The Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction, by Ben Chandler
I get asked about my writing practice a lot, and one of the things I get asked about most (usually by other writers) is if I’m a planner or a pantser. Do I plan out my novels, or do I write by the seat of my proverbials? When I wrote my first book, I pantsed it all the way. That’s probably why it was so awful. Forty-two alternating perspectives, shoved in a bottom drawer never to be seen again awful. Lesson learned, I now plan my work. There’s nothing wrong with pantsing (at least in this context). I know a few pantsers, and they produce great work. It’s just not something I can do well.
What has any of this to do with the Hero’s Journey in the title of this blog post? Like many young writers, and particularly young fantasy writers, the discovery of Joseph Campbell’s model for the Hero’s Journey was a true revelation. It’s what educators call a light bulb moment – that instant when realisation dawns: Ah! That’s how it works!
For those of you unfamiliar with Campbell’s work, go and read The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell examines a great many heroic myths and legends from around the world and from many ages and concludes that they each follow, more or less, the same pattern of events. This pattern is called the Hero’s Journey. What makes it so magical is that it seems to have sprung up, spontaneously and independently, in most cultures around the world. When I was first introduced to this apparently universal mythic plot structure, I thought I had finally uncovered the secret to good writing. If I just followed Campbell’s guidelines, as all of the great heroic writers had done before me, my fantasy would be just as great as their work. My heroes would be just as memorable.
Of course, I was wrong. This is because there is a second, deeper secret at the heart of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, one that took me much longer to decipher. Campbell wasn’t only writing about what the hero did on his or her journey, but on the effect that journey had the hero’s psychological development. On the surface, the Hero’s Journey is a road map of plot points along which anyone may march and emerge an everlasting hero, but at its core, the Hero’s Journey is about how the hero develops from what she or he is to what she or he can and must become. In writer-jargon, the Hero’s Journey is not about plot outlines at all, but about character arcs.
When I realised this, I understood that what happens in a novel is less important than the people it is happening to. It is the infinite variations of character that make the Hero’s Journey work, time and again. That’s why I don’t plan my plots. Oh, I have a notion of what’s going on in the grandest sense, but when I sit down to plan a novel I outline instead how I want my characters to develop throughout its course. The plot flows naturally from there. Action reveals character and provides the impetus for change within them, but if you don’t know your characters, or how you want them to change, or what it is you want to reveal about them, and why, then the plot becomes an empty checklist going through the heroic motions.
Character development is absolutely vital to Young Adult literature, because YA fiction focuses on the time of greatest change in us all – the progression from childhood to adult, the shaping of our minds and personalities, the development of our bodies, and the consequences of our choices. If you really want your YA writing to stand out, focus not on what your hero does, but on who they are and how their adventures shape them.
Ben Chandler author website: www.benchandler.com.au