@#$% Joseph Campbell

Right, culmination.

Who likes Joss Whedon stuff?  Raise your hand.  (Sorry, I just got back from PPWC, and I’m still in audience participation mode.)

Who likes…The Hero’s Journey?  Joseph Campbell et al?

My idea:  Joss Whedon is not writing straightforward Joseph Campbellian stories.  Also:  I am sick to @#$%^& death of straightforward Campbellian stories.

My history:  I have never really grokked Campbell.  I have gone to the classes and read the books (including the ones that are meant to reframe the journey from a more feminine perspective), I have done the outlines.  The closest I can get is Save the Cat, and even then I had to strip the more accepted outline down to a few points (opening, fun & games, reversal, bad guys close in [including moment of death], storm the castle).  So, yes, I know me some Campbell.  But I can’t write like that.  No worky.  I tend to go more with the seven-point plot outline, because then I don’t have to actually plot unless I feel like it or I hit a flabby spot somewhere.  Also, I tend to write to my strengths (ideas! all the ideas!) and seven-point makes me think in terms of character.  It shores up my personal weaknesses.  Okay?  Okay.

Recent events: I started picking apart Shadowmarch by Tad Williams.  (No, I won’t shut up about that book anytime soon.) Taking a look at the series, you have to stretch awfully damn far to get to the point where you could say that it follows a Campbellian story arc.  Then I started thinking in terms of how stories are built around different arrangements of characters and realized that Joss Whedon’s specialty is the Scooby Gang.  Then I went to PPWC and had a squee moment of listening to Chuck Wendig, Patrick Hester, Jim Hines, and @#$% I don’t know who else, possibly me, and they were bitching about Campbell, too.  I felt vindicated, after years of listening to people tell me to just open a little wider and suppress my gag reflex a little more, to try to choke down some Campbell, because if you don’t know Campbell, the implication goes, you don’t know story.  At the PPW member’s night on Monday, someone was talking about her novel and asking how to write the synopsis if there is no main character.  And we graciously told her how stupid she was for not knowing that really she did have a main character, she must, because all stories have a main character.  Which I now feel kind of weird about.

Finally, the cast list for the new Star Wars came out.  And there were two chicks and one black guy sitting in the center circle, and Stephen York put up a couple of really telling posts about his problems with the Star Wars universe.  (First post, second post.)

And by the time I got done with his second post, it hit me:  there are no women with agency (Leia gets rescued…not once but twice), no people of color with agency (Lando?  Bends over and takes it up the Darth), not even any alien races with agency.  Not even droids with agency.  Not because Lucas is racist or sexist (no idea, suspect probably not), but because that’s the natural story format of a Hero’s Journey:  there’s one hero, who fits the sociopolitical norms, who, because he fits the sociopolitical norms, is able to both change himself and change society.  You could even say that the natural age range of a Campbellian story is 18-24, the coming-of-age age.  In order to tell a proper Campbellian story, you need to be a) racist, b) sexist, c) agist, and d) biased against more than one single person on the “good guys” side having true agency in the story.*  Mano e mano.  In the end, even Han Solo is just there as an alternate Luke ego, because nobody would believe Luke could be everywhere at the same time.  Really, if it could be done, all Campbellian stories would be about one single character who played every single role in the story, from spear-chucker to Darth Vader.  Campbellian stories are about aspects of our character being split out and externalized.  So, really, it shouldn’t be any big surprise that it’s hard to write anyone in a Campbellian story where everyone in the story isn’t, essentially, the same.

Now, Campbellian folks argue all the time that all stories are Campbellian stories.

But isn’t that massively @#$%^& up?

“Hey, there’s only one story, there’s only one pattern that stories follow, and what you should really do is force your story to fit that pattern, even though, ha ha, it’s impossible that you could tell any other story, because there’s only one story, etc., etc.”

If every story were naturally a Hero’s Journey, then we wouldn’t have to try so hard to learn how to tell that story, would we?  And maybe, just maybe, those of us who struggle so hard to tell that story are trying to tell something else and are sick to death of being told that we’re deficient storytellers because we don’t fit that mold.

Now, Imma bring Joss Whedon into it.

Who is, say, the main character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  Good!  Got it in one.  What’s her character arc?  Her major change?  Well, she totally makes this major change (in the series) from being an airheaded valley girl to being savior of the world!  Wait, that was the movie, and it was kind of a ridiculous comedy.  I mean, girl vampire slayer, amirite?

Okay, so Buffy in the series goes from becoming a female badass to being…a female badass.  I mean, she goes from being testy and direct to being…testy and direct.  Wait!  She goes from learning that she has to have a team in order to succeed…to learning that she needs to open up the scope of this whole “team” thing.  Okay, she doesn’t really change.  What happens to Buffy is that she goes from being one person who tries to do it all…to facilitating for a lot of people all working together.  Buffy’s status isn’t guru.  It’s team lead.  Same pay scale, more experience.

Here’s another hint that perhaps Whedon isn’t using the Campbellian structure here:  Giles?  You know, that mentor guy?

Doesn’t die.

And, not only does he not die, he’s shown to be completely wrong more than a few times.  And he ends up flying in the face of his mentors more than a few times, too.

Wait, wait.  There’s more.  The main character of the series has an opposite-sex friend with whom she does not have sex.

Now, Joss Whedon isn’t afraid to play with the Hero’s Journey; see The Cabin in the Woods.  (I have issues with the ending, but okay, see it anyway.)  Main character (female) goes from being weak virgin to (spoiler) aiding and abetting in the end of the world.  

Tell me what the Hero’s Journey is in Firefly.  Tell me the radical change that Mal makes in his character.  Tell me how essential it is that his huge emotional change drives the plot of the story.  You know who has the transformational character arc in Serenity?  The bad guy.  Campbell practically lays down the law that the bad guy is a kind of shadow of the good guy, a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t go through a transformational character arc in a story.  And Whedon just kind of goes, take that, Campbell scholars!

Remember, every story is Campbellian, to someone who likes Campbell.  It’s a monomyth: one-story.  There can be only one.

Thus:  I am done worrying about Joseph Campbell.  I never really felt it.  And, you know what, that whole “mono” part of the “monomyth” is bullshit.  I’m not saying don’t tell a Campbellian story.  Great!  Fine!  Have fun!  Subvert away!

However,  Joss Whedon doesn’t have to use it if he doesn’t feel like it.  So I don’t either.





*Isn’t it possible to have a Hero’s Journey featuring a woman, person of color, non-cisgendered, non-normative character?  Sure.  But the main point of the Hero’s Journey is that the hero comes back with something that both benefits him and his society.  When a woman returns with that elixer, who the hell can she give it to?  Her mom.  Her sister.  She can’t benefit society, only that section of society that isn’t higher up on a ladder than she is, and she can never truly hit the top of that ladder unless it’s a matriarchal society, which doesn’t resonate here an now.  A lot of the time when you see powerful books that have a hero-like journey without the main character being normative, you see either a tragedy (a figurehead on a throne or the main character is actually a very sympathetic villain [cough Mists of Avalon cough]) or the character “sacrificing” themselves for the good of society, which conveniently gets them out of the society’s hair (why do the minority characters like Dobby always have to die/fade out/get disenfranchised towards the end? Because they disrupt the monomyths of society, duh).  Nothing really changes in the so-called “feminine” hero’s journey.  And if it did, it would only create a society that reflected that main character: their gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.  I suspect that for people who can only imagine one story framework, it becomes of vital importance to defend their primary place in the monomyth, because if someone else wins, they must, of necessity, make everyone else lose status.  That’s monomyth for you.  The Scooby Gang seems to be a better framework for plurality.  Or triads of ego/id/superego.  Or soap operas.  Or buddy stories.  Or even non-Campbellian heroes, like freaking Conan.  Tell me that Beowulf is a Campbellian story, all about how B. has to learn a major life lesson in order to defeat his foe.  Just tell me how Campbellian structure is a one size fits all…

2 thoughts on “@#$% Joseph Campbell”

  1. Michael Lambert

    It’s not. And the stories that are aren’t “Campbellian.” They’re stories that follow an archetypal pattern. Campbell didn’t invent this. He outlined it. Some stories follow it pretty closely. Others don’t. Some contain elements of the hero quest, but not the all of them. It’s a lens through which stories can be analyzed. It’s a lens through which your life can be analyzed.

    Beowulf is not a classic hero quest, but elements of the quest are certainly there.

    I think writers should not use the hero quest as a template. Just let a story tell itself.

    Besides, the hero quest isn’t a story template. It’s a psychological/spiritual model for going through the stages of life. Check this out:


    1. Wait…an archetypal pattern, or the archetypal pattern? What I’m arguing against is the assumption that Campbell was any different, as far as story building goes, than Plotto or the seven-point plot outline or Save the Cat or TV tropes or any other system for coming up with stories. That link? I’VE READ IT. Campbell’s plots are no better, no fundamentally more true or meaningful, than any other plot outline, and saying that Campbell is “a lens through which your life can be analyzed” is not really any different than saying any story is that lens. Campbell created a Campbellian system of plots. He no more identified the One True Myth than any other student of stories, because there isn’t one. People’s lives don’t take the same shape, and saying it does forces biases that stories belong to solitary normative characters. Campbell forces assumptions about things like thinking that women are evil and they need to be beaten until they cry uncle and become innocent maidens and get rescued again. They are the lady and the dragon, according to him. Didn’t you read that link?

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