3 reasons why it’s time to move beyond the hero in storytelling

The stories we tell have the power to make sense of - and shape - the world around us.

It’s time we looked beyond traditional heroic narratives for a more inclusive form of storytelling, a collective narrative that can bring us together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time.

You may not have realised it yet, but many of the most popular stories that have captivated millions across generations are variations on the same 12-step structure, the Hero’s Journey:

(Bonus points if you recognised all of the famous cultural references in that video).

Joseph Campbell studied myths and stories from around the world and concluded in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces that there was a basic pattern of storytelling found in narratives across eras, cultures and geographies. Later the Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler popularised Campbell’s work, calling it the Hero’s Journey.

Stop and have a think about your own favourite books or films.

Chances are that you can already identify the Hero’s Journey structure in some of those, so pervasive has this story arc become.

The limits of the Hero’s Journey

The world we live in today is increasingly complex and difficult to make sense of in simplistic terms. Perhaps the Hero’s Journey is an overly romantic view of the world, best suited to the realm of movies.

You only need to turn on your TV or check out your news feed to question the role of the hero in today's narrative and to witness the rise of the collective voice...

  • A reality TV show host is President of the USA and continues to destabilise trust in the media through tweets about fake news.
  • Millions of people in the UK were convinced that by voting for BREXIT they would be able to ‘take back control’.

  • Cities, states, businesses and investors have joined together to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement in the ‘We are still in’ initiative.

  • The decentralised grassroots political movement Momentum has grown from nothing to over 25,000 members in less than two years and thrust rank outsider Jeremy Corbyn to the forefront of British politics.

Our world is increasingly shaped by immersive media technologies and proliferating digital platforms that give local and global populations more opportunities to connect and collaborate.

We are moving from an individual narrative to a more connected model of storytelling. From the Hero’s Journey to what Jeff Gomez, CEO of transmedia production studio Starlight Runner, has called the Collective Journey.

The Collective Journey is a model that “helps us explore a new way to look at story, tell stories, and participate in narrative, which has all been made possible by immersive media technologies, and how interconnected we have become,” says Gomez.

3 reasons we must move beyond the hero in storytelling

There are many reasons to follow Gomez and begin exploring the Collective Journey as a storytelling model fit for our age, but 3 that stand out immediately:

  1. The media landscape has changed
    Politicians, CEOs, social movement leaders, social media influencers - individuals have more power than ever before to use multiple digital platforms to engage huge global audiences and get their story across to the people that matter to them. At the same time, the audience is no longer the passive consumer of these stories, they are actively participating in the storytelling process. Just ask those aboard Boaty McBoatface right now. Those who learn how to tell stories across these diverse platforms have the best chance of engaging the people that matter most to them.

  2. Diversity is taking centre stage
    With this unparalleled access to communications platforms, we now have thousands of stories proliferating, rather than one dominant, heroic narrative. Instead of a singular story for others to try and relate to, people can tell their own stories and find audiences for them, as well as become participants in the stories of others. Those who can listen, engage and empathise with diverse ‘prosumers’ in the future will be best positioned to collaborate with and influence them.

  3. More than ever, we need to work together
    The challenges we face are unprecedented in their size and distributed global nature. Climate change, displacement of peoples, increasing income inequality, global energy security, to name but a few. Our ability to meet these challenges in the future is highly dependent on how well we work collaboratively, across geographic and cultural boundaries. These complex, systemic challenges can’t be solved by a heroic individual - they require collective action. Those who can tell collective stories that bring people together will hold the key to effecting real systemic change.

Steve Jobs once said that “the storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”

It is our responsibility to craft stories that embrace the realities of our mediated world, and that engage and bring together diverse groups of people to tackle the biggest challenges of our time.

We owe the generation that is to come nothing less.

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