A popular narrative form frequently found in fiction is the hero’s journey. In short, an ordinary person finds themselves called to adventure and leaves behind their old life to take a path of tests and trials that teaches them many lessons, often painful, until they’re finally transformed into a hero. These are stories we find satisfying because they appeal to a longing deep within us. But although we often see rather straightforward versions of these sorts of stories, especially in science fiction and fantasy, there are innumerable variations, many different ways to tell that kind of tale.
Take Certain Hypothetical, the first book in my Slowpocalypse series. There are two main characters in that book, neither of whom seem to take the typical journey. There’s Kat, who’s already a hero – trained, experienced, and highly competent – who does heroic things. And then there’s David, who’s more like Inspector Clouseau. He wants to do what’s right but has a difficult time discerning what that is and even more trouble trying to actually accomplish anything.
The story itself is only a first small step into a speculative future. In that same way, David barely begins his hero’s journey in Certain Hypothetical. His efforts to do good mostly make a mess of things, and by the end of the book he’s only managed to realize how far from being a hero he is.
Why is his journey so slow? We often see stories where the protagonist may seem ordinary at first but turns out to have some special ability that helps them make the transition from zero to hero pretty fast. But Slowpocalypse is more on the realistic side of the scale. There are no superpowers here, just determined men and women who are ready to make sacrifices for the greater good. So David has got a long way to go, and Kat has had to train for many long years to become as awesome as she is.
Since Kat’s already a hero, does that mean she has no ‘journey’? Not at all. She may be really good, but she still has a lot to learn. And she also takes her first step on a long road in Certain Hypothetical – though it may be less apparent what’s happening with her. In a hero’s journey, there’s usually some sort of mentor to help guide a fledgling hero along the way. Kat isn’t David’s mentor, but she is starting to learn how to be one for others.
And then there’s my Watchbearers series, which eschews such simple character arcs. There you have a motley assortment of individuals who each have their different strengths and weaknesses, and also their own unique journeys, none of which are straightforward. Some of them start out more heroic than others, but despite their differences, they’re all taking a similar trip – a path to becoming a better person, who they really are at their best, even if they can’t see it yet. Or have any idea who they’ll become.
But every version of this story is highly individual and unique, whether it always appears that way or not. And done right, it should resonate with the reader.