Vince here! Let me start by telling you a little about myself. I'm half-Italian, half-Chinese, and was born in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates — years before Dubai became the Metropolis it is today. I grew up in different countries due to my father's work, and became fascinated with stories and storytelling.
Stories captivated me because of the way they can inspire you and form friendships, regardless of who you are, or where you're from. For someone who has no place to call home, stories became everything.
So much so that I ended up meeting my co-creator Ray in film school, and years later joined forces to create stories like Skies of Fire, and Glow. Do check Glow out! We're currently running a kickstarter for the first hardcover, and can't wait to get it into your hands :D
This is not a new question, and there are dozens of books one can read on the topic. Back in film school, hot discussions took place that splintered our class of budding creatives into different gangs like houses in Hogwarts. In this post, I'd like to share with you the things I've learned over the years of telling stories.
Treading Old Ground
But, before jumping in, I have to introduce you to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell was one of the greatest mythologists of his day. He wrote dozens of books on mythologies from all around the world, chronicling them and giving his own insight and interpretations to their existence.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the culmination of his life's work, a book where he tries to define the basic building blocks of every story ever told. He called this the monomyth, or The Hero's Journey. It's a great read (albeit pretty academic in parts) and has influenced many creators and stories. George Lucas used the book to help him develop Star Wars, while Christopher Vogler wrote a memo based off the book to guide the creators in Disney's writing rooms.
Like them, Campbell has shaped how I write stories and will be referencing him throughout the post.
The Five Elements
Campbell was able to distill his Hero's Journey into one diagram. Vogler did it for Disney in a 7-page memo. Below, I came up with 5 elements that I think define a good adventure story.
I. The Quest
II. An Unknown World
So without further ado, let us explore what I'm calling the Anatomy of Adventure.
The first essential element for an adventure is The Quest. This is the adventure's raison d'etre, pardon my French :)
Joseph Campbell defines this as The Call to Action. Something that is brought upon by a "herald" that forces the hero(es) to get on their feet and take the necessary steps to begin their journey. This herald can be a person, an object, or a change in the world.
"The herald or announcer of the adventure, therefore, is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world... Or the herald is a beast (as in the fairy tale)... or again a veiled mysterious figure."
He travels far across endless waters and hears of a plant known as "Never Grows Old." Found at the bottom of the cosmic sea, Gilgamesh dives deep to retrieve it. He successfully bring one up and takes rest to recover from the search.
As he rests, a serpent that was attracted by the scent of the plant slithers in and eats the "Never Grows Old." From that day forth, serpents gain the ability to shed their skin and be youthful once more. When Gilgamesh wakes up and realizes he had lost his prize, he weeps, for no human being can ever stave the coming of death.
It's one of my favorite stories as it presents a very human desire and shows that even kings cannot hope to defeat the inevitable. It's also a great example for an adventure quest.
Another element vital to having an adventure is to go someplace the adventurer(s) have yet to experience.
An adventure involves travel outside the regular boundaries on an individual's ordinary existence. Campbell calls this Crossing the Threshold.
"The regions of the unknown are free fields for the projection of unconscious content."
These "unknown" places offer up opportunities for adventurers to find hope, face fears, and learn about that which lies beyond. It's exciting and frightening at the same time, for one can only imagine the treasures and terrors that lie in wait.
The Stargate sci-fi series is a great example of the implementation of unknown worlds. Here, an ancient machine that acts as a portal to other planets gives the show's heroes quick passage to places they can explore.
Though the portal literally means that a planet is just "a step away," the reality is that these worlds are hundreds of light-years from Earth. Being stranded off-world with a broken portal would be a serious problem. Not to mention that some portals may lead to inhospitable environments.
This sacrifice of leaving the comforts of the known world is often rewarded by knowledge, and makes the risk of the adventure worthwhile.
There is no adventure without challenge. This is true in story as in life. Though we may not wish struggle on ourselves, it's the spice that makes life worthwhile. A story where the protagonist gets it their way every time without having to fight for it probably is not that interesting.
Adventure is a test of one's physical and mental being. Success requires great will and perseverance. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is known as The Road of Trials.
"This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals."
Indeed, there are many ways a hero may be challenged on their journey. These adversities may be from within, from society around them, or from the environment itself.
Doubt is a strong adversity that grows from within. It's that moment the hero is at a crossroads and is unsure which way is best, or safest. There is no immediate danger, however, the challenge could spell success, or failure down the road.
Adversity from society can manifest in many ways. It can be the uncompromising authority figure, or an unruly mob. It can be bandits etching out a living on the road, or fellow adventurers who desire the same goals as you (but, only one may attain them).
This societal force is a favorite in epic stories. Like the Persian Immortals who challenged the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the outside threat that encroaches on the peace of the known world plays double duty as the "herald" to begin the adventure.
Environmental adversity is the third great adversity. It is nature that opposes the power of humanity. Thanks to the technological advancements in our day and age, we may forget how fragile we can be. Apocalyptic stories cut into this illusion and plays on the possibilities that may unfold in a catastrophe.
Such adversities can manifest as an animal, or monster. Rivers, Mountains, and other natural barriers also pose dangers and restrictions to an adventure. Forests may get our heroes lost, while deserts can exhaust them to the point of defeat. Distance itself is an adversity, especially when time is of the essence.
Like it or not, you're not on an adventure, unless adversity is at your door.
Facing such adversity in an unknown world, one cannot possibly expect a hero to survive! They'll need some help. Cue the companions, or as Campbell likes to call them - Supernatural Aids!
"The first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass."
The protective figures that Campbell talks about are the Obi Wan Kenobis, Gandalfs, and Dumbledores of the world. These are wise sages who may train, provide advice, or guide the adventurer on the correct path.
There are also the companions that join the hero based on their kinship, or chance encounter out in the unknown world. These come in all shapes and sizes, from the garish rogue Han Solo, to the smart and studious Hermione Granger. They provide specific skills that can be utilized given the right adversity.
Companions can be a reminder of home, who following the adventurer and reminding them of what awaits them on their return, or what is at stake if they fail. They can also be doubtful about the adventure at hand, becoming an unpredictable ally like Boromir. Such characters offer a more human perspective to the arduous journey ahead.
Last, but not least, we have items. Tools that adventurers bring to aid them where wit and physical prowess are not enough. Interestingly, Campbell doesn't highlight this in his book, only mentioning it in passing in quotes like below:
"The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region [the unknown world]."
But, items are important to an overall adventure. Items define humanity. Unlike other creatures that evolve large claws, or quick reflexes, we are endowed with a big brain. A brain that allows us to imagine and create things that augment our abilities.
Bows, spears, swords, boats, carts. The plethora of technologies that we've created to get to where we are today is mind-boggling. And their value in overcoming the challenges of the world have been written and revered in the epic tales of old.
We still know of many of these legendary items that empower not just humans, but gods as well. Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, and Arthur's Excalibur are two popular examples. Over time, their achievements made them symbols of status, leadership, and respect.
I guess part of why items are so valued is that they live longer than we do. Spanning for centuries, even millennia, they exist as a reminder of what once was, holding onto the stories of adventure they once experienced.
Until next time, godspeed on your travels.