Tiphanie Yanique on Breaking the Rules of Form
"Form allows for that kind of freedom."
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One of the most taught and familiar forms of fiction is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This form is so ubiquitous, so much a part of the zeitgeist that I can’t even tell you when I first heard of it. Campbell himself argued that this form is found in all cultures and can be applied to most stories. But when an old, and in this case dead, white man, insists that something he “discovered” is universal, this alone is reason to be suspicious.
It prompts the question: why is this form useful? And how might it not be? We need to know what a particular form does for storytelling so we can make an informed decision about if we want to use it, when we want to use it, or if we want to dismiss it altogether.
You know the formula: the steps give scene (the hero goes places) and character development (though it is archetype), but mostly, this form gives plenty of guidance on plot. In fact, it is a form that may be overly dependent on plot — which is why it shows up so often in what we think of as plot-heavy genres, like action and fantasy. In Hollywood, the Hero’s Journey expresses the adventure and risk that has defined white, western, and male struggle; specifically, the white masculine coming-of-age in modernity. The hero is generally a young adult, or a kid, even. The hero isn’t generally middle-aged and married with kids — that would make his leaving an abandonment. No heroism there.
So, the form is limited. But what if writers of fiction use it anyway, in such a way that it can serve us? What if the hero is a woman? Does she meet a goddess, or does she encounter her own self? What if the hero is elderly? Does he lose the ordeal because he doesn’t have both the strength and naiveté for the foolhardiness that the journey requires?
To test out this kind of subversion, I wrote a story, “The Special Word,” which is a chapter in my novel, Monster in the Middle. I put my own skill set, talents, and lived experience to work, but asked specific questions: what happens if I lean into my character’s Blackness while writing him into this white male structural form? I also asked conversely, what might this white Western form have to say about Blackness?
As I use them, the stages start out something like this:
Freshman year of college is the journey.
The ordinary world is Fly’s home before college — where he lives with parents who have never been to college themselves.
The call is actual college stuff, orientation, etc., and he refuses them, doesn’t go, but then his RA pulls him across the threshold.
Fly meets a goddess (a super hot and super religious girl).
He gets into her innermost cave (by which I mean, they fuck).
His parents announce they are getting divorced which is an emotional ordeal for him.
He faces his father.
My own lived experience, as well as my research, led me to consider how the form’s rules may or may not accommodate the nuances of Blackness. A Black boy who believes in a goddess at all is likely to believe in God and be a boy of deep faith. What does this faith do for him when he meets the goddess? It makes him fall in love, of course. He is also an educated Black boy, with parents who had never been to college themselves; can he “return” with the elixir in a way that his parents will recognize? How can he be the “master of two worlds” when Blackness isn’t allowed mastery of this one? And forget about “Freedom to live” — we’ve been through a summer of Black Lives Matter and know better than that. So I cut the form short, and by doing so I argue that Blackness is often denied heroism.
All forms have cultural markers to contend with, but many forms, including those as famous as the Hero’s Journey, have value for fiction writers if we understand what the form does and how to make it work for our stories. Resisting form is just a way to let the poets have all the fun and all the profundity. The truth is that we are always working inside of forms and structures, but knowing how other writers have created narratives and emotions through similar kinds of turns and steps will only enable us to make better stories.
We can bend a form, break it, even as we retain the elements that might aid us in developing plot and character. We can make our own type of heroes that our stories and readers need. We can send our characters on the types of journeys that help them save themselves and their communities — or not. We have options. Form allows for that kind of freedom.
Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique is available via Riverhead Books.