Thoughts on Mythic Structure: Tests, Allies, and Enemies


This is Part 5 of my series on monomyth or the hero’s journey.

1. After your hero crosses the threshold into the world of adventure, the rules of the new world are a good place to start when it comes to testing your hero. Here are some ways he can get into trouble right away:

Ignorance of the rules: For instance, in Back to the Future, Marty doesn’t realize at first that he has traveled back into the past. When he crashes the DeLorean into someone’s barn and emerges from it in a hazmat suit, he looks utterly alien to the family who own it. He is surprised to find himself on the business end of a shotgun and must find a way to escape.

Hero may believe he’s above the rules: The children in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory totally ignore Wonka’s rules and warnings, which lead to disaster for all of them. This includes the hero Charlie, who also breaks the rules.

Hero may be persuaded by others to stick to the rules of the ordinary world: Chief Brody in Jaws thinks he can shut down the beaches after a shark attack. The community rebels because it will hurt their business during their short tourism season. He caves to the political pressure, in spite of warnings from expert marine biologist Hooper that the shark will continue attacking. Both Brody and the community live in denial that they have crossed over into an extraordinary circumstance.

Hero may be in a disoriented state and can’t absorb the rules at first: Emmet in The LEGO Movie is in a constant state of hysteria when he crosses into the extraordinary world after he is mistakenly identified as “The Special” from a prophecy. He has a difficult time keeping up with Wyldstyle and his other allies, who don’t understand why he doesn’t get the rules.

Hero may think he can visit the extraordinary world and hop back to the ordinary one whenever he feels like it: In Tootsie, actor Michael Dorsey mistakenly thinks he can easily keep separate his two lives as a man and as a woman playing a character on a soap opera.

2. Make tests increasingly difficult for the hero as the story progresses.

As your hero faces tests and surmounts their challenges, she will acquire knowledge and mastery. Making each test increasingly difficult is one way to keep your reader engaged.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss at first manages to survive by evading the other tributes in the game. Later, she is forced by the gamemakers to confront the other tributes.

You are the “gamemaker” of your story. Make certain that your hero is not merely evading danger. They need to confront ever-increasing danger.

3. It is at this point in the story that heroes usually encounter other characters who will become their allies.

They may or may not already have encountered their mentor(s) (i.e. Luke and Obi Wan, Marty and Doc Brown). Or, they may encounter them for the first time after they cross the threshold (i.e. Dorothy and Glinda).

Circumstances throw the hero in with one or more characters they are forced to form alliances with, either to achieve a goal (i.e. Dorothy and The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion/to see the Wizard of Oz) or simply so they can survive (i.e. the plane crash survivors in Lost).

4 Allies may appear to be antagonists or disturbing at first.

Stories thrive on conflict, and one good way to achieve this is to have potential allies appear to be a little less than friendly at first.

Dorothy, The Scarecrow and Tin Man are initially terrified of The Cowardly Lion until he shows his true persona. Anna and Kristoff in Frozen are totally freaked out by the sudden appearance of talking snowman Olaf. Luke and Han Solo start out with a contentious relationship which eventually evolves into friendship. Katniss is convinced Peeta wants her dead as much as the other tributes.

5. Allies in the extraordinary world may include friends and acquaintances from the ordinary world.

In Ghostbusters, Venkman, Stanz and Spengler were professors who worked together before they crossed over into the extraordinary world. They pick up new allies (Winston and Janine) later.

Buddy stories and multiple protagonist stories will usually contain characters who knew each other in the ordinary world, although some buddy stories (i.e. the movie The Heat) feature antagonistic characters who become buddies as they face tests in the extraordinary world together.

6. One test the hero may face is a falling out with an ally.

Again, conflict is the engine that makes your story run. Allies don’t have to be lovey-dovey or besties. Or, they can be love interests or dear friends, but may not agree on how to resolve certain situations.

Luke and Han fall out when Han refuses to help destroy the Death Star. Emmet falls out with his allies when they discover they were mistaken about him being “The Special.” Katniss believes Peeta has become her enemy because he appears to have allied himself with the “career” tributes during the games.

7. Allies may become separated from the hero or disappear from the story at some point.

It’s important that heroes resolve the biggest issues in the stories themselves. One way to make certain this happens it so separate them from their ally/allies. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is kidnapped by the flying monkeys and taken to the Wicked Witch’s castle. Her allies must then form a plan to help her escape, while Dorothy must confront the Witch alone. Although Dorothy vanquishes the Witch after her allies reunite with her, that one-on-one confrontation with the Witch is an important moment in the story.

8. Allies may die along the way.

I won’t get into specific examples to avoid revealing major spoilers. Mentors are often marked out for an exit from the story via death, and for good reason. The hero must take everything she has learned from him or her to accomplish her goal(s) without depending on her mentor to help her out. This may also happen with any ally character.

It’s very easy to fall into cliché at this point of the story. BE CAREFUL. While an ally’s death may enhance the story, using it just to jumpstart the hero’s character arc will come off as rote and make readers roll their eyes with impatience.

One way to avoid this is to have the ally’s death reverberate through the whole world of the story, not just affect the hero personally.

Or, just don’t kill off any allies. Unless you’re telling a war or other especially violent story, it probably won’t be necessary. (It’s also entirely fine NOT to kill off a mentor character, though it’s important to make them inaccessible to the hero for a good portion of the story.)

9. Allies may turn out to be enemies.

Allies may be secret hobblers who pretend to help the hero on her journey. (Again, no examples as these would be major spoilers.)

This is another way to generate conflict and give your story a neat twist.

10. Enemies may turn out to be secret allies.

I think it’s O.K. to mention Snape in the Harry Potter books. For most of his time at Hogwarts, Snape seemed to flat-out hate Harry. In reality, he was protecting him for the sake of his love for Harry’s late mother.

It’s not only heroes who need to be complex characters. This is one way to add complexity to one or more of your secondary characters.

11. I’ve already written a couple of articles about antagonists.

This one about how to create a great antagonist.

And this one about the Shadow archetype.

That should cover the “enemies” part pretty well.

12. Remember that testing your hero and having her engage with allies and enemies are all integral to creating a strong character arc.

Your character grows through conflict resolution and relationships, both positive and negative. She learns, she acquires mastery of skills. This will be very important both for the final resolution of the external conflict, as well as the hero’s internal conflict.

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