THE (S)HE-RO'S JOURNEY - Not Your Customary Character Arc
Updated: Aug 20
--A YIN-YANG RABBIT HOLE - If you haven't read this sex, language & violence content warning with its (non)binary discussion of the Feminine & Masculine polarity, I suggest you do before reading any more of this series. If you skip it...well...you've been warned.
--THE INCONCEIVABLE - ASSumptions About the Gladiatrix
--"WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO READ" THEY SAID - So I Do
--FANTASY, ROMANCE, ACTION & SEX - Not Mortal Combatants
--ROMANCE *IS* FANTASY - Childish Dreams vs. Heroic Aspirations
--VIOLENT FEMMES - The Warrior/Prince Binary
Warning: Star Wars spoilers ahoy!
"The path of the heroine...follows no straight lines. It is a journey that seldom receives validation from the outside world, in fact the outer world often sabotages and interferes with it." This model... "does not necessarily fit the experience of all women of all ages, and I have found that neither is it limited to only women...It describes the experience of many people who strive to be active and make a contribution in the world, but who also fear what our progress-oriented society has done to the human psyche and to the ecological balance of the planet."
~Maureen Murdock, author of The Heroine's Journey (2)
It is said that there are no new stories, only new storytellers. As such, the damsel-to-dangerous or wimp-to-warrior plotline has been painted a gazillion times. So have countless tales of the Rebel Underdog Taking Down the Evil Emperor. For the arena version, Spartacus, Gladiator, and Hunger Games are the most obvious of this trope. (1) Whether the protagonist lives or dies, this is often the Hero’s Journey--which my Gladiatrix tale is not.
Ishavanni fulfills her initial Hero's Quest pretty early on. There she stands amidst the cheering throngs with her fist raised triumphantly, having achieved everything she vowed to do when she first set out on that wild and scary road, all those years ago.
You go, Isha!
At this point, a quite different storytelling trajectory takes over. It's called the Heroine's Journey, and hers can't come close to being resolved in the remaining 1/3 of an 85K word stand-alone novel. (You remember that beach read I got asked to write, yes? "A gladiatrix. In the arena. Taking down the Emperor. Period.")
So what IS the Heroine's Journey?
It's Maureen Murdock's answer to Joseph Campbell's theory that a woman didn't need to take The Hero's Journey. (2, 3) That she simply had to realize the power that was within her all along. Maureen Murdock didn't buy that. She made her own map in which the opening part of the journey is very similar to a Hero's Journey, but once the Quest has been fulfilled, the protagonist realizes that it is hollow and embarks on a deeper journey to a more fulfilling end.
Sounds pretty familiar to me. I have lived this more than once. Probably why I write this way.
Here are the Hero's and Heroine's Journeys, side-by-side. (2-4) The Hero's Journey starts at "call to adventure" and travels counterclockwise; the Heroine's Journey begins at "separation from the feminine" and travels clockwise:
Please note: If you missed my big diatribe about Masculine/Feminine, Dark/Light, Anima/Animus, and you find yourself saying, "Hey, now! I have a penis but my life/story/movie script/favorite TV show follows the Heroine's Journey arc!" I suggest you read A YIN-YANG RABBIT HOLE first. Same thing if you're shaking your fist at me for touting all this binary extremism.
Because I have always chafed under limiting gender labels myself. Just like anybody can undertake the Hero's Journey, there is absolutely no reason why a male, non-binary, or even non-human character can't undertake this kind of Heroine's Journey. A bunch of mine do. But this was the language when these books were written, and we don't have a gender-neutral version of English yet that can do justice to what I'm trying to get across without these metaphors, so...blahhh.
Personally, I'd like to see something like "The Quest Arc" vs. "The Balance Arc" or... something. I dunno. In the meanwhile, we'll have to get out our mental translation devices.
If you truly want to understand what makes me tick as a storyteller, as well as the kind of life arc I have personally experienced and that I'm constantly writing about in these memoirs, then here is a handy rabbit hole for your consumption. Let's begin with the Quest Arc--Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. (3)
What do Harry Potter, Frodo, Greek mythological heroes, and our modern gladiatrix, Katniss Everdeen all have in common?
So there we have it. At the moment in my memoir timeline that covers how I began writing my Gladiatrix tale, we have a twenty-year-old dancer-nerd who is starting out on her Quest Arc.
I have left home, gone to college, and I've definitely separated from the Feminine. I have started to gather allies and important tools on my road of trials. I am embarking on what any proper Gen-Xer was taught I "should" do - I am earning degrees, getting my foot into the corporate door with a part-time job so I can one day set up that almighty pension and social security, and I am engaged to be married to the warrior-artist of my dreams. I am on my way to obtaining all the milestones.
Yet I am on a Hero's Quest, so I find much more fulfillment in identifying with the Masculine, something I'd been doing since I lost my mother's loving influence to illness and chose to identify with my society's roles of power. As we've covered previously, when my mother got sick, I was left with a psyche similar to girls whose mothers have died in late childhood to early adolescence, compounded by my simultaneous rejection of the Feminine's "weakness, fragility, and instability." Thus do I pick up a weapon and shield, start learning how to use them, and build my first set of medieval armor.
As I earn my college degrees, graduate, and fully enter the adult work force, most of my mentors are male. My Ancient History professor/college advisor. All of my bosses but one. My first SCA guides and the majority of my friends in The Shire. The more experienced fighters and the knights who teach me.
Only in dance do we have a heavy feminine influence, and this will be crucial in the kind of journey I take.
In an artistic echo of this journey, I puke out hundreds-of-thousands of words about my Gladiatrix, this female warrior who is a bit further along in her damsel-to-dangerous arc than I am in mine.
When we first meet Ishavanni, it is her Call To Adventure, too. She is at the threshold of transformation, having just booted open some gender-closed doors so she can fully shed her "weak, powerless" femininity and not only embrace her masculine energy, but be truly embraced by that world: the male gladiators' world, and the rigid male-dominated establishments into which she was born. She's got her mentor and allies, along with the tools and skills she's been honing along the road. She's slayed ever-more-badass monsters and she is about to battle the greatest ogres and dragons of her life. Spoiler: it won't be long before she defeats them and arises triumphant. Rawr!
When I first started writing her at seventeen, I needed her to show me the way. By the time I was twenty, when I made her short story into a novel, I was between major monster battles myself. I was unknowingly being undermined by repressed memories, and I was only about a year out from discovering medieval reenactment with its armored combat.
But I had something in my arsenal that my Book 1 Gladiatrix does not gain access to until Books 2 & 3. This is the main reason why I could not deliver that 85K-word beach read to my agent and the editor I was wooing. Because Finding the Boon of Success isn't the triumphal ending of the Heroine's Journey. It's only 1/3 of the way through. Next comes Awakening To Feelings of Spiritual Aridity, which my frantic push-push-push from high school through college had given me.
But less than a year before I started writing my Gladiatrix, I had been hijacked by belly dancing, which means that, even though I was trying to shed my womanly "weakness" with every milestone I achieved and every drop of sweat I dripped into my armor, the Feminine had no intention of letting me go.
Once I'd peeled off my rig and left the battlefield behind, the drum circles called. Firelight. Moonlight. Starlight. Wind. With my bare feet on the earth, I drew the symbols of Eternal Life over and over with my feminine body's centers of power.
SHE refused to let me go. Unbeknownst to me, I had been booted from the Hero's Journey Quest Arc into a tailspin that resulted in my quest for something far different: Balance.
Warning - Star Wars spoilers ahead from Wit and Folly (6), another of my favorite storytelling, character, myth, and symbolism analysts. Also, this only covers Rey's journey through The Last Jedi, not her full 3-sequel arc. We'll get into that in the next post.
We're also not getting into Disney's inability to dole out the type of tangible consequences through peril/scarring/maiming which is traditionally on brand for the male heros who learn lightsaber combat, or the fact that the movies didn't flesh out Rey's backstory enough to prevent her being hated as a Mary Sue. Totally different topics.
I guess I just wrote out in my head an entire backstory of desert-scavenger apprenticeship, rejection of criminal mastermind mentors, her decision to become a loner once she was old and strong enough, and SOMETHING extraordinary about the inherited Force inside her that we don't yet know. I mean, rewriting is what I've been doing with Star Wars since Return of the Jedi came out so it's just automatic now--to perform the annoying mental labor that fills in glaring gaps so I can delight in the story without needing to Force-choke somebody.
But the following video paints in brilliant hues what I adored about where they were headed in my favorite movie of the Sequel Trilogy. Because they dangled in front of my goggling eyes something other than a shoddier knock-off of the Original Trilogy. They dangled the potential for a full Heroine's Journey.
A Journey through the Elements, the 7 Chakras, a Return to the Goddess, and Creating the Yin-Yang Balance:
This video goes deeper into the actual Heroine's Journey process and plot elements: ancient myth and new, a woman's awkward place in patriarchy, balancing Anima & Animus, the Descent to the Underworld & the Goddess, female power & sexuality:
Whuff! Yes, it was a lot. But these are the things that drive me, not only as an artist and storyteller, but also as a woman. A person.
I've been talking about, writing, dancing, wrestling with, and delving into these subjects for decades. Alas, in the past few years, I have been grumbling especially hard about things that have been nagging at my mind when I finish too many stories unsatisfied or even irate. Things that I've never been able to fully form into words until now.
Like why Star Wars has been one of my oldest swoon-stories since I was first mesmerized in the theater when I was five, while simultaneously being one of my greatest storytelling heartbreaks and fang-inducing frustrations.
I constantly rewrite Star Wars in my head. The one that takes the cake is watching the once-badass and clever Padme "losing the will to live" over Baby Daddy. When she's got children to birth, protect, and raise? NO. Fuck that. She dies in childbirth because of the physical trauma of being Force-choked. Period, and bite me.
After the Sequel Trilogy's culmination with Rise of Skywalker, once again, there is a disturbance in my Force.
All the things they had set up in The Last Jedi, all that chemistry, all that symbolism, all that potential for the true Union between masculine and feminine, dark and light, yin and yang--
Something fractures for me at the end of The Last Jedi when Ben gives his classic "Rule the Galaxy Together" speech and Rey rejects his outstretched hand. I was nervous. Rightly so, for it fully crumbles to dust in the final film of the trilogy. Rey and Ben had the potential for Powerful Balance.
I mean, come on! The heir of the Dark Side, trained in the Light and exploring her roots...with the heir of the Light Side, trained in the Dark and searching for a better way?
We watched what happened when this power-couple came together. I could understand why she wouldn't take his hand at this point. I was willing to hold my breath under the acceptance that they both were staunchly still in their own camps, determined to Turn the other. They still had things to learn before they could fully unite, so I was willing to wait.
But I had a really bad feeling about this.
When it comes to Star Wars, I've developed trust issues over the decades. They had already set it up to fail by what they had done in The Force Awakens. The moment Ben ignited that lightsaber on his dad and became Vader--I mean Kylo--I was flooded with dread. All I could think was that they were just going to do a (dissatisfying) reboot of the Original Trilogy. They gave me a huge red herring in the second movie.
But by sending Ben so far down the Dark Side rabbit hole in that first movie, they could never do what they dangled in the second. Not without the same-old-same-old we've seen one too many times: the Redemption By Sacrificial Death trope.
Naturally. He is the love interest of a kick-ass warrior woman, so how could he not need to die, leaving her alone, burying lightsabers in the sand, and strolling off into the hazy horizon (until she's needed again)?
Have I mentioned how tired I am of these tropes? And they didn't even do the Sacrificial Redemption arc as well as the Original Trilogy did.
It broke my myth-devotee's heart. And I am not alone...
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: THE SHE-RO'S JOURNEY 2: The Disturbance In My Force
--WORK-IN-PROGRESS SHENANIGANS: Ever wonder why I have such an erratic rhythm in posting? You can usually find out what the hangup is over on the Ko-Fi Page where I post the real-time creative process updates on my writing and dancing.
--OR: A dance I did with Ariellah telling the tale of INNANA'S DESCENT TO THE UNDERWORLD
--OR: Another dance tale about painting on the "acceptable" Face and all the surging, feminine sexuality, anger, and power BENEATH THE SURFACE
--OR: You can find all my writing adventures HERE.
1) Gladiators. In the arena. Taking down the Emperor.
4) Campbell vs. Vogler - What Makes It Mythical? - A discussion that prompted me to change out my diagrams from the clean, pretty versions online to the photos directly from my books at home. My copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces does actually have a diagram called "The Hero's Journey" in it, and yes, it moves counter-clockwise.
--Wit and Folly Ko-Fi Account.