I’ve often heard this question asked when it comes to storytelling, are you in it for the journey or simply there for the sheer thrill of adventure. Many would say that they’re the exact same thing and since the dawn of time we’ve just been recycling the same basic story and plot over and over again, just with different names and locals substituted in each time. Personally, I have to disagree with this notion, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s there’s a big difference between crafting an epic quest and just jumping right into the middle of things.
See, when talking about creating and building a story for a character, the first thing that often comes to mind is the notion of the hero’s journey, as it should because it’s entertained us and been ingrained into our minds for years. If you don’t think you’re familiar with this concept you’ve probably got a better handle on it than you actually realize, because if you’ve ever seen Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, you’ve seen the hero’s journey put into practice. It’s where ordinary, and often vastly underprepared, people are thrust into a situation that’s far beyond their own control, at first, often doubting themselves and their own capability. As the plot progresses, they begin to discover their own hidden strength, at last accepting a destiny they never thought possible and then setting out to fulfill it. It’s Luke’s journey from reluctant farm boy to Jedi Knight, and Harry’s as he goes from an orphan locked in a closet to full-fledged wizard. It’s a complete and utter transformation for the character involved, and can often take volumes to do right, along with being a very rewarding, and sometimes nightmarish, endeavor to put together.
Straight adventure stories, on the other hand, have a very different flavor about them, as many times long term character development and personal growth mean squat. These are the stories that involve characters like Conan, Indiana Jones, or James Bond, where the main protagonist is already a competent individual and we only get a glimpse, if anything at all, of their backstory. When we join these guys, we already get to see how badass they are straight out of the gates, with Indy stealing the idol in the opening scene of Raiders and 007 being a developed secret agent from minute one of Dr. No. Adventure tales aren’t so much concerned about how these characters are going to grow, but more about what threat they’ll have to overcome next as they pretty much already are who they’re going to be. These stories cut a lot of the stodginess out and get down to brass tax pretty quick, and that’s focusing on action, with character growth an afterthought when compared to moving the plot and pace along.
I think the real question is, not which method of storytelling is better but more of which do you prefer, as they both have their definite merits and flaws that accompany them. Stories about epic journeys and quests are, without a doubt, long term commitments, but there’s no better way to become truly vested in a character, watching them grow from practically nothing to often times becoming the savior of their world and people. We look at their accomplishments as they build and at their achievements as they stack up, and for many of us, feel like we’re taking part in it and becoming someone else for ourselves. The downside is there can be an awful lot to keep track of as the tale deepens in complexity and it often feels like a marathon to make it to the end. And then there’s always the chance that it goes way off the rails for absolutely no reason at all, with some kind of ridiculous, nonsensical plot turn that ruins everything that came before, but those are the risks we take when going into them.
With pure adventure stories, by contrast, it’s all for the thrill of it, with the spotlight on a quicker pacing and an edge of your seat plot. We get to see a protagonist that’s fully realized when we first begin, and we often pick out the best and most capable attributes we’d like to see in ourselves and latch on. The downside here, as I’ve mentioned, is the character development, as the main leads tend to be flatliners when it comes to growth. Conan is a sword swinging beauhunk from beginning to end, while James Bond is a skirt chasing super spy with a love for Martinis and fast cars from the outset. But what the fun part is with these guys is that we don’t really give a hoot, as who they are and what they do has become so synonymous with the character that we’re happy to just be along for the ride. Bond is always going to find himself in trouble because of a pretty face and Conan’s pursuit of riches and woman is bound to lead to him to no good. But we’re fine with it because we expect and look forward to it, and we also look forward to see how they’ll get out of it next, which is definitely part of the appeal.
For my part, I think my tastes tend to skew toward the adventure story more, but as a writer I know how important it is to have elements of the hero’s journey sprinkled in to flesh out a narrative. I favor characters that when we meet them, they are almost fully aware and capable, with their pasts being revealed as the story progresses, mostly because I like a bit of mystery. There’s just something about not knowing why a character can do what they can do that intrigues me, and my mind usually invents backstories of my own until it’s finally been revealed. I really like to try and invoke this same feeling in my own readers when I set about crafting a tale, too, because I want them to think and use their own imaginations to connect with the story and events. A good journey is not a bad thing by any means, but sometimes it can get very dull and tedious when it lags, making it a chore to get through at points. Just make sure whichever route you prefer you’re enjoying yourself along the way, because there’s no sense in spending time on a story that sucks or characters we can’t stand. Get out there and read, watch, or listen to something you love, and above all, have fun with it, because that what it should be. As always, take care, gang. And I’ll talk to you next time.