Thoughts on Mythic Structure: The Call to Adventure & Refusal of the Call


This is Part 2 in my series on mythic structure, or the hero’s journey. I am combining the next two stages of the hero’s adventure, The Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call, because they are so closely connected.

1. The call to adventure is issued by the herald archetype. This may be personified in a character i.e. Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games, the Tarleton brothers in Gone with the Wind, the droids in Star Wars: A New Hope. Or a herald can be an item such as the letter from Hogwarts in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, the dead body washed up on the beach in Jaws, or the burning bush in The Prince of Egypt. (For more on the herald archetype, please check out my previous article on the subject.)

2. The call generally comes early in the story (the first act in a screenplay or play; early chapters of a novel). There is something that happens to alert the hero that there is a problem that must be addressed. In the first scene of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is entertaining her gentlemen callers, the Tarleton brothers. They inform her that the man she truly loves, Ashley, is engaged to be married. Scarlett, certain Ashely loves her, forms a plan to let him know of her feelings.

3. The call often includes instructions for the hero. Either the herald will issue instructions or instructions will be included or are inherent in something else that functions as the call. For instance, Harry Potter’s letter from Hogwarts includes the books and equipment he needs for school, as well as the date when the term starts. The body on the beach in Jaws informs Brody that there is a mystery he must solve: who or what killed the woman.

4. It is not unusual for there to be more than one call in a story. For instance, in The Prince of Egypt, the burning bush doesn’t appear until the second act. In the first act, Moses’ call comes from his biological sister Miriam, who tells him he’s not really a prince, but a Hebrew adopted into the royal family. This crisis of identity leads to Moses killing a guard who is beating a slave, and his subsequent escape into the desert.

In The Lion King, Simba receives his first call from his evil Uncle Scar, who tells him he is to blame for his father’s death, leading to Simba running away. Later in the story, his friend Nala encounters him and tells him he must return to the pride and take his father’s place as king.

5. In addition to the hero receiving a call, there may be calls for other characters–even all or most of the other characters. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett receives her call about Ashley, which deals with her personal story. The declaration of war is a call that has to be answered by all the characters, including Scarlett.

6. Note that each call leads to a course of action for the hero. This is the main purpose of the call to adventure. It is the first major plot point in the main plot of a story.

7. In most stories, the initial impulse of the hero is to refuse the call. The call to adventure is a notification that things are going to change profoundly for the hero. Most people don’t want to change. Even when the hero expresses deep longing to leave the ordinary world, there is still hesitation at the idea of actually striking out into the unknown world

8. Some heroes don’t refuse the call. This is generally found in stories where the hero is already an adventurer and used to striking out into unknown worlds. Examples would include Indiana Jones and James Bond. Katniss in The Hunger Games does not refuse the initial call (when she takes her sister’s place in the games) but does refuse subsequent calls when she unwittingly becomes a symbol of rebellion.

9. Sometimes, someone else will refuse the call for the hero. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s aunt and uncle confiscate his letter from Hogwarts and forbid him to leave. This results in the house being bombarded with letters until they allow him to answer the call.

10. How long the hero hesitates to answer the call depends on the kind of story you are telling. In a typical heroic story, the hesitation doesn’t last long. In other stories, if the hero keeps refusing the call, this usually leads to tragedy.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s the main character’s indecision over how to answer his father’s ghost’s call that eventually leads to his destruction. In Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Passage, Brad Wolgast keeps hesitating over doing the right thing. By the time he makes a decision to take action, it’s too late and results in both personal and global disaster.

Some heroes may hesitate for a long time and come close to experiencing tragedy, but answer it just in time to turn things around. In the television show Lost, Jack Shephard refuses to answer the call to stay on the island to protect it. After he and some of the other survivors of the crash are rescued, he realizes they must all go back and fulfill their island destiny.

11. Ignoring the instructions in the call is another possible path to tragedy for the hero. In MacBeth, he receives his call from the three witches who tell him he will one day become king. Instead of waiting for this to happen naturally, or building on the good will everyone feels for him because of a recent act of heroism, he and Lady MacBeth plot to kill the current king. This eventually leads to his ultimate downfall.

12. In some stories, the hero answers the call because he has little or no choice. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke is forced to leave Tatooine because his aunt and uncle have been murdered and their farm burned down.

Forcing the hero to propel forward is a good way to get him to answer the call. Any event that makes the hero think of the ordinary world as gone or inaccessible in some fashion will work.

Please check out my previous article on mythic structure:

The Ordinary World

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