Typing Out Arcs
Yet another Hero's Journey rehash...but this time with even MORE Star Wars references!
I’ve been thinking a lot about character arcs recently, more specifically the Big Arcs like the Hero’s Journey. If you’re not familiar with the Hero’s Journey, it’s a type of character arc that also represents the universal human condition. In a nutshell, the Hero goes from a place of innocence to a place of experience, passing through Death and Rebirth, before returning home with some kind of Elixir (physical treasure, grand love, magic powers, wisdom, whatever.). But the Hero’s Journey is only one of the Big Arcs writers can write about.
In my experience, there are 4 Big Arcs arcs you can write as a writer. These are the archetypal journeys. They mirror the four major life changes we all go through: Growing Up, Moving Out, Settling Down, and Moving On.
Reading that, anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the Hero’s Journey or Shakespeare’s Ages of Man can see where I’m going with this, but for the rest of us, let’s elaborate.
Growing Up roughly corresponds to coming-of-age. Childhood stories, in other words. That’s books and stories that take place during childhood, not necessarily books read by children. After all, Growing Up stories — as ubiquitous as they are — are probably the most boring of the four. They deal with the archetype of the Child and their growth toward the Hero or what I like to call the Hunter.
Growing Up stories can be any genre, but their audiences are usually found in children’s fiction, middle grade, and the younger rungs of YA. Growing Up stories are mainly about wondering. Wondering about the future. Wondering about the world around you. Wondering who you will be and what you’ll do when you’re a grown up and what you’ll have for breakfast tomorrow and whether Mom will come home from the grocery store on time.
As the arc advances, the Child grows toward individuation. They gradually separate themselves from the family that reared them and maybe make their first forays into the Outside World. First crush stories are popular Growing Up stories, as are stories about moving from one town to another and stories about divorce.
I’ll be honest with you, I’m barely getting out of this phase of life myself, so it’s hard for me to tell you exactly what it is since I’m in it. Suffice to say, it’s all the stuff that happens before the Good Part of the story.
Moving Out is the Good Part. It’s the actual Hero’s Journey. The Child takes their first steps in the role of the Hunter. They are summoned by a Leader and embark on a Quest. They perform great deeds, rescue innocents, and defeat evil. Moving Out stories can be found in the YA/Teen section of the bookstore. They usually revolve around the protagonist’s official entry into the Adult World.
Growing Up and Moving Out could also be called Wondering and Wandering: The Child’s job is to wonder at all they see. The Hunter’s job is to wander and explore the world around them, and then, here’s the key, bring back whatever they find.
The Hunter’s arc, the arc of Moving Out, is about going out and bringing something back to the Village/Family/Tribe. The Hero leaves home in search of the Elixir. The Hunter goes out in search of game. Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine and joins the Rebellion.
The Child finds something too, but what they find is internal. They don’t necessarily even leave the house. Nothing the Child finds is of value to anyone but the Child. That’s not a bad thing. The Child has to find their treasure in order to advance to the next stage and complete the Growing Up arc. Their treasure is usually some type of special knowledge about the world. It can be that love is real. It can be that life isn’t fair. It can be that dragons can be defeated. But the Child doesn’t find love, correct injustice, or defeat the dragon. That’s the Hunter’s job.
You can see why I call the Hunter arc the Good Part. The Hunter’s arc is all youthful exuberance, exploration, growing from innocence to experience. It’s Luke Skywalker’s journey from farm boy to Jedi Knight. It’s Arthur drawing the sword and uniting the disparate kings of Albion into one nation.
The Child’s arc, meanwhile, is about internal change. Cinderella goes to the ball and learns that life can be better. Then she’s swept away by Prince Charming. She’s not a Hero, she’s a Child. More specifically, a Maiden. Yes, she goes on an adventure, but most of what transpires in the story happens TO her. She does not affect the story but is effected by it. It’s everything that happens to Luke before he says, “I was gonna go to Toshi Station and pick up some power converters.” It’s the period from infancy to teen-dom, when the child stretches their legs and decides to go on a quest to the edge of the block to buy a magazine at the store by themselves for the first time.
Like I said, it’s not the Good Part.
While the first two arcs revolve around the character Going Out, the next two deal with the character Sitting Around. After the Hunter has returned with their prize, they will need to Settle Down.
Settling Down is the story of the Leader. The King or Queen. Not the Prince or Princess. Princes and Princesses, like Knights, ride horses and go places. Kings and Queens don’t do that. Kings and Queens sit around. That’s why they have thrones.
Leaders don’t go on quests. Or rather, their quests are on such a grand scale that they cannot be done in-person. Instead, leaders sit around and they get other people to go out on quests and perform the tasks of expanding the kingdom/family. Like the Child, the Leader’s job is one of maintenance, not expansion.
Settling Down makes for an ok story. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a good example of a Settling Down story in that it tells the tale of a day in the life of an unremarkable man.
But there’s a reason most stories about King Arthur focus on the years before he became king. Once he becomes king, the focus shifts to Lancelot or Gawain or Percival or one of the other knights. Why’s that? Because King Arthur doesn’t DO anything as king that’s particularly exciting in storytelling terms. He rules. He rules with justice tempered by mercy and love. He loves Guinevere (and that one time his sister) and has a kid or two. It’s all very peaceful and lovely, but it’s not the Good Part.
No, we don’t catch up with King Arthur again until he gets to his last arc: Moving On.
Moving On is about Death. More specifically, how the character grows to acknowledge and accept their own mortality. How will they face the ultimate end? Will they go quietly or attempt to resist the final passing? Even having cheated death once, can the hero do so again? Not if they’re a Leader by now, they can’t.
The truth is that everyone dies. That’s true for Hunters as well as for Leaders.
It may sound morbid, but this is actually the Good Part of the latter half of the four major character arcs. In fact, if done right, it can be the Best Part. Arthur’s death is the final tale of King Arthur. It’s the last great thing he does. It’s so powerful that there’s an explosion in the historical record of kids being named “Arthur” around the 6th century or so. I can’t find a citation for that, so you’ll have to trust me for now.
Like the Leader’s arc, this arc is about Sitting Around. But now, instead of being a Leader, the character is growing into the final stage: The Sage.
While the Leader sits around Giving Orders, the Sage sits around Sharing Wisdom. Just as the Leader’s job is handing out quests to the Hunters, the Sage’s primary job is to inspire Children to become Hunters themselves. Like the Hunter who embarks on a physical quest, the Sage looks within to prepare their soul for Death. The Sage takes the Child or young Hunter on a spiritual quest, helping them to become the best version of themselves possible. Like the Hunter, whose job is to expand the kingdom, the Sage’s job is to expand their own soul.
That’s why I enjoyed The Last Jedi. Folks who were waiting for Luke Skywalker to return to the Resistance, fire in his eyes, swinging his lightsaber around, were waiting for a Hunter. But by the time of the sequel trilogy, Luke’s not a Hunter anymore. He’s become the Sage, and it’s his job to prepare Rey to become the next Hunter. His arc could only end in death, and it was the Best Part of the movie.
For now, I am a Child growing into a Hunter. Soon, I shall be a Hunter growing into a Leader. Eventually, I will become a Sage. But not yet.
Sorry today’s post came so late! I hope you had as much fun reading as I did writing. Remember to like, subscribe, and comment. Every time you do, an angel gets a macaroni necklace.