. He likely has empathy for the dying person.
“I rose from my moth-eaten reading chair, blew out the hanging lantern’s flame, and stalked across my one-room apartment to the window, guided by light from outside.” The protagonist noticing the bad condition of his chair indicates that he is not satisfied with his environment. The verb “stalked” (and later “shoved”) indicates possible anger. Although he is dedicated, he probably doesn’t like his job, which can be interpreted as a flaw. In this story, his other shortcomings are revealed as the opening continues.
For the Hero’s Journey structure to work, the protagonist needs to be a character that readers want to cheer for. He or she has to be likable because of one or more admirable qualities. It is also important to show at least one weakness in the protagonist so readers can watch him grow as the suffering that results from the journey polishes the rough spots.
I think it’s important that these flaws be deficiencies in maturity, wisdom, experience, or skill rather than moral flaws. In the Hero’s Journey, if the protagonist is immoral, it is more difficult for readers to believe that he would be willing to endure the sacrificial suffering that is typical of such journeys, since immoral people usually lack selfless motivations and are guided by self-pleasing drives rather than altruistic ideals. Of course, this is my opinion rather than a writing rule, so take it for what it’s worth.
That’s enough for part two. Next Monday in part three, I will continue with element #5.
If you have any questions or comments, please post them.
Categories: Writing Tips