The Hero’s Journey – Call to Adventure
Listen up, you! Yes—you!
On we go to the 2nd stage of a Hero’s Journey plot line: the “Call to Adventure.” This is where the fun begins. It’s the event that really kick-starts the story!
To review, here’s the key stages of the Beginning Phase (ACT 1) of a Hero’s Journey story:
The Call to Adventure is the moment when the hero’s Ordinary World changes forever. The main character experiences an event or receives a message that spurs them to take action, leaving their old situation behind to enter a new one.
The Call to Adventure is deeply resonant in the human psyche. The word ‘Call’ itself has powerful overtones. Think of the idea of ‘finding your calling.’ Or the spiritual connotations of being ‘called’ (as Jesus called the Apostles, for example).
Often the Call to Adventure is literally a call that the character receives—like a phone call, a letter, or a public announcement. It beckons, invites, or coerces them into a new situation. Not surprisingly, writers often reinforce the Call with sounds that symbolize a moment of change—a siren, blowing of trumpets or horns, the stirring of wind, the rumbling of a storm, a knock, or a ringing bell!
Whatever form it takes, it typically presents the character with a choice—will they accept the adventure or not? Will they stay or will they go? Gandalf and the Dwarves, for instance, are about to plop a contract on the table asking Bilbo to come help them fight a dragon.
Moment of Doubt
Indeed, the character may not want to go—as we can gather from Bilbo’s reaction even before he learns the bit about the dragon! After all, accepting a change in our life is not always easy!
Characters may initially refuse the Call for many reasons: they may fear change; they may doubt their own abilities, be too humble, or too shy. But chances are, they decide to follow through. This often happens with some convincing from another character, usually called a “Mentor.”
Advice from a Mentor
Mentor characters are disproportionately old guys with beards, especially in children’s fantasy.
The Wizard Merlin, an early adopter of the Mentor Beard.
However, Mentors could be parents, siblings, friends, or teachers too—among others. In Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the protagonist, Junior, lives on the Spokane Indian reservation. One of Junior’s teachers realizes how frustrated he is with the terrible education on the reserve (after Junior has hurled a useless textbook across the class, breaking the teacher’s nose!) He shows up at Junior’s house a few pages later and urges him to transfer to the off-reservation—and very white—school in the nearby town. The teacher is both giving Junior the Call and providing him with the encouragement of a Mentor here. This certainly thrusts Junior into a new situation and his trials and triumphs at the new school drive the rest of the plot.
The Mentor doesn’t even have to be a person—it could be a line from a poem or song, a memory, or just some further event that helps spur the character on.
This clip (which we saw a part of in the Wishing Well post) shows Harry Potter finally get his Call to Adventure (Uncle Vernon had desperately refused it for him up to this point!) Harry has doubts too and Hagrid serves as the Mentor who convinces him to accept his calling as a wizard.
Sometimes the character doesn’t resist the Call much because they realize they have something to gain. Shrek decides to go rescue Princess Fiona for Lord Farquaad because if he does, Farquaad will clear the squatting fairy tale creatures out of Shrek’s swamp.
“What kind of quest…?”
Sometimes, a character chooses to accept the Call even if they were not the original recipient. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ little sister Prim is initially chosen for the Games in a public reaping, but Katniss offers to go in her sister’s place.
And sometimes, as Mr. Scrooge knows, fate decides to give you the Call and—resist all you like—you don’t really have a choice!
One way or another, the adventure has begun!
The Guiding Question
A final thought on the Call to Adventure: This stage often raises a question that will guide the rest of the plot, only to be answered in the final Climax.
In The Hunger Games, that guiding question is: “Will Katniss survive?” and this remains up in the air right to the end. The guiding question can get more detailed or nuanced along the way. By the end of The Hunger Games, for example, the question is: “Will Katniss survive? Will her quasi-boyfriend Peeta survive with her? And will they be able to find some way of not only surviving but sticking it to the tyrannical forces that put them through this awful situation?!”
In the first Harry Potter book, the question raised in the Call to Adventure is quite vague. Harry learns he’s a wizard and is called to attend Hogwarts. At this point, the guiding question is simply: “What will happen as wizard school?” J.K. Rowling adds more detail along the way, so eventually we know that the powerful Philosopher’s Stone is hidden at the school and a dark power is trying to steal it. The question evolves to: “Will Harry and his friends keep the Stone from falling into evil hands?”
Junior, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has a similar guiding question at first: “What will happen to him at the white school?” Instead of evolving into a mystery with a magical stone, this novel focuses more on character and relationships. We are soon wondering not only what will happen to Junior at the white school, but also whether he will be able to remain friends with Rowdy, his best friend from the reservation, while he is away.
It might seem like oversimplifying to break novels down into one or two key questions, but thinking this way helps bring clarity to a plot. And then authors elaborate these guiding questions throughout the story and keep us guessing at the answers right up until the end!
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