Daughter Am I and The Hero’s Journey

DAIthumbI fell in love with the concept of the mythic quest when I read Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, so much so that I knew I had to write my own quest story. I’m not one for fantasy, either in real life or genre fiction, so I decided to use the hero’s journey structure for Daughter Am I, my contemporary novel of a young woman — Mary Stuart — who goes on a journey to learn about her recently murdered grandparents. Accompanying her are six old rogues — gangsters and con men in their eighties —  and one used-to-be nightclub dancer.

Developing so many characters at one time is difficult under normal circumstances, but the mythic journey archetypes helped me create the characters and keep them focused on their roles. Whether gangster or wizard, hit man or Darth Vader, the archetypes — and the power of the archetypes — are the same.

The hero is the one who grows the most in the story, who gains knowledge and wisdom. Heroism, in the mythic journey sense, is connected to self-sacrifice, risk, and responsibility. The hero must perform the decisive act of the story, though at the beginning, before their transformation, heroes often need to be goaded into action. Mary starts out only wanting to learn about her grandparents, and ends up becoming intensely loyal to the elders in her charge, which changes all of their lives.

A herald gets the hero started on the journey. Kid Rags, a dapper forger forced into retirement by computer technology, eggs Mary on, challenges her to find out more about her grandparents. Kid Rags is also a mentor, giving guidance and gifts, a role he shares with Teach. Teach is a con man who believes everything is a con, and he is not hesitant about sharing his vision.

Every mythic journey needs a trickster, a character who embodies the energies of mischief and a desire for change, and who provides comic relief. The trickster in Daughter Am I is played by Happy, an ex-wheelman for the mob. Happy wants to be on the move, is always urging action, and he peppers his talk with morose and unanswerable pronouncements about death. Did I mention that he carries a gun, but that his hands shake too much to be able to aim it properly? Poor sad Happy.

The shapeshifter is Tim Olson, Mary’s romantic interest. He doesn’t actually change shape, but he appears to change constantly from Mary’s point of view. He tempts, dazzles, confuses her, and makes her question his loyalty.

The shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the villain, and in the case of Daughter Am I, the villain truly is a shadow — Mary and her band of feisty octogenarians never even get a glimpse of him until the very end. Iron Sam, a dying hitman, is also a shadow. Although he is not a villain who has to be vanquished, he represents the dark side of Mary, a sinister balance to her guilelessness.

The story of Daughter Am I lightly follows the stages of the mythic journey, from a glimpse into Mary’s ordinary world, to the call for adventure (her own curiosity as to who her grandparents were and why they were murdered), her reluctance to commit to the journey, meeting her mentors, deciding to take a chance and just head out to talk to others who might have known her grandparents, undergoing tests and ordeals, and ultimately returning home, knowing who she is and what she wants to do.

Although Daughter Am I takes the same “hero’s path” that worked for such disparate stories as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Tin Cup, the journey is Mary’s own, not a rehash of any of any other quest story.  That is the beauty of the hero’s journey — the structure is infinitely malleable, giving any story a mythic undertone without overshadowing the story itself or confining it into a strict formula.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

The Mythic Journey Behind Daughter Am I

Today is the last day of my Daughter Am I virtual book tour, and what better place to end it than here, at my own blog. Thank you everyone for your support during the past five weeks. It was a wonderful journey!

Daughter Am I was the combination of two different stories I wanted to write. I’d read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and the mythic journey so captured my imagination that I knew I had to write my own quest story. I also liked the idea of telling little-known truths about the mob, and I settled on the story of a young woman — Mary Stuart — going on a journey to learn about her recently murdered grandparents. Accompanying her are six old rogues — gangsters and conmen in their eighties — and one used-to-be nightclub dancer. As Mary listens to stories the old-timers tell, she gradually discovers the truth of her heritage and of herself. 

Developing so many characters at one time is difficult under normal circumstances, but the mythic journey archetypes helped me create the characters and keep them focused on their roles. Whether gangster or wizard, hit man or Darth Vader, the archetypes — and the power of the archetypes — are the same. 

A hero is the one who grows the most in the story, who gains knowledge and wisdom. Heroism, in the mythic journey sense, is connected to self-sacrifice, risk, and responsibility. The hero must perform the decisive act of the story, though at the beginning, before their transformation, heroes often need to be goaded into action. Mary starts out only wanting to learn about her grandparents, and ends up becoming intensely loyal to the elders in her charge. (If you saw Bed of Roses, you might have met Mary. Mary Stuart Masterson’s character — naïve and intelligent, strong and vulnerable — inspired me to write my Mary.) 

A herald gets the hero started on the journey. Kid Rags, a dapper forger forced into retirement by computer technology, eggs Mary on, challenges her to find out more about her grandparents. Kid Rags is also a mentor, giving guidance and gifts, a role he shares with Teach. Teach is a con man who believes everything is a con, and he is not hesitant about sharing his vision. (You’ve met Teach a hundred times. Remember Charles Lane? I’m sure you do. He started acting in 1926 and didn’t stop until 2005. Well, Charles Lane was my inspiration for Teach.) 

Every mythic journey needs a trickster, a character who embodies the energies of mischief and a desire for change, and who provides comic relief. The trickster in Daughter Am I is embodied by Happy, an ex-wheelman for the mob. Happy always wants to be on the move, is always urging action, and he peppers his talk with morose and unanswerable pronouncements about death. Did I mention that he carries a gun, but that his hands shake too much to be able to aim it properly? Poor sad Happy. 

Tim Olson, Mary’s romantic interest, is the shapeshifter. He doesn’t actually change shape, but he appears to change constantly from Mary’s point of view. He temps, dazzles, confuses her, and makes her question his loyalty. (Tim Daly from The Year of the Comet was my inspiration for Tim Olson. He had some great lines like:  “I never said I didn’t go to MIT.”) 

I could go through the whole list of characters, talking about which archetype each represented, but I don’t want to bore you by with a long discussion about the underpinnings of the story. The main point is that I wanted to use the same “hero’s path” that worked for such disparate stories as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Tin Cup, but head out on my own journey.

Click here to find the Daughter Am I Blog Tour Schedule Even though the tour is over, it exists forever in the eternal presence of cyberspace, so stop by any time.

DAIClick here to buy Daughter Am I from Second Wind Publishing, LLC. 

Click here to buy Daughter Am I from Amazon.

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Research: When Good Books Go Bad

Many good books go bad when the authors refuse to let go of any of their hard-won research and so dump it all in the novel, making the story drag. I have a tendency to put in a lot of information — though I don’t use all my research, not even most of it. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I talk (or rather my characters do) about biological weapons, biowarfare, bioengineered organisms because I thought the reality was more frightening than my fiction. For example, The World Health Organization spent years and a heap of money to eradicate smallpox, yet smallpox in ever more virulent forms is stockpiled in labs all around the world. Spooks the heck out of me!

But I digress. Daughter Am I, which will be released in October, was conceived as a way to combine two of my interests at that time — early gangster history and the mythic journey. (You might not recognize the similarity between Daughter Am I and Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz, but all three are based on the same mythic journey template.) In 2007, I entered the book into the first ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest, and my prize for being a semi-finalist was a review from Publishers Weekly. After giving a summary of the plot, the reviewer ended with:

While the author certainly researched the history of the Mafia, too many of the numerous historical asides — and subplots — are tacked on under the guise of story time, making the story drag with detail abut Wyatt Earp, the JFK assassination and bootleggers. But underneath the relentless bouts of story time is a delightful treasure-hunting tale of finding one’s self in a most unlikely way.

Too many historical asides? Eek! That was the whole point of the book! I tightened up the story, got rid of the asides that didn’t go directly to character or plot, but still felt a bit uncomfortable with the situation. When I mentioned my concern about the “info dumps” to fellow author Malcolm Campbell, he responded:

Your book is wonderful. Looking into one’s past is powerful stuff, but getting tangled up with a lot of lovable scam artists is a really fresh approach. Your wonderful characterizations—that’s another thing for discussion. It’s a challenge having lots of characters while keeping them from all sounding like oneself.

The “info dumps” as you call them add a lot of depth to the book and are informative and entertaining in their own right. They support the character telling the story. But also, they provided periods of “calm” in what is a frenetic quest that zooms from one unexpected thing to another without pause. We’ve seen “these gangsters” in dozens of movies, and for me, the archetypes are those of the 1940s films my generation grew up on—and that’s appropriate since these guys are elders. They’re a much different breed of cat than we see on modern, street-wise TV shows like, say, DARK BLUE which takes us undercover right into the worst of today’s gangs and thugs.

Whew!

(The first chapters of my books are included in the mystery sampler available as a free download from Second Wind Publishing. Click here: Free Downloads.)

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