The Hero’s Journey – from a different spot on the dial

I love the concept of the Hero’s Journey, a classic format that frames the path of every hero, and is repeated in every heroic story. If you’re not familiar with it, you can find a helpful summary here:’s_journey.htm

As every seasoned writer knows, one of the advantages of knowing the rules is knowing when you can bend or even break them. This was my goal when I experimented with taking a classic hero’s tale, but instead of starting the hero in the typical world of the normal, I begin the adventure at the point of his life and death struggle and travel the circle from there. It makes for a fascinating study, and I call this story:

The Infinity Bomb

I know it will be bad if I can’t stop the bomb.

The countdown timer is at fifty seconds now. It’s racing toward zero, trying to keep up with my heartbeat. 48, 47, 46 …

I remember that my Boy Scout knife has a Phillips screwdriver built in. I flip it open and back out four screws. The lid pops off easily and I’m staring at a rat’s nest of colored wires.

Of course it’s wires. What did I expect from this nightmare, micro circuits? It has to be another deception filter. I glance at the timer. 20, 19, 18 …

I’m out of time. Have to take a chance. I unfold the large blade and slice through a blue wire.

The bomb’s innards shimmer like a mirage in the desert. The wire clutter vanishes, replaced by a neat forest of chips impaling a motherboard. And one big red button.

I figure they keep the dangerous red buttons on the outside of bombs, so I punch it and pray. Someone must be watching out for me because the whole business evaporates. In fact, the entire warehouse disappears and then I’m staring at my best friend Corey.

“Hey, why did you run off like that?” I demand.

Corey gives me a funny look. “What do ya mean? We’ve been right here in the tree house for the past hour. Uh oh, is that your mom calling?”

“Jimmy!” Yeah, it’s Mom.

I stick my head out the window. “Coming!”

“Well, hurry up, honey. You need to mow the lawn before you go to the movie.”

“What?” I scramble down the rope ladder and stare at the grass in disbelief. “But I mowed the yard an hour ago.”

Yet there it is, six inches tall and more ragged than my haircut.

My stomach sinks. “This is so weird. But even more than that, I feel like there’s something I need to do, something important.”

“Yeah, well, you better mow this lawn first or we’re not doing anything,” Corey sighs.

It takes a while to mow down the jungle. I’m sure I cut it earlier. Finally I slide the mower back under the carport and grab a fresh tee shirt. Corey and I head for the movie theater.

“Corey, there’s something really strange going on today, honest. It’s like I’m remembering things before they happen.”

“That’s crazy talk, man! Did you have weird dreams last night? Maybe you’re remembering those.”

“I dunno. You know how when you first wake up from a dream, you can remember parts of it? Then you start to forget, until it gets so fuzzy you can’t remember any of it.” I stop in my tracks as a gorgeous twenty-something woman walks by. “Leah?”

She whirls, her eyes steel. “How do you know that name?”

“I don’t know. It just came to me. Is that your name?”

“Anything else ‘come’ to you today, kid?”

“Well, I thought I mowed the lawn earlier, but the grass was still super tall and I had to mow it again.”

She turns to Corey, pushing a strand of jet-black hair from her eye. “How about you? Anything strange?”

“Jimmy said something about me running off. I don’t know what the heck he was talking about.”

She sighs deeply. “You’re both in this. Come with me, we haven’t much time.”

“Hold on,” I say. “I don’t know you …”

“Apparently you do. Or did. Or will again. Come on, I’ll try to explain.”

We follow, trotting to keep up. “I’m tracking a device called a time reaver. It’s set to go off any minute. If it blows, it will destroy history as we know it.”

“Who would be looney enough to do that?” I ask.

“Terrorists who lost their war. They came back in time to set off the reaver. They don’t care about their own survival, they only want revenge.”

“Wait a minute,” Corey gasps. “You’re from the future?”

“Not if we don’t find that device. I’ve narrowed the location down to a nearby warehouse. The device is tricky, though. It projects deception filters to camouflage itself to look like something harmless or worthless.” She pauses and points to a run-down brick building. “That’s the warehouse.”

A sound like a supersonic mosquito whizzes close by. Leah grunts and collapses, grabbing her ankle. “Sniper!” she moans. “They’ve found me!” She clutches my arm and looks me in the eye. “Jimmy, I can’t walk. It’s up to you and your friend to get to the warehouse and stop that bomb!”

“Huh? I don’t even know what it looks like.”

“It will look out of the ordinary. I can’t give you a clear description.” Her brown eyes implore me. “I think you might have seen it before, though. You may have triggered some kind of protective reset cycle while trying to disarm it. That’s why you’re having these flashbacks.”

Another mosquito ricochets off the asphalt inches away, making sparks. “Jimmy! Go now!”

I zig-zag toward the door, dragging Corey behind me. We make it without getting hit. I look back. Leah has a gun in her hand now, and she’s shooting at someone. We duck into the building.

“Look, some kids must have been playing in here,” Corey says.

There’s a piece of cardboard, decorated badly with tempera paint to look like a computer. It even has a used sour cream container taped upside down for a dial, and an empty Butterfingers wrapper glued on for a button.

“No way this junk could blow up,” Corey grumbles.

I press the Butterfingers wrapper and the cardboard starts beeping. The sour cream container spins a quarter turn and the whole thing morphs like a transformer into a high-tech metal box with shiny buttons and everything.

“Crap! It’s real!” Corey screams, and he runs out.

I look at the glowing display. It’s counting down from 60, beeping in sync with the numbers.

I know it will be bad if I can’t stop the bomb.

Creating the Perfect Villain

Every story has good versus evil in it. You represent the good with the hero. Heroes always have some minor flaws, like being shy or afraid of snakes, but they triumph in the end because they will do the right thing. Their flaws make them human and likeable.

Don’t forget the villain.

The villain is the second-most important character in your story. A good villain creates problems for the hero to solve. Without problems, there is no conflict. Without conflict, there is no plot to move the story forward. Stories need mystery and tension to make us want to turn that next page.

So how do you create the best villain?

Villains are heroes in their own minds. That’s what makes them so scary. They believe that they doing the right thing, through their own twisted view of the world. The crucial difference between a hero and a villain is that a hero is ultimately self-sacrificing in order to do the right thing. A villain is selfish to the core.

Just because a villain is selfish doesn’t make him totally unlikable, though. In the same way that a hero has flaws, a villain can have endearing qualities. A villain may love his mother. A villain may adore animals. Think of Inspector Gadget’s enemy Dr. Claw who is always petting his M.A.D. cat. A villain is even more frightening when he or she can still commit horrible acts in spite of being able to show affection or love in some way. Don’t make your villain totally evil, or he won’t seem real to your readers.

Characters are usually transformed into villains because of things that happen to them. For example, maybe your villain was teased by bullies as a child. Maybe she saw her mother living in poverty. Having bad things happen to a person is not an excuse for them to become a criminal, but that can often be an excuse to be a bad person in his or her own mind.

Remember the story of David and Goliath? Both of them were loyal to their countries, both wanted their side to win, both were confident. The difference was that Goliath fought for pride and personal glory. David fought for his God, not for himself. They are alike in many ways, but David is the flawed hero and Goliath is the villain we still talk about as the example of unequal battles. Their choices make the difference.

Finally, make your villain smart. Heroes need a smart opponent; no one cares if you can outwit a dummy. Plus, a smart villain is choosing their evil path, which makes them all the more blood-curdling. Mix a little compassion into the villain’s black set of morals to turn it an unpredictable gray, and you have a character that will raise goose bumps on the back of your neck. And hopefully, that of your hero.

Click here for a short workshop exercise to create a perfect villain!