THE HEROIC JOURNEY, CHAPTER ONE: SETTING SAIL
By Atlantic Friend
We have seen earlier that a story could be seen as a journey, which takes us to new lands, using the Hero as our guide and the narration as our vessel. We have also seen what kind of engine was needed to power that narrative vessel, and what kind of features was necessary for the vessel to actually start navigating. Finally, we have seen that the narrative journey usually followed a classic 12-step program, taking us from the Mundane World to the Big Fight, and then back to the Mundane World which will be transformed by what the Hero brings back with him. Just to refresh our memory, here are the twelve steps :
- Step 1, the hero still lives in the Mundane World
- Step 2, he gets the Call of Adventure
- Step 3, he usually resists the call (depending on the Heroic archetype)
- Step 4, he meets the Mentor (a useful archetype we’ll talk about in a later article), who makes him accept his destiny
- Step 5, he meets (and overcomes), the First Obstacle
- Step 6, he finds out that this first victory brings greater challenges, as he meets Allies and Adversaries (other archetype we’ll discuss another time)
- Step 7, he makes his way toward the Big Fight
- Step 8, he fights the Big Fight
- Step 9, he gets his fair reward, the Magical Potion
- Step 10, he starts his journey back to the Mundane World
- Step 11, he undergoes some kind of resurrection / transformation
- Step 12, he returns to the Mundane World with the Magical Potion
Let us now see how the 12-step journey can apply to our narrative After-Action Reports. For simplicity’s sake, and because it is my favourite genre, I’ll tackle the issues through the perspective of writing a Hearts of Iron 2 AAR. While the specifics may of course change from game to game, I am sure you will find the core issues remain the same, whether it’s for Christian Kings or Europa Universalis, or Victoria : Revolutions.
THE NARRATIVE VESSEL
Even though our narrative AARs will be partly defined by the game’s results – or rather, by the game’s mechanics – there are a number of questions the writer should ponder before typing the first word of his story.
WHAT FLAG WILL THE VESSEL FLY ?
The first question that a prospective writer should probably be : what country will I pick for my story ?
I know we usually pick countries we either like (for gamey or historical reasons), or nations we think will provide us with a greater challenge and an opportunity to see things with a different perspective, but the choice of the leading country will have an, impact on nearly everything else. As nations are not equal in terms of industrial might and military power, giving our AAR a certain nationality will make it easier to develop a certain type of story, and more difficult to develop another. To put it briefly, the AAR’s passport will have an impact of the degree of realism of the story, which will in turn have an impact on the type of story.
I will illustrate this narrative rule by an example. Let’s suppose I want to write the story of my glorious conquest of Western Europe, having already in mind an endgame situation where I am the dominant power in Europe and the Mediterranean. Obviously, if I want to write a realistic story, then it would be a good idea to pick a country that has the industrial, military, and cultural potential to dominate the continent. I could therefore choose Germany, the Soviet Union, or the United States – all three are industrial and military heavyweights, after all. If I want to start as the United Kingdom, France or Italy, it is still possible to make my goals an story coincide, but will require more on the narration to justify that a regional power, even a strong one like these second-tier competitors, attains global power status. As the Roman Empire, Napoleonic France or the Soviet Union would attest, dominating an area militarily doesn’t make its inhabitants your friends, and unless you are the Borg Empire at some point conquered populations become inassimilable. Now if I start my AAR as Belgium or Luxembourg, then there is absolutely zero chance I can realistically describe my conquest of Europe in my narrative, even if the game mechanics make it perfectly possible. I will either have to settle for much humbler goals for my endgame situation, or ditch any idea of plausibility.
As you can see, it is, as always, a balancing act between what we can achieve (and want to tell) and what we will be able to explain away.
CHRISTENING THE NARRATIVE VESSEL
Now that we have sorted out which country would have a go at glory and world domination, it’s time to define the atmosphere and to give our story an appropriate title.
What kind of vessel shall our narrative be ? Will it be an epic saga of dashing heroes and scheming villains, will it be a dark and cynical story where fallen angels make up the majority of characters, or will it be a funny satire of what might have been but never was ? In this respect, there is no rule – a writer can achieve success and even greatness in every genre after all. The genre will affect the story’s development potential, though, so you might want to think it through because what seemed a funny idea initially can feel lame or repetitive after a little while, and what seemed a promising start for a great adventure can lose steam if the perfect situation we had in mind doesn’t crop up in the game. So, think it through, ladies and gents, if only to be ready to adapt the story to the situation.
The third and final question, once the genre and initial plot idea has been defined, is to christen the narrative vessel you are about to launch. Find a suitable title for the story might seem trivial, but in the end it can be a great help to the prospective writer. At first, your AAR will be nothing but a line one a screen full of similar links, and all the prospective readers will get to catch their attention will be the title you’ll have chosen. It is therefore important to give this issue due consideration. Like a veiled dancer, your title has to show just enough to make people curious to know more, without giving away too much information, which would be counter-productive. Since people will walk away if the title isn’t informative enough, staying away from the one-word kind might be a good idea, unless the word expresses just the concept you built your story around. Conversely, you might want to avoid elaborating too much, as it can weaken the impact of the title and discourage readers’ curiosity. Let’s look at it this way : more people will want to know what “A Bridge too far” is about than people who will in the case of a story called “Bridge” or “British Paratroopers on the Bridge of Arnhem”.
If you hesitate about what title to choose, try thinking about the first opening scenes, and of the general idea and atmosphere of the AAR. Once the title is chosen, make sure the readers will understand the connection it has with the story. After all, you don’t want the readers to have to read 50 chapters to understand why you called the AAR “Mistaken Identity”, particularly if it’s a theme that is important to the story. Dropping a little hint in the introduction or the first chapter will
LAUNCHING THE NARRATIVE VESSEL
Writing the first chapters of the story is akin to launching a ship : the ink cartridge replaces the bottle of champagne, and as the first drop of liquid hits the page or the hull, the vessel is launched and can start its adventurous career.
The first scene, like the title, will make or break your efforts to get readers hooked. It must set the atmosphere, the particular ambiance of the story, and also introduce us some of the characters we’ll meet regularly. It can either bring us straight to the heart of the action, or compose a more elaborate prologue, giving us the opportunity to see the main characters before they become the story’s Heroes and Villains. For example, a USA AAR might start with a trench scene from World War One, as one captain Mc Arthur decides he’ll go into politics to make sure American soldiers will never have to fight for foreign powers. Then, a later scene will show him as the recently elected President, and the real AAR story can begin. Alternatively, it might become with the appointment of a promising intelligence officer, whose career will span the 1936-1964 game report.
Once the first chapter is written, it more or less sets the rules for the rest of the story. Mixing genres harmoniously is a daunting task, and one has to have the sheer genius of a Terry Pratchett to make the story go from comedy to dark moments or deep philosophical talents without your readers having a bumpy ride. It doesn’t mean that a dark AAR cannot have its moments of comedy, nor that a comedy one cannot have its tragedies – it’s just that, by picking the genre, you establish rules for yourself, that will set limits to canalize the rest of your work. You can bend these limits here and there, but remember, in the end these rules are essentially made for your own safety as a writer.
THE SHORES OF THE MUNDANE WORLD
Now that the vessel has been designed and christened, it’s time to take it on its maiden voyage, and to leave the Mundane World behind you.
DRAWING THE BORDER
While in fantasy tales the Mundane world and its Heroic counterpart are truly different (the small, quiet village where the Hero lives at the beginning, and then the warring kingdoms where he will fulfil his destiny), in an AAR based on alternate History the border between the two is bound to be blurry. More than a geographical border - which might still be the case if you tell the story from a specific character’s point of view – the separation between both worlds will be historical. In the Mundane world, certain events haven’t happened yet – be that Pearl Harbour, the Wehrmacht marching into the Rhineland, or the 1945 Allies become deadly enemies. In the Heroic World, the Nazi flag flies over Cologne, bodies are recovered from torpedoed battleships in the American naval base, and the iron Curtain has fallen on Europe. What is important is to make sure the Mundane World provides the reader with the “Back-story”, or historical context that you will use in your plot. This must not be given as a boring lecture, but sewn seamlessly into your story. As was said in the article about narrative Archetypes, in this respect it can be a good idea to use characters from the supporting cast to deliver the necessary information.
Regardless of what kind of border separates the Mundane World and the Heroic World, you’ll need to stress the difference between Here and There, or between Then and Now. A stark contrast will help emphasize the drama, giving readers a better sense of what is at stake and giving a powerful momentum to the rest of the plot. Let’s take an example : suppose your hero is a wealthy and young Briton who at the beginning thinks his country should retire from the Continent’s petty quarrels. Show how peaceful, and nearly idyllic his life is, spending times in his family numerous estates in Southern England, with social parties, polo games, prospects of greater wealth and success in whichever career the young man has chosen… And then show the family manor burnt to the ground after a Heinkel-111 bomber strays away from its original target, the family ruined because their assets bare seized by the Nazi government, his friends wounded or killed because they volunteered or got drafted or simply were at the wrong place, at the wrong time. What will our Hero do ? Will he join Britain’s armed forces and fight the Hun ? Will he join British Intelligence ? Will he blame his predicament on the foolish decision to support Poland ? Whatever his future actions are, the reader will remember the burnt manor, the dead friends and relatives, the ruined future – and will recognize whatever the young man does as part of his Heroic Journey. If on the contrary our young man suffers nothing but a mild concussion after the crew of a stray Heinkel-111 ditches an apple core, whatever he’ll do will seem considerably less dramatic.
CHARTING THE COURSE
It is now time to think of what the major plot will be. Your first idea needs not be extremely precise, plotting the narrative vessel’s course in every detail – particularly since the AAR will be affected by game mechanics, which you normally won’t control. But it is a good idea to have a short summary of the key principles and ideas. Will it be about world conquest, mere survival, will we accompany a soldier through a lengthy campaign, will we see the rise (and possible fall) of a new ideology or nation ? Will it be a tale of heroic sacrifice, of cynical politics, of generosity in peace and war alike ? Will there be a moral conclusion, will evil triumph, will a glimmer of hope remain somewhere ? All this you have to think about, maybe not before writing the first word of the story, but probably before writing the first word of each chapter. As a general rule, you as a writer will have to make sure the readers have to understand rapidly what is at stake.
Before the story’s Hero steps into the Heroic World and gets the call of Adventure, the writer can give him (and his readers) a small glimpse of things to come, setting up a dramatic situation that will find echo the main story. In “The Writer’s Journey”, Christopher Vogler calls this process building a Miniature Heroic World, and it can be a useful thing to instil a sense of foreboding into the story. You can use the Miniature Heroic World as a navigational chart : it will announce the moral and plot issues that you will develop later, or help you build a certain architectural symmetry in your narration.
Let’s go back to our young Briton – let’s call him Harold. What if Harold is vacationing in Spain when the Nationalist officers attempt their coup, and has to leave the country in a hurry, witnessing the horrors of modern war as he tries to reach the French border ? The atrocities Harold sees in Spain are not going to affect his peaceful Britain (which is his Mundane World), but now that he has seen what horrors lie nearby, we readers are going to expect Harold’s world to be shattered at any page. And since we readers are heartless creatures, we are going to enjoy Harold’s fall from Heaven. Another option, if you want to go back to that idea of narrative symmetry, would be to have Harold stand in the ruins of a firebombed district of London at the beginning of the story, and have him walk amidst the ruins of a flattened building in Berlin in the end – therefore giving you a clever and evocative way to complete a tale of two bombed cities.
THE CAPTAIN OF THE NARRATIVE VESSEL
The ship is ready, the course is plotted, and the home port is well-known, so let us meet the Captain. As the Hero is our guide and medium in the story, he is the Captain of the USS Narrative, and how the readers meet him is important. What should the Captain be doing when we first see him ? How is he dressed, what kind of aura does he project around him ? Is he the typical clean-cut officer and gentleman cadet fresh out from Sandhurst, or does he exude the darker charm of a cunning East Side con man ? Is he amiable and easy-going, or gruff and hostile ? Does he live in a nice environment, or does he prefer more dangerous surroundings ? Does he live in style, or as a low-life ? Just as the first scene will set the general atmosphere of your narrative AAR, the Hero’s first impression on the reader will set a pattern for the rest of the story. Regardless of their types, which we studied in an earlier article, Heroes can be of any shape, size, of flavour. Therefore, it’s time for us to have a closer look at our Captain.
INTRODUCING THE CAPTAIN
The purpose of the Mundane World is not only to contrast with the heroic World and to provide a back-story – it is also to get us acquainted with the Hero. In the very first few chapters, as we discover the Mundane World, we also must see the general social dynamics around the Hero : who does he talk to, who does he like, who does he love, who does he hate or despise ? What are the deep issues in the Mundane World, and what is the Hero’s take on these issues ? The better your first chapters will answer these questions, the easier it will be for the readers to truly enter the world you’re building, and to identify with the Hero. Readers don’t have to actually like the Hero, but they have to find him interesting, intriguing. He may be the Hero we all hope to be, or someone closer to us or even someone we cannot stand – but he has to fascinate us somehow.
Let’s take our dear friend Harold. His isolationist views might exasperate us to no end – but in doing so they only make sure we are going to follow Harold’s adventures, because at some point we want his world and views to be turned upside-down after some dramatic event. Once his Mundane World is shattered, the insufferable Harold becomes a broken character, and in his struggle to come to grips with a cruel world we discover some of his qualities that we had initially overlooked. Harold might have not wanted to go to war for Danzig, but he may not be as cowardly, or as selfish, as we first thought he was. He might enlist, he might rescue civilians, or he might overcome his own prejudice and change his views on life. As the qualities show up, we’ll also realize Harold has personal flaws and shortcomings, things that will make him closer to us.
UNDERSTANDING THE CAPTAIN
Whatever set qualities you pick for your Hero, the greater influence on his quest will probably come, not from something he has, but from something he lacks. The idea of an imperfect - and therefore incomplete - Hero is more widespread in literature than in movies, but can be a great plot device. The lack of something important can lead a character to embark on a life-changing quest, whether to find peace, revenge, wealth, or fortune. That all-important missing piece can be something that is taken away from the Hero (a murdered friend, a broken peace of mind, a kidnapped relative), something he was lacking from the beginning (like the cowardly young soldier who struggles to overcome his fear), something he desperately wants to bring to the world. Alternatively, the Hero can be propelled by something he has that the rest of his fellow men lack, like some terribly upsetting knowledge, or some grievous wound, physical or moral.
The imperfect Hero is not a new concept. It has actually been theorized by none other than Aristotle, who in his rules for writing tragedy describes Heroes affected by some hamartia, a tragic flaw that force the characters to face their destiny, their fellow men, or the Gods. It is interesting to note that Aristotle thought pride and overconfidence were the best kind of hamartia to be used in tragedy. The affected Heroes are drunk with power, their eminent qualities leading them to consider themselves as superior beings, above the laws and morals of “lesser”, ordinary men. Naturally, in Greek tragedies this road always leads the overconfident Heroes to their doom, but in a modern story it might also lead the Hero to some form of redeeming quest, restoring his humanity, bringing them back into the fold.
Bear in mind that, as Christopher Vogler points out, a perfect Hero will always be less interesting than an imperfect one, and one readers will find less easy to identify with. His scars and flaws will always give additional depth to the Hero, and move him way from being a one-dimensional, stereotypical creature.
This shall conclude the first part of the Heroic Journey : we have built our narrative vessel, we have anchored it to its Mundane World, and we have charted a course and picked up a suitable Captain. Next article will take us to the first steps of the Journey itself.
Atlantic Friend is a Fellow Of The Tempus Society and the WritAAR of Crossfires