The Hero’s Journey: Departure

Anyone who’s an ardent Star Wars fan will know of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and how it influenced George Lucas. He outlines similar steps within what is known as the hero’s journey, which has been found in ancient myths, folktales, and modern fantasy/science-fiction stories. I received my copy one Christmas and poured over it, understanding these points. It’s among my recommended reads for writers! Whilst editing Mystical Greenwood, I tried thinking of the plot I was forming in terms of what Campbell outlined. In the end, I came to see the book as the Departure Phase, which consists of the Call to Adventure, Rejecting the Call, the Threshold Crossing, and the Belly of the Whale.

In my own observations of other fantasy works, I’ve seen two kinds of heroes who receive the Call to Adventure. The first is the protagonist dissatisfied with life and yearning for something more. The other is essentially the opposite, perfectly content. When creating the two brothers at the heart of this story I tried envisioning them as such. But in the end, I had to pick one to be the central hero, and that was Dermot, the one who was dissatisfied with life.

Often the mentor in fantasy is an old wizard with a long beard. Early on, I felt such a mentor at the beginning giving them the Call might be too much of a cliché, so I had that character appearing not until three quarters of the way into the book. The teenage characters instead traveled on their own and chose to do so, though there was a character who did in a way give them the Call to Adventure. But later on, I realized that scenario was not going to work. A mentor figure was needed in order for the hero and his allies to survive and be properly introduced to their world’s magic and their abilities. So that original herald was vastly reworked, evolving into the true initial mentor figure instead of my wizard.

What made me go ahead without risking cliché was that this mentor was going to be a woman. I sought to have her be an embodiment of Mother Nature, who is associated with three stages of womanhood, each of which I gave her attributes: maiden (her face), mother (her personality) and crone (her age/hair). This deviation, if you really want to call it that, shows a story doesn’t need to follow the Hero’s Journey to the letter, such as when Frodo fails the final temptation at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Changes from tradition can make the story stand out and give readers a nice twist.

I hope to continue with the Hero’s Journey in the rest of the One with Nature series, with the next book being the Initiation Phase. This month marks four years since the paperback first came out (April will be the Kindle anniversary). Please read and rate/review if you haven’t yet!

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Further Reading
  1. Winkle, Chris. The Eight Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey.

Readers’ Wants

Back when I did my first blog post, I talked about what I called the “Misery Complex” (in reference to Stephen King’s famous novel), and how writers’ and readers’ wants can clash. Granted, not all fans are crazy and obsessive about authors and fictional characters, like Annie Wilkes, but there is no denying that once a story is out there, it can touch so many people in individual ways in that they feel a special connection. And as they become attached to fictional characters, it’s still important to consider their feelings. Or isn’t it?

I’ve noticed this especially in drama and TV shows, like Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, with fans theorizing and predicting where the story and subplots will go or could’ve gone, along with characters, and expressing their upset when things don’t happen in a certain way. The latter is especially true when characters die, don’t end up together, or character growth just vanishes. To be fair, with killing characters, writers cannot always be hated and blamed the way they have been, especially in drama, when actors decide they want to leave and pursue other projects. It’s not always easy to explain a character’s absence once the actor leaves. There may not be actors in books, but still, it’s easier to put unwarranted blame on writers.

It’s true not everyone has a happy ending, and sometimes one bad turn can in the end lead to a good one, but is there a line that ought not to be crossed? I certainly cannot argue how upsetting it is when a story seems to building something or someone up only to not lead there at the end. When there’s an anticlimax to anything from a story line to a character arc to a romance, it is usually disappointing. I sometimes find myself imagining (not always in great detail) where things could’ve gone in a story where I felt writing was lazy. That’s what’s lead to a number of fans writing fanfiction.

But at least there’s one point on which writers and readers can agree: stories and characters matter, as does what happens to them. Nevertheless, they originate with the writers. I said in my importance of names presentation characters are the children of an author’s imagination. Well, the same can be said of stories as a whole: an author sires them, and then they venture out into the world. That’s why I firmly feel the author should have the final say in what happens in his or her work, and I’d hope readers would respect that.

But I’m not unfeeling towards readers. After all, writers seek out the opinions of others in beta readers and critique groups while they are developing the story. So yes, readers can have input, and sometimes fans’ suggestions can ignite a spark in the writer’s imagination when they can’t figure out where to take the story next (even if it isn’t what readers specifically want), especially within a series. So, in conclusion, they both matter. Readers’ opinions should be considered, but the final decision belongs to the writer alone.

P.S. I want to apologize for the inconvenience for those who saw this post in advance a few days ago. I meant to schedule it at a different time and clicked the wrong button. This was not intentional, but given the post’s subject matter, I can’t help but feel the irony. Happy Holidays!

Dusting Off Stories From History

Many thanks to historical novelist Anne Clare for this opportunity to discuss my feelings on using historical fiction to shed light on lesser known events in history!

Guest Post By Andrew McDowell: Dusting Off Stories From History

These are feelings I hope to follow when I venture into historical fiction someday!

Brain to Bookshelf Conference 2021

The Maryland Writers’ Association hosts a writers’ conference every year, except, of course, last year’s conference was cancelled due to the COVID shutdown. Normally held in March, they were able to host this one this past weekend. The main takeaway for me was being able to see a number of friends I hadn’t seen in so long, including authors A. L. Kaplan, Meg Eden, and Michele Chynoweth, and be in a familiar setting in person again, not unlike how it was when my critique group started to meet in person again a few months ago in our familiar haunt (no pun intended).

There were a number of interesting presentations from authors, including Jane Friedman, Mary Tilghman, Andrea Johnson, Edward McSweegan, Susan Moger, and Harrison Demchick, and I learned more about Balticon. I met a number of new people, and I was able to sell a few books! But there were some hard lessons I had to re-learn. When it comes to attending events such as this, pre-planning is vital. This was something I didn’t fully take into account that morning. I didn’t manage my time and drive well, and I made it there just in time to hear the first talk. What’s more, even though I signed up for both days, I didn’t realize until too late (shortly before the conference) that I had doubled-booked Sunday and couldn’t attend the second day. Still, I had a good time for the day I was there.

We’ll see what happens next year. I know now to remember to plan better in a number of ways. I guess I just had to get back into the rhythm of things. Maybe next time, if I can think of a new writing-related presentation, I can give it then. It is time to think up some new topics for presentation.

Speaking of presentations, I’ll discussing the importance of names for the third time next month on the 13th at 2pm Eastern Time. I hope to see you there! See my events page for the registration link.

Q&A with Elizabeth Holland

Check out this Q&A I did with author Elizabeth Holland:

Author Q&A with Andrew McDowell

Many thanks for this opportunity, Elizabeth!

Happy Holidays, everyone! Wishing you all a Happy New Year, especially after a year like this. Today is the day of the Winter Solstice, which is the origin of many winter holidays. As the light and warmth of the sun will return, may the new year bring new light and warmth for all of us! I am certainly hoping 2021 brings changes and progress both career-wise and in writing.

And don’t forget: books (and book reviews) make great gifts! My Amazon author page was updated to include more anthologies from past and present, including As the World Burns, which came out last month.

Guest Barista, Andrew McDowell on Writer’s Resources

Check out this guest post I did for the Go Dog Go Cafe! Many thanks to Stephen and his associates for this opportunity!

Go Dog Go Café

Writers must read and conduct research to build their stories. No matter the genre, writers need to build plot and characters to create something that will appeal to readers, and there are many books offering tips and insights into these elements. I will discuss those titles I have listed for my own recommended resources and why I think they’re helpful.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of the most well-known and influential books in the world. It draws upon many myths, identifying common characteristics and story elements to form what we know as the hero’s journey. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of Campbell’s influence is with George Lucas when he created Star Wars. There’s a reason why this book is helpful to writers: the hero’s journey appeals to people. It’s been depicted in many different ways, and stories do deviate at certain points (Frodo…

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Love is in the Words

Romance has long been considered an important component of literature and drama. It draws them in, including me. People love to praise those who make huge sacrifices for love. Readers like to see it blossom and endure amid great trials and hardships, to see it conquer all. Unfortunately, sometimes fans can get so obsessed with notions of romance that they can lose their hold of reality.

Modern adaptations of classic stories alter characters for the sake of romance. Helen of Troy has been portrayed as falling genuinely in love with Paris rather than being under a spell, as she was originally in The Iliad. In some adaptations of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod and Katrina are in love, with Ichabod as a noble hero, whereas in the original story his motives are anything but honorable, and it’s implied Katrina, who was rather vain, merely used him to make Brom Bones jealous. Even villains like Dracula, who originally had no qualms over their actions, have become “humanized” and anti-heroic via romance. Romance appeals to people.

Within fandoms and fanfiction, I’ve seen “shippers” when there’s a love triangle and even with characters who either didn’t end up together or weren’t in love. Margaret Mitchell was hounded by Gone with the Wind fans wanting to know if Rhett and Scarlett reunited. She never gave them a definitive answer, because that wasn’t the point of the story. It’s been suggested some (but not all) fans don’t care about reason, wanting a romantic ending no matter how much it defies logic.

So is there a danger when writers incorporate romance into stories? Yes. There have been articles and books discussing how reading romance novels can be dangerous for one’s physical and psychological health, because in searching for love in real life, readers may aspire to an idealized image found only in fiction. Some try to play it out, thinking it’ll end like in stories. The result is grave disappointment, because in real life nothing is perfect. In Sense and Sensibility, the romantic Marianne falls for the handsome, dashing Willoughby and wears her heart on her sleeve. When he leaves her and marries for money (after being disinherited for abandoning another girl he got pregnant), Marianne wallows in grief, to the point where she endangers her health and nearly dies.

So what can writers do? Recognize the power stories have to shape readers’ views on love. Perhaps aim to show love isn’t perfect, with fights and disagreements, but still satisfy readers. Marianne finds love in Colonel Brandon and gets a happy ending, but she matures and sees the error of her past conduct. Another thing to bear in mind is that sometimes relationships don’t work out. Seldom is a first love everlasting, especially with teenagers. At other times, there isn’t a happy ending but hope for a better future.

I don’t dismiss the power and importance of romance. It’s needed in some (but not all) stories. But writers and readers alike need to understand genuine romance is gradual, with ups and downs. As Shakespeare says, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” And as I learned in church, love is an umbrella term used for many situations that aren’t identical. Furthermore, what may appear to be love isn’t necessarily love. They say love is blind; so is obsession. Love not built on a solid foundation of friendship, mutual trust, and respect, is the easiest—and fastest—to crumble.

Establishing Characters’ Motives

It’s probably a question you’ve asked yourself before when writing, and certainly one you must answer: what drives your characters? They all want something, just as people in real life want something. It can be love, hatred, power, wealth, knowledge, patriotism, disillusionment, honor, or something else. To help bring characters to life, good and bad, they need to have at least one thing that drives them, which can later on change, but ultimately helps bring the character to life as much as their individual personality traits.

You can begin with basic human emotions or desires and build them into one of many possibilities. As an example, if a character seeks knowledge, it could be knowledge of something or someone or oneself. It’s important for villains to have motivations as well as heroes. In Beowulf the titular hero seeks everlasting glory, while each of the monsters is driven by a dark desire: Grendel by envy (of the Danes celebrating, which links him to his Biblical ancestor, Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of envy), Grendel’s mother by anger (for the death of her son), and the dragon by greed (a single golden cup was stolen from his treasure hoard).

When characters are driven to commit crimes, they have simple motivations, which have different versions. Sometimes characters with similar motivations act differently upon them, or the other way around. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Danglars wants Edmond’s captaincy while Mondego wants Edmond’s fiancé. So they conspire to frame him for conspiring to help Napoleon Bonaparte. For Danglars it’s a crime of profit; for Mondego it’s one of passion. Villefort realizes there actually is a conspiracy to help the deposed emperor, not involving Edmond but his own father, which would hurt his political ambitions if revealed. So he has imprisoned Edmond without trial to protect himself. Edmond is therefore motivated to enact revenge upon them all.

Often motives can be influenced by characters’ backgrounds and circumstances. One well-known stereotype is the evil twin, who is the protagonist’s mirror image (though sometimes evil twins have facial hair or scars). But in many stories, there are simply siblings—not necessarily twins—where one’s good and one’s evil. When the younger is evil, (s)he tends to be envious at not being the oldest and thus the heir. But when the older is evil (not to say (s)he can’t be jealous of the younger sibling), (s)he is proud of being the oldest and heir, to the point of narcissism and arrogance. When there’s more than one sibling, it can lead to middle child syndrome, where the second child feels unloved and/or like an outcast because the third is the “baby” and the first is the heir.

Then there’s the notion of a character foil: someone who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. Foils can be villains like evil twins, but they can be good too. They are similar in one or two ways to a protagonist but in every other way aren’t. Sherlock Holmes’s older brother Mycroft shares his amazing power of deduction and more, but doesn’t use it to earn a living since, as Sherlock puts it, he lacks ambition and energy, and hates fieldwork.

As I said earlier, motivation can change, especially if a character isn’t sure at the start what drives him or her. Perhaps they are searching for what it is they want out of life. In every case, having motivation drives characters, and thus readers’ investment in them.

Further Reading
  1. Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters.
  2. Marie, Katie. Character motivations and why they are so important.

Happy Veterans’ Day! Many thanks to all who served!

Beta Readers, Critique Groups

Beta readers help polish writers’ work in preparation for submitting to publishers. Sometimes they work with one another one-on-one. Sometimes they form critique groups, where members share their work and receive critical but constructive feedback from everyone. What makes them helpful and essential is they aren’t necessarily in the publishing profession. They are people whom writers can trust with their earliest, roughest drafts. They are in effect the first step to sharing work with the world.

Some say it’s not a good idea to share drafts with family. Well, family is the first source of encouragement and support, and sometimes there are relatives that can offer constructive feedback. Nevertheless, it’s important to interact with and receive feedback from people who aren’t family, but who are passionate about writing and/or are seeking publication. Sometimes they are already published and can offer insights into the process. They will provide more critical and constructive feedback, which is necessary for growth as a writer.

I’m sorry to say that critique groups don’t always last forever. For different reasons, members leave (usually for personal reasons, which is completely understandable). What’s important is whether the groups and members have something to teach you and make you stronger. I’ve have been in quite a few critique groups since I joined the Maryland Writers’ Association, and even started one of my own. I have found it to be an extremely beneficial and motivating atmosphere.

Good beta readers not only state what they don’t like, but also explain why and offer suggestions as to how to improve it. They are fair and respect the submitting writer’s feelings. Writers don’t always have to agree with beta readers’ suggestions, but listening to and appreciating them will benefit them. Those who only say they don’t like a writer’s work—if they put the writer down in their work and/or as a person—they aren’t worth staying with. And they are out there, unfortunately. I’ve encountered such people. But in such cases, the best thing was to move on, learning from those experiences and my mistakes what it means to be a good beta reader.

Writers must remain respectful of beta readers. They too have feelings, dreams, and opinions. They build one another up, which is how they all move forward. It’s best to move on when things don’t work out, especially if you receive negative feedback instead of constructive feedback. If someone doesn’t help, or isn’t willing to give you a second chance when attempting to make amends, don’t stay with them. Find people who will.

Further Reading
  1. Meghlen, Ari. Why you need to have Beta Readers.

Gryphons and Dragons and Unicorns!

Gryphons and dragons and unicorns, oh my! Yeah, I couldn’t resist. Mystical Greenwood features these three mythical creatures, as was revealed in the book trailer created by Mockingbird Lane Press. So, this month I thought I’d discuss their history a little, as well as the personal fascination that led me to include them in my story.

GRYPHONS
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When it came to choosing the “main” mythical species for Mystical Greenwood, from the beginning I wanted one a little more unique than dragons or unicorns. I first truly became acquainted with gryphons while reading about them in the Harry Potter book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. There was something about them that struck a chord with me. I knew right away this was the creature I wanted for my story.

Gryphons represent courage, boldness, majesty, and nobility, and true love since they were said to mate for life, and only once. Their name can be spelled differently too, as I mentioned before when discussing names in general which is what led me to choose the spelling I did. I also read their nests were reputed to contain emeralds, which I felt would fit well with the “Gaelic” atmosphere I was striving for.

DRAGONS
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When reading about knights in shining armor and dreaming of being one as a child, I read about dragons. There’s that common story line of a knight slaying one, like St. George. They’re undoubtedly the quintessential fantasy creature. Western dragons are often depicted greedily guarding treasure, like Smaug in The Hobbit or the dragon in Beowulf. They’ll embark on rampages when a single item is stolen from their hoard. They’re linked with power and magic, like the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen.

Dragons come in many colors, all of which can be interpreted symbolically. The fight between Wales and England has been embodied by red and white dragons (the colors of the same dragons a young Merlin realized were wrecking Vortigern’s castle from constantly battling in an underground pool). They can fly, breathe air or fire, dwell on land or in water. There are so many possibilities with dragons!

While living in Japan, I became acquainted with a dragon different from the Western one. The Eastern dragon is often wingless, benevolent, and worshiped. I once thought about having both in my story, but it would’ve been a world-building dilemma, so I didn’t (which is also why I used “feline” instead of “lion” for gryphons). Because of the Western dragon’s association with greed, those in Mystical Greenwood are villains. Nevertheless, maybe I can somehow introduce good dragons in the sequels. There’s also the possibility of sea dragons. Maybe I can combine the two. We’ll see.

UNICORNS
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Unicorns represent purity and goodness. In the first Harry Potter novel, drinking their blood extends life, but that life becomes cursed for slaying such a pure creature. Their horns were said to be made of a substance called alicorn, which possessed healing capabilities. Narwhal tusks were once believed to be unicorn horns. Like dragons and gryphons, something about them draws me. Perhaps in my childhood fantasies about being a knight I dreamed of riding one (though whenever I imagined myself on an actual horse, it was white).

I’m considering introducing a few other mythical creatures in the sequels, but I am glad I chose these three for Mystical Greenwood. Please don’t forget to purchase your copy and post your review!

Further Reading
  1. Mythic Creatures: The Griffin at Sarah Sawyer
  2. What’s in a Name? at The Gryphon Pages
  3. Dragon Colors at The Circle of the Dragon
  4. Draconika Dragons
  5. All About Unicorns