Joseph Campbell: “All the gods are within you”

Reprising a five part series to take us deeper into The Hero’s Journey.

This is the fifth in a series of posts I’ve been writing this week to expand our shared consciousness about what Joseph Campbell brings to the table for screenwriting and storytellers. He is much more than The Hero’s Journey. You may read the first four posts here, here, here, and here.

“All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.” — Joseph Campbell

For the final post in this week-long series on Joseph Campbell, we have another example of an observation by the scholar that is applicable to the writing process on multiple levels, all of which point to one inescapable fact: The single best way to avoid “formulaic” and “flat” stories is by going into your characters and discovering their inner mysteries.

Think about yourself. Or perhaps more precisely, your Self. You are not one emotion, one personality, one voice. You are your own universe of dynamics, a multifaceted persona filled with memories and experiences, feelings and moods. That Self acts and reacts to what transpires in the External World, donning a plethora of masks to circumnavigate each day.

If you are aware and honest with yourself about your Self, you know what Campbell says is authentic: gods, heavens, hells, all within you.

Likewise with our story’s characters. This is only natural because our characters come into being and exist in a symbiotic relationship with our Self, expressions and projections of our own multifaceted persona, then as we work with them in our writing morphing into their own individual forms.

In Hollywood, when someone says of a script, “The characters are flat,” what they mean is the characters are one-dimensional, one-note, lacking in depth.

There is no good reason why any writer’s characters should come off that way. Flat characters derive from a writer having an absence of curiosity and a lack of commitment to understanding the who, how and why of their story’s characters.

Because the simple fact is, all the gods, all the heavens, and all the hells are within our story’s characters, too.

Nowhere is this more important than with your Protagonist. It is by exploring the depths of this character that the writer can transform The Hero’s Journey from a series of events in the External World into a dynamic interweaving of action and emotion, reaction and feeling, imbuing the story with meaning as metamorphosis.

Conversely The Hero’s Journey as a narrative archetype in a screenplay can come off as formulaic if the writer does not dip into the accompanying Psychological Journey.

So to those would would critique Joseph Campbell for the flood of formulaic and flat scripts floating around Hollywood, I would argue that as a rule the fault lies not with Campbell, but with the writers who are working with a reductionist take of The Hero’s Journey and only a cursory grasp of Campbell’s ideas.

Stories are windows into the human soul. Inside that soul is a churning mass of gods, heavens and hells. What we do with our stories in telling The Hero’s Journey as Psychological Journey is the great challenge. Our characters are calling out to us. May we have to courage to engage them in their fullness of being.

Here are some reflections by Campbell on the mythology of the Trickster:

The Hero’s Journey is much, much more than some sort of paradigm or formula. What Joseph Campbell talks about is relevant not only to storytelling, but also life itself.

You can learn more by visiting the Joseph Campbell Foundation.