In 1949, mythologist Joseph Campbell published his influential book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he argued that there existed a “monomyth” that described the similarities between myths that cut across time and space. Heroic epics come down to a few basic details that more or less happen in order.
Campbell’s book became popular among modern writers interested in creating their own mythologized epics. Among the more noteworthy examples is George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars franchise. He expresses his ideas in this interview, talking about the commonalities of human belief and values.
Writing an epic (or maybe just a heroic story), you can use these ages-old benchmarks of storytelling. Someone is called to adventure, must prove that he or she is determined to carry out the quest (usually through personal loss or facing down temptation), then accepts training or guidance under a mentor. And then the real trials begin, leading up to the lowest point where figuratively (and sometimes literally) the protagonist (or hero) finds herself in the Underworld, the lowest point. Things have gotten progressively worse.
Then a revelation happens which propels her to come to some transformation. Without changing in some critical way, she cannot hope to fulfill her quest. And then in what I call the “showdown” moment, the climax of the story, the hero confronts the antagonist and then returns home again with the knowledge and/or power that she has gained from her journey.
The Monomyth works well, but it is possible to follow it too closely as Campbell and others have laid it out. A story can get interesting if the hero, the protagonist, fails to achieve her quest or worse yet turns “to the Dark Side” (to borrow from Star Wars). Like I talked about a few days ago, giving your characters too much power or at least tempting them with it can cause a meltdown–or establish for readers that when you hold them over the volcano’s edge you establish for the reader (and yourself) who they truly are, what they’re made of. Darth Vader was a failed hero in this regard–he gave into temptation, not for terribly bad reasons, mind you, but he gave up a lot of who he was to fulfill his personal goals of saving his beloved Padmé.
Frank Herbert treats the idea of the hero carefully in his Dune series. Paul Atreides does become the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach, the messiah who can engage memories from both his male and female ancestors and the result of countless generations of selective breeding. He fulfills the prophesy then does what he wants to with his superhuman abilities. Then in the resulting political struggles–he leaves tens of billions of people dead in his wake–he loses his eyesight in combat and leaves his son Leto to fulfill what he set out to do–to save humanity from itself. Leto takes the power and can handle it then becomes a monster, quite literally. His Golden Path comes down to destroying human civilization in order to save it.
I’m currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. His world is similar in some ways to Herbert’s, a harsh environment that comes to be ruled over by a man who must make difficult decisions to save humanity. The Lord Ruler altered the course of human history on Scadrial dramatically and established like Paul Atreides a harsh dictatorial regime to carry out his plans for humanity’s future. Sanderson decided to start the story at the end of the Lord Ruler’s thousand-year reign, with a revolution perpetuated by specially gifted individuals, organized crime, and peasant rebels, none of whom really understand what is going on behind the scenes. Much like rebels in the Star Wars and Dune universes, they know that something went terribly wrong, but they don’t have a clear motivation besides rebelling against the status quo: there’s no clear plan plotted out. Like Darth Vader, the Lord Ruler keeps everything together with an iron fist, fearing what might happen to the people he governs if he ever loses control.
You could throw President Snow from The Hunger Games into the same category. We know even less of his backstory, other than snippets here and there, compared to Darth Vader or the Lord Ruler. But he presents himself as holding back the flood of anarchy, that the decisions he makes are for the greater good.
From these examples, and Campbell’s Monomyth to begin with, there’s a certain cycle that a story with an epic scale takes. The unknown hero goes on a quest and comes back irrevocably changed. At every stage along the way, you can twist the story, adding in further complications, false messiahs (maybe the protagonist isn’t really the hero of prophesy?), lots of pitfalls.
Then once she gets her hands on the power, does she release it for the good of all or just put herself on the throne, preserving the status quo? Sanderson in particular deals with this last question in delicious detail. But I won’t spoil it for you. If you’re interested in what you can do with the Monomyth, how to play it straight or twist it round and round, dig into the Mistborn and Dune series. And binge watching the original Star Wars trilogy may not be such a bad idea either. Happy reading, and happy writing.