Monday, March 09, 2009

The Hero's Journey--Does Gender Make a Difference?

On the heels of last Thursday's and Friday's posts on what to do if you draw a blank in the middle of writing your novel, came another discussion on the novelists' E-mail loop. This one tackles the difference--if there is one--between the male and female mythic journey. The hero's journey is best studied by reading Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. As we know, the first two steps in that journey are meeting the hero in his Normal World, followed The Call, when the hero is summoned by some sudden conflict to go on his quest. The question was posed: is there a difference for female protagonists? Is there a feminine and a masculine mythic journey, with the feminine journey being more emotional--a shattering of the home/community she has tried to build for herself?

My answer is no. Perhaps it's simply semantics. But I interpret the hero's journey loosely enough to fit a female or male protagonist. The Call to me is another term for "inciting incident"--the first major conflict that kicks off the story. It's the sudden event that upends the protagonist's Normal World and forces him or her onto a different path than he/she would have chosen. The Call creates conflict both external and internal, both emotional and physical. And spiritual as well.

But not all agree with me. Here are some shorter answers for today. Tomorrow I'm going to run a long, thoughtful response by one author to the question.

Angela Hunt: I'm a woman and I write women's fiction, but I could care less about building nests. I definitely have my female protags heed a call to adventure, and if she has birdlings, she takes care of them along the way. Males have their shattered worlds, too--Look at the character in The Fugitive. His world is shattered, he's plunged into the adventure. Look at Luke in Star Wars--his world/home is shattered, decimated, and off he goes to answer the call. I think gender makes very little difference.

Colleen Coble: Almost always in my mysteries, the woman's internal quest for belonging and nesting is primary even as she's getting to the bottom of the murder or threat. This is very high on the radar in my Rock Harbor series, which is my best-selling series. Hmm, interesting food for thought for me. . .

Patricia Hickman: I'd say this is a pretty typical journey for my protagonists. Gaylen (Painted Dresses) is losing her husband while being shackled with the weight of caring for a sister, who is undiagnosed, bi-polar disorder. She is seemingly without any of her previous ties or tools when she must set out on a road trip to keep Delia from being killed by a hit man. The things she learns about herself along the way empower her and help her to accept the fact that, while she can't change Delia, she can love her unequivocably.

The Pirate Queen, just finished WIP, is about a rich socialite named Saphora who, while a Southern Living photo shoot is taking place on her grounds, is planning to run away from home. Then her husband, plastic surgeon, big game hunter, womanizer, shows up in the middle of the day to tell her that he's been diagnosed with cancer. Then he tells her to take him to convalesce in the house where she had planned to live away from him. Suddenly, instead of the isolation she had planned on to try and figure out who she is, this summer home is full of dysfunctional relatives and grown children and grands descending on her quiet summer, all needy. The lessons she learns come from a completely new set of tools that she did not realize were there all along. I think that, for my development, the tools are dormant. There are some mentors who give her wisdom and support, but in both these books, there is the drawing on the hidden strengths and God-strengths.

It's a spiritual principal that is true of all humans--the Creator has placed these gifts or "tools" inside us, but they often hang rusting down in the cellar awaiting discovery. But I've never read about this in any material. I think it came from life.

Kristin Billerbeck: Based purely on what I enjoy reading, and I don't really have that adventure/suspense gene, I would say the female journey is nearly always emotional. Even if the outside influence is different. For example, in Star Wars, where Luke is called to go and become a Jedi when finding his dead family, I'd be more apt to read the story of the woman who stayed home and deals with the aftermath. Someone has to sweep up the embers.

I love authors who create drama out of the mundane landscape of homelife: Anne Tyler, Maeve Binchy, Jodi Piccoult.

Do you think there's a difference? Is there a female and male hero's journey?


Ralene said...

Overall, I think I agree with you, Brandilyn. The definition of a hero's journey is loose enough to include both male and female protagonists. Though there would naturally be some subtle differences in most stories, b/c men and women are different--the journey by definition does not change.

Nicole said...

I would agree with BC, too. The natural responses to the Call or Inciting Incident can be different, but the journey is nevertheless the journey for both sexes.
I think it's more the genre which makes a journey different for the sexes. And I still think it's the response to it which provides the differences, not the journey itself.

Pam Halter said...

Certainly, there's a difference. Men are from Mars, after all. :)

But I'm thinking that it depends on what the story requires. Some stories need a female protag and some don't. Our job is to figure that out!

Stuart said...

No difference at the structure level. Just the actual journey and the details of the desires and encounters would end up being different.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Well, there's a book called The Heroine's Journey by Maureen Murdock. Haven't read it myself, but here's the link to it on Amazon:

Also, Victoria Schmidt breaks it both journeys down in her book 45 Master Characters.