As long as you’re planning to be a superhero, you should understand the basics. After all, the superhero is not a new concept. All cultures in all places the world over have hero stories. And there is good reason for this: there has never been a culture or a tradition that did not require extraordinary men and women to accept the call to make the world a better place. It is through the great effort of others that we exist today. We exist on the grace of those who have given much, and will continue to exist based on the grace of those who continue giving on our behalf. If you seek to join their ranks, you must be willing to live the life of a hero. That means making your story the story of a hero, a story which is both radically new and steadfast in its tradition.
Being a superhero is a very new take on a very old legend. When anthropologist Joseph Campbell set out to study the story of the hero, he came up with the earth-shattering conclusion that all hero stories in all cultures, both real and fictional, follow what is known as the Archetypal Hero Myth. What Campbell meant is that every hero story, in every culture, those that really happen and those that are completely made up, us made up of common elements. The story, in short, never changes.
Every hero story starts with the would-be hero in the Ordinary World. This world is familiar to the hero, but not necessarily to the readers. The normalcy of that world is broken, however, by a task, typically given by a character known as a caller. This task is generally of great importance to the Ordinary People of the world, and thus is of great importance. The hero may readily accept the task or may waiver. But eventually, the task will be thrust upon the hero and the hero will cross a Threshold to Adventure which takes them out of the ordinary world and into the life of adventure.
Once in the world of adventure, the hero will undergo challenges. In the process of overcoming those challenges, the hero will encounter both helpers and opponents. The hero will gain aid and defeat obstacles, and eventually will complete her task through a final ordeal. There will be great rejoicing, but this is not the end of the hero story. After returning from the final ordeal, the hero will encounter a final challenge. This final challenge is usually too much for the hero, and as a result the hero will experience a figurative or literal death. But all is not lost, because due to forces outside the hero’s control, the hero will experience a figurative or literal resurrection as well. The hero carries on; the unstoppable force overcoming the immovable object, indicating that the there are forces beyond the hero both allied against her and for her.
These story elements are ubiquitous in the stories of great men and women, and a cursory glance of the lives of people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, St. Joan of Arc, and the New Testament account of Jesus reveals all of them. And of course, the stories of Superman, Spiderman, and literally hundreds of other heroes appropriate these narrative elements. The story of the hero is the keystone to the life of the heroic individual.
Here is your challenge: if you want to be heroic, you need to make this story your own. Take a step back: where are you in your story? Where are you stuck? Have you been called? Have you accepted the task? Are you across that threshold of adventure yet? If you tell your story as the story of a hero, I’m sure you’ll find that you, too, are already further down the road to being a superhero than you thought. Once you have your hero story worked out, you’re ready to take the next step. Welcome to the story!