What makes a hero?


When we picture the heroes in stories, we might imagine them in the throws of their heroic moments. The dashing into battle, outwitting of the evil villain and sweeping in to save the day. Yet, the hero didn’t start this way, the stories we remember are ones of transformation, of change, of becoming. They are a journey.

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campell’s ‘Hero’s journey’ is a pattern of narrative that he identified across thousands of stories, myths and religions in the world. The journey steps depicted in the video is a shortened version and there are in fact 12 stages that the hero experiences.

The Hero's Journey

Source: thewritersjourney.com

In this picture of the full 12 stages, you can see that there is an additional one in-between “Call to Adventure” and “Meeting the Mentor.”

An early step called, “Refusal of the Call” 

The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure….

Of all the steps in the hero’s journey this is the one that fascinates me.

It is the story representation of what psychologists have been studying for years – that moment on the cusp of change, when people are fearful of it and yet hopeful too. What is it that moves an individual from inaction to action?

What motivates us to accept the call to adventure?

When writing, the refusal of the call moment can be a difficult one to write in a story. We reject the idea of our protagonist not wanting to take up their journey. Imagine Frodo stays in the shire after all, leaving the responsibility of the ring to another. It would make for a pretty short story.

Why have the hesitation at all, why create a moment of possible refusal when who doesn’t want to go on an adventure, conquer evil, get the princess, save the day?

And the truth is. We don’t.

A Life Story

We know in our hearts that the refusal of the call defines us as humans, as much our capacity to be the one who accepts the challenge. We do it every day, with our own fears and beliefs in our own limitations. We close them into a box and carry on with our lives, living out the story we’ve always told ourselves and too afraid to challenge it. In social psychology studies, this is a cognitive bias known as Status Quo bias.

Status Quo Bias is the human tendency to like things to stay relatively the same. The current situation is taken as the reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss.

Assumptions of longevity (long lasting), goodness as well as inertia (resistance to change) are said to be contributing factors to status quo bias.

Source: MBA Brief

The hero’s journey is a story that tells us over and over again that we can overcome this bias. That we are capable of breaking out of that inertia.

The interesting thing aboThe Story Needs Youut the ‘refusal of the call’ is that overcoming it, is rarely about wanting to be the hero.

If Frodo had been given the choice to see his journey in its entirety, the trials he would endure, the pain and the loss. Would he still have taken that first step?

The epic tale told afterwards might sound heroic in hindsight, but what moves the character and therefore us to action, we find, is something much closer to the things we’d recognize in everyday life.

A trusted friend tells you its important, so Frodo takes the ring. A promise to someone you love, when Katniss says she’ll try to win the Hunger games for her sister. Or accepting your differences, gives you power your never knew of, “You’re a wizard, Harry!”

It’s funny how all these stories were originally written for younger audiences. Lord of the Rings was written as Tolkein’s sequel to his children’s fantasy novel, the Hobbit. Harry Potter and the Hunger games were both originally sold to a kids and young adults market.  Perhaps that’s telling in itself, that we think of these stories as aimed at children, yet adults fall in love with them just as much.

As children, we have a bravery that isn’t weathered down by age. We hold on to the belief in our ability to chart and change our own futures. We still believe in the stories of important, epic and individual change.

The Story of our Time

I’ve talked about epic stories from our history being a great analogy to help us understand and face the challenges of climate change. The scale of these stories, from putting a man on the moon to abolishing slavery, are so large and sweeping that they are marked in our history as times that changed the way we view ourselves and what we are capable of as human beings.

Yet look around, in the midst of climate change news and scientific consensus, the status quo seems to just keep on rolling.

The thing about those historical stories is that they seem to unroll their events in a sweeping story of emotion and victory. We think, if I was the hero at the cusp of such a historical moment in human history, the call to adventure would be unmissable. It would be too obvious and too huge to refuse, right?

Except we forget that those signposts don’t exist until the historians and the victors write of them afterwards. Only when the journey is over, do the bards line-up the verses and craft a beautiful tale.

Living in the moment of an epic story means being just one person still living out our life. We each still face our own hero’s journey and very much play out our own ‘refusal of the call’.

If I said to you.

Tackling climate change will be the biggest thing that will ever happen in your lifetime. This is the biggest difference you will ever make to the world.

What is your reaction? Do the words sounds bombastic, idiotic? As childish and ridiculous perhaps as “You’re a wizard, Harry.”

Yet this is the story that is unfolding. A repeated call each and every day to every men, women and child of this generation. It is a call to adventure to the hero in each of us, insistent, frightening and tempting, to step outside our ordinary worlds and into the story of our time.

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