Ever since I began calling myself a writer, people have recommended that I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. I use the word ‘recommended’ here loosely as there have been a wide range of indignant attitudes evoked by my not having already read the book—on account of me being a writer—with one uppity literati telling me:
“Until you read that book, you’re not really writing… You think you are, but you’re not.”
The gall of some people.
This came (of course) from a man who had written (you guessed it) ZERO books himself—typical, right? That exchange might have bothered me a bit more than it did were his psychology not so glaring: he considered himself a great writer—at least one superior to me—because he’d read The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Obvious and utter caca, but I believed in his belief of what he was saying.)
Well even if it could have been true, it sure ain’t anymore because after two years of enduring supercilious sneers, insistent cajoling and (in the one case) outright contempt, I have finally read the book!
I’m happy to report that it was interesting, but it was not the gamechanger that for all these years writers and academics have promised it would be.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces reminds me of another book, a book that actually was—and still is—a gamechanger for me, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.
The Art of Dramatic Writing gave me a new way to think about my characters.
More than just insightful observations pointed to in a specific scene of an ancient film or play, in The Art of Dramatic Writing, Egri discusses what elements of the character (personal prejudices, background, immediate wants/needs) are active in the scene and how those motivations that I mentioned (upbringing, etcetera) influence that character’s actions.
In a later chapter, Lajos takes this discussion a step further by playing out how the writer might construct a life (from scratch!) that arrives at its dramatic end bit by bit, choice by choice, so that the entire series of actions/inactions that get our protagonist strung up, excommunicated, suffocated, blanched, dried, and eaten as snacks are understandable because we’ve come to know his character and witness his shortcomings.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE TAKE-AWAYS FROM THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING IS THAT WHEN THE MOTIVES FEEL REAL, EVEN THE HIGHLY UNUSUAL SMELLS AUTHENTIC.
For example, in Romeo & Juliet there is all this drama with Romeo killing himself since he can’t be with Juliet.
We get it, he’s hurt and their families both suck but we accept his resignation of life because he has come to the conclusion that his life without someone to love isn’t worth living, and we believe that he feels that way because at the very beginning of the play when we first meet him, what is he doing?
Fucking skulking around, kicking rocks, with his head hanging down because he’s sad about some bitch named Rosalind! I know, I know… Are you like, who the hell is Rosalind?!
I was too.
We’re made to quickly forget about Rosalind because Romeo—like the fickle man-child he is—forgets about Rosalind the instant he lays his fuck-boy eyes on Juliet. (A fuck-boy is the worst kind of guy, or at least one who represents the worst trends of the present moment—an excellent definition from Slate.com)
Romeo has entitlement issues, is impetuous, reckless and self-destructive—if he were alive today, he’d probably be on antidepressants and bipolar meds.
But there wasn’t any Vortioxetine in Shakespeare’s day and I’m guessing talk-therapy wasn’t popular, so he might have been feeling really bunched up; suicide might’ve looked like the only relief to someone like him.
Even if you don’t know anyone who would intentionally take poison then lay down next to his girlfriend to die, it’s believable that mad-at-the-world, spit-in-your-eye, crazy-in-love Romeo would do exactly that.
Remember: Romeo party-crashed the Capulet’s dinner party, even though they had threatened his life, just to see Rosalind—who didn’t even like him!—damn reckless. Who does that? People who want to die, that’s who.
Shakespeare’s Romeo is an angry, self-destructive guy who uses his unrequited love as an excuse for the ultimate lashing out at his family. Seeing him as he is—a jilted, self-destructive, unattainable tail-sniffer, self-proclaimed bad-luck-having guy—it’s a believable leap from self-pity to defiance to suicide.
Romeo & Juliet is a well constructed play with characters so well-formed that even their wildest actions seem believable.
Lajos Egri addresses the why and the how in The Art of Dramatic Writing.
I’d hoped that The Hero with a Thousand Faces would show me a new way to think about the elements of a hero’s journey through a story in the same way that The Art of Dramatic Writing expanded my awareness to include universal parallels in character and motivation.
It did not.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces is interesting reading, but if you’re a writer looking to enhance your own writing with the superpowers you can only get from reading well-written books on the craft, I recommend these books instead:
• The Art Of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
• The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The serious business of writing comedy by Steve Kaplan
• Writing Blockbuster Plots: A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering Plot, Structure, and Scene by Martha Alderson
Just a few words on Martha Alderson—All of her books are thoughtful and helpful. She’s active on twitter, and inspires a great online community of friendly writers that participate in her motivational online book-writing events like PlotWriMo.
I’ve read and own maybe twenty (maybe 50!) books on writing.
Some focus on a specific aspect of writing—say, creating a character, and others illustrate the finer points in the long-game of creating fictional worlds, or how to realistically kill a character with various poisons, I could go on… My point here is: I love to read, and I love to read about writing BUT (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) I only like reading books that leave me with tools that I can use to hone and polish my own lump of quartz, you know?
I like to read shit that helps me do my shit better. That’s the shit I like best.
Here are the links…
By the way, if you prefer more interaction to books or want to spike your experience with something IRL, both Martha Alderson and Steve Kaplan offer consultations, writing events and courses on writing.
If you want the straight dope right this minute, these videos of Steve Kaplan sharing his insights on crafting a compelling comedy, the business of writing, and his tips on storytelling—that are helpful in any genre—will flip your wig back.
In closing, dear writers, and lovers of books of words on the writing of words, it is my hope that these tips are helpful. And with that, I’m off to work on my latest novel.
Sending you lightning bolts and heart emojis,
Your friendly scribe,
P.S. Have you been listening to my fiction podcast? If so, consider writing me an iTunes review — here’s the link.
If you haven’t heard any episodes yet, here’s a great place to start, it’s Ep 011 Popping Bottles—my favorite episode so far.
The story here picks up with the female protagonist, Karen, a newly minted Hollywood celebrity that after years doggedly pursuing her dreams has finally become rich and famous.
In this episode, Karen has accepted a bribe and used her celebrity status to get invited into a popular rap mogul’s Beverly Hills garden party. As it turns out, for Karen, there’s not much to celebrate.
The Afterlife Podcast is serialized fiction based on my book AFTERLIFE, available on Amazon.
You’ll hear me say it in the intro but since we’re both here… The Afterlife Podcast employs dark humor and frank language. It is intended for a mature audience.