The Hero Narrative

A very clever fella named Joseph Campbell was the first to theorize that there has been a “monomyth,” or consistent archetype, existent in almost every culture around the world and going back beyond recorded history.  It is the Hero Narrative, and it is a formula which can be seen in stories from Beowulf to Buddha to One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and in just about every Hollywood movie -think Star Wars, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or any high school football movie.

Here is a wikipedia article about his theory.  Not a great article, but still interesting stuff, I think.

Because this is a formula that is recognizable and understandable to just about anyone, not to mention adventurous and therefore easily engaging, I think that it makes a great framework for organizing our stories (which can feel overwhelmingly complex without some kind of framework to contain them).

“But…” I can hear you saying, “Aren’t heroes almost always men, and usually macho men with big muscles and swords and whatnot?”  Yes.  But that does not mean that the formula is stuck there.  In fact, I think it becomes really interesting when we ask the question “What if we collectively are the heroes of the stories that we tell?”

This question establishes the premise of how I tell The True Cost of Coal and Rock Bottom stories.  I have not yet taken the time to apply this formula to the Mesoamerica Resiste story, but I have no doubt it could be done, it is only the two-sided thing that makes it technically challenging.

If you checked out that wikipedia article, you probably noticed 17 detailed steps to the formula, but all those are not actually necessary to tell this story.  7 (and 1/2) will do it pretty well:

1.  “Place” – introduce characters and their home, stories of land, genealogy, prosperity, traditional culture, etc
2.  “The old fight” – remember a persistent enemy, describe historic struggles
3.  “The heroes” – remember past resistance and trace its lineage into the present, to raise up and describe those on the front lines today
4.  “New dangers” – a looming threat, worse than ever before, threatens the people
4 1/2.  [optional] “Revelation” – tie existence of new dangers to past actions of people, maybe even heroes, establish hubris and dramatic complexity
5. “Boons” – the magical weapons in the old stories, here we can look at our assets, tactics, and opportunities
6.  “The big fight” – in our story it is happening presently, or maybe in the near future, this is where the the pace picks up rapidly and our story reaches a climax
7.  “Rewards” – in the old stories they usually get some kind of treasure or magic powers or whatever, we can look at sustainable, life-affirming alternatives


1-3 are in the Departure category (or in other words “Background” followed by “Call to Adventure”), 4-7 are the Initiation (maybe makes more sense to call it “Trials & Transformation”).  The “Return” category is an unnecessary complication for our purposes – themes of return can easily be wrapped up into the “Rewards” at the end.

One time I conducted a workshop that focused pretty much exclusively on this concept, with various activists all looking for better ways to tell the stories of their struggles.  It was a smash hit!  During the session with KlimaKollectiv, this seemed unnecessary and too complex to include, but I did have some interesting conversations about it after.  My friend told me that even in journalism school they were taught to use the hero narrative.  Try re-reading your favorite Naomi Klein book, keep it in mind when you watch crowd-funding pleas or protest messaging, and Im sure you will begin noticing elements of the Hero Narrative everywhere.  It is incredibly powerful.




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