I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while now, having first drafted it when I was listening to the audiobook of The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger (affiliate link) back in the summer on Audible (affiliate link). I’m not really sure why I’ve held on to it for so long, other than I wasn’t quite clear on what I wanted to say. But a few weeks before the holiday season begins feels like an appropriate time to put this put there, so I’ve tried to pull those thoughts together a bit more coherently.
Anyone who has tried to write long form fiction will have heard about The Hero’s Journey, which was described by Joseph Cambell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (affiliate link), which is a kind of narrative template that forms the backbone of many, many books and films and describes the archetypal ‘journey’ which will take a hero from the start, to the end of the story.
I had come across this template when I was completing my PhD in the psychology of stories and how they influence us, and found it an interesting and useful tool in helping to shape a story in progress. However, over time I have become increasingly troubled. I’m not going to go into the specifics of the template, as this has been done many, many times before, but the main point of the journey is that while a hero may pick up many comrades along the way, to eventually save the day he must face the major challenges alone. When he returns home, he is so deeply changed by his journey that he may not be able to find his place there again.
My main beef with this, apart from being such a poor representation of so many of the real life major human triumphs, is that is sends such a troubling message. The kind of individualism glorified by the Hero’s Journey implies that anyone who needs help, who can’t defeat their deamons on their own, is essentially weak. I’m thinking specifically through a mental health lense when I say this (I have worked in mental health research for almost ten years). This is not the first time that I have said that we need better stories about mental health, and I really think that the focus on doing it alone, or failing alone, is part of the problem here. But my thinking hasn’t got very far on how we do that. As we all know, it is easy to point out a problem, but not nearly as easy to point to a solution.
Luckily for me, Gail Carriger has written a really great book about the alternative narrative framework, The Heroine’s Journey. If you have not read it, and you are interested in telling stories that offer an alternative to the ‘going it alone’ narrative, I strongly suggest that you read (or listen to) this book.
I’m not going to do a thorough summary this complex and rich book here, as that wasn’t my intention when I wrote this post. The headline is that Carriger carefully unpicks the Hero’s Journey, and explains exactly how the Heroine’s Journey is different. The main point that I am attracted to, both for my own work and for the more general message it sends, is that strength comes from building and working with a community of like minded people. The heroine will collect together a group of trusted co-travellers, seek collaboration, compromise and peace rather than revenge, and will prioritise protecting the people she loves over the glory of a victory. Through this process the heroine will get to know each one of her co-travellers, undertand their talents, and when the time comes, give them their moment to shine.
As Carriger states, to the heroine, ‘Asking for help is not seen as a weakness, it is the very definition of her strength,’ (I’m really sorry, I don’t know the page number for this) which for me is an essentially positive message with particular relevance to mental health.
In these difficult, and isolating times, we need to move past narratives that further promote the kind of individualism that can be toxic to mental health and look to something that helps us reclaim the value that can be found in connection and in community.
The Heroine’s Journey is the narrative template we all need right now.
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