Among the many gifts bequeathed to us by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorites is The Shapes of Stories, where he visualized different kinds of stories by drawing them on a line graph.
Vonnegut put joy on the top of the graph and misery on the bottom, the line bouncing between them as the protagonist’s fortunes change. (Check out Maya Eliam’s sleek, colorful rendering.) Take a happy character who suffers setback after setback before conquering all (think Hansel and Gretel) and is shaped like a hammock weighed down by a bear. The classic rom-com is shaped like a dromedary camel: A hump emerges as the characters come together, then plummets to the bear-in-a-hammock as they are ripped apart. A new hump forms as they triumph to live happily ever after.
Now, what happens if we take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and put it on Vonnegut’s easel?
It’s a wild ride.
In any hero story, the second half usually looks the same — a blitz of lightning strikes, sharp peaks and plunges, pulsing across the page. It’s when the hero faces test after test, leading to their big challenge. The graph dives lower as the battles get more perilous, often with casualties; it soars with the euphoria of victory and its rewards.
Where second halves tend to look alike, beginnings do not. Hero’s stories can burst out in a camel’s hump, or tumble into a bear-in-a-hammock. They can start low and plunge lower, like a deep dive, or inch upward like a staircase.
You can even have shape-shifting beginnings for the same hero. Like Robin Hood, for example. Sometimes, Robin starts out as a nobleman who defies a corrupt Prince John and decides to rob the rich to feed the poor. Other times, Robin is a hungry peasant like everyone else, his early raids more about survival than justice.
Once Robin embraces his role as a leader, his story takes a shape similar to Perseus’ or Meg Murry’s (A Wrinkle in Time): The Prince puts a bounty on him; the Sheriff of Nottingham arrests him; he escapes; he falls in love with the Lady Marian; he finds the missing King Richard; finally, in the story’s climax, he fights to restore Richard to his throne.
Hero story beginnings take different shapes because people do. Anyone can be a hero.
What matters is how the hero meets the tests. Initial battles make Robin Hood a leader, first of bandits, then of his community. Next, he’s challenging a corrupt authority; next, rescuing a king. By the climax, he’s not merely fighting to restore one man to a throne. He is fighting for his people.
That’s the other thing Vonnegut teaches us about heroes. They’re not born, they’re forged.
Dean of Faculty