The Hero’s Journey – Pt 2 & 3, The Call to Adventure & Refusing the Call
This is where stuff really gets rolling. You’ve introduced us to your Hero in their Ordinary World, using that opportunity to demonstrate both what is lacking in their circumstances, and what stands to be lost if they change them. If you’ve played your cards right, we are now invested in your Hero, and are eager to see him embark on his quest.
This is the second blog post in a series I introduced in The Hero’s Journey – Why and How to Use It.
Step 2 – The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure is the most basic of elements, and we can recognize it in almost every piece of fiction in existence. It occurs when the hero is first urged to leave the familiarity of their Ordinary World and venture into the unknown.
The most obvious examples of this Call are Obi-Wan, Hagrid, and Gandalf… however, The Call can also be a widow’s friends telling her she needs to start dating again, or a guy’s girlfriend threatening to leave him if he doesn’t shape up. It can be a summons to the royal palace, or just a strange, unexpected phone call from an ex-wife.
While in fantasy we tend to focus on a single call to adventure, as the band of unlikely heroes strikes out a quest, sometimes there will be more than one. Various stories feature a False Call to Adventure, where the hero is pulled–often, but not always, by the antagonist–from his or her everyday life in pursuit of a false goal. Occasionally, it is pursuit of this False Call that actually creates the larger story problem in the first place.
Once the Call to Adventure has been made, we get to Step 3, which can sometimes feel the most arbitrary of them all.
Step 3 – Refusing the Call
We’ve established our Hero in his Ordinary World, along with what is lacking. The Call to Adventure has been made by way of an event that will set your Hero on his path.
Time for him to chicken out.
I see a lot of writers struggle against this particular step, and I think it’s because the reason for it is misunderstood. We’re not trying to establish a character flaw here, in proving our Hero either a coward or an idiot (though you can definitely start your character’s arc there). What we’re trying to do is give the story meaning.
The Sacrifice for change
If we’ve done our work well in establishing our Ordinary World, this step will contrast beautifully against what is lacking. Refusing the Call demonstrates the sacrifice that the Journey itself will demand of our Hero. The most powerful journeys in literature demand that the Hero sacrifice something of worth for a more worthy goal. Both Bilbo and Frodo abandon the comfort and security of the Shire to pursue their goals. Luke Skywalker is forced to abandon a family who cares for him, and the only home he’s ever known.
But what if my character doesn’t leave on a journey?
The quest storyline is pretty popular in fiction in general, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, but it’s not the only way to tell a story. The Ordinary World can simply be your character’s way of life, or frame of mind, prior to whatever change in circumstance sends the story hurtling off to its eventual conclusion. Stories are about conflict, and the change that conflict compels. To give the change meaning, we need to understand what the character must exchange for that progression.
The actual term Refusing the Call is a little misleading, because your Hero doesn’t actually need to say no. He simply needs to demonstrate some reluctance, even if these doubts are only expressed internally. Those doubts are an acknowledgment of what the Hero will lose in leaving his Ordinary World, thereby demonstrating the value of what he will achieve in the end.
Even when our characters begin in a very dark and unwelcoming Ordinary World, they must sacrifice something by leaving it (or having it taken from them), be it security–even if only an illusion of security, or perhaps a security from the unknown–a friend, or some unrealized hope or ambition.
If The Ordinary World cannot demonstrate some convincing reason why our character has not left it before this point, we are unmoved by their eventual decision. I must, even if it costs me, will always be more powerful than Why not?
The journeys that mean the most to us begin and end with sacrifice.
Next… Meeting the Mentor.