The Hero’s Journey – Ordeal
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger!”
Quoting Nietzsche might seem a bit intense for a post on children’s stories but he really does capture the nature of the 6th stage in a hero’s journey plot line: the Ordeal.
In the previous stage, we saw the character make their Approach toward a particularly dangerous place (be it a physical or emotional space). Well, now they are there. They may find themselves infiltrating a villain’s lair or imprisoned in a dungeon. Or, they may face a difficult inner challenge like the loss of a loved one. Or all of the above.
The Ordeal is not easy on a character. At this stage even funny books and films can take on a darker edge:
It is a brush with death, whether literal or symbolic. It is a time of suffering, but as we’ll see in the later stages, it is from that suffering that new growth emerges. Going through this darkness really does make a character stronger.
The Ordeal often forces the character through both physical peril and emotional or psychological distress.
As mentioned in the previous post, characters of ancient myths often found themselves swallowed by whales, dragons, or other beasts at this point. When writing Star Wars George Lucas was greatly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s ideas on the Hero’s Journey and put his characters into the belly of a mechanical beast, so-to-speak:
Luke and co. get out of the trash compactor and ultimately, out of the Death Star—but Obi Wan does not. It is typical for the protagonist to lose a mentor, a friend, or an ally of some sort at this stage of the story. Like Luke, Junior loses a mentor—two in fact—in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian when his Grandmother is killed by a drunk driver and Eugene, a close family friend, is shot.
Me and the remnants of Obi Wan at the EMP Museum in Seattle.
It’s not always so literally life-and-death. A few weeks ago I read Stacey Matson’s A Year in the Life of a Total and Complete Genius. The main character, Arthur Bean, is obsessed with winning the 7th grade writing competition (and also with winning over his crush, Kennedy). His Ordeal comes when he wins the competition using a plagiarized story. Instead of feeling triumphant, he ends up just feeling guilty and Kennedy is less than pleased when she finds out. There’s no literal death here, but Arthur’s main goals seem as good as dead at this point in the story!
When your favourite character hits the Ordeal, keep in mind the advice printed on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
After all, plots are a lot like an alchemical transformation. Sometimes it takes mucking around with a bunch of lead to get to gold. Sometimes it takes a time of darkness to find light. As we’ll see next time, the character may lose friends in the Ordeal, but they also emerge from it with some sort of Reward. Whether a physical tool or something less tangible, like a key piece of information or a renewed sense of purpose, that reward will prove crucial for the character as the story accelerates toward its climax!
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