The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.
-Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell started it. He identified the archetypical structure of the Hero's Journey in world mythology, wrote a book, and next thing you know the damned Hero's Journey is everywhere.
If you don't believe me, watch Star Wars again. The good - I mean, original - ones. George Lucas was heavily influenced by The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and it shows all throughout the first trilogy. The Lord of the Rings followed that structure, too, only before Joseph Campbell (Tolkien was so steeped in ancient myth that he didn't need a map anymore). In fact, if you type "mythic structure" into a search engine, you will come up at least one article griping about how everybody and God patterns films after the Hero's Journey these days.
There's good reason for it, though: mythic structure works.
We're back to the human propensity for pattern recognition. It's easier for the audience to follow along to the rhythm of these ancient structures. Audiences tend to want "the same only different", so if you can use mythic structure to guide your work whilst throwing in a twist or two thousand (Homer never expected lightsabers, I guarantee you), then you'll have a potential winner on your hands. And no, it's not cheating and it's not going by formula and it's not a cheap trick. It's good art. Unless of course you're dreadfully obvious about it.
Briefly put, the Hero's Journey entails a person who is called to an adventure, refuses the call but eventually accepts, and embarks on a journey (physical, psychological or both) in which he will meet a threshold guardian who tries to force him to turn back and mentors who help him along the way. Eventually, he reaches his goal, obtains a boon, and returns to the everyday world with that boon. The Hero's Journey is not, of course, the only archetype, but in its most basic form is the basis for most myths and legends. Christ's life and death follow the pattern. So does Buddha's, Odin's and just about any other god or goddess you care to name, in endless variations on the theme. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things also follow the pattern. So do keep in mind that you're not limiting yourself to one particular type of story if you follow that structure. It's hard to think of two works more different than The Odyssey and Ulysses - one a straight-up adventure tale and the other a stream-of-consciousness modern novel - but they both follow the same pattern, intentionally on James Joyce's part.
Which is probably why some people can actually read Ulysses....
But I digress.
Unless you're intentionally rewriting a myth, it's probably best not to follow any one myth too closely. Certainly don't use the Hero's Journey as a formula - if you throw in a threshold guardian just because the structure calls for one, you're missing the point. If your story needs a threshold guardian or any of the other bits of the Journey, they'll usually show up on their own. It's enough to know the basics of the structure and recognize how it can help your story. If you find your story's working fine without one of the elements, don't crowbar it in. But if it's sagging somewhere, and you realize it's been following the Journey quite closely, knowing the pattern will tell you if the sag's coming from some essential character metaphorically having been out for a surreptitious smoke when he or she should have been on the job.
But aside from that warning, there's a lot of benefit to using a myth as a pattern for your stories, as Joyce did with Ulysses. How you should do it depends on the story you're trying to tell, and how well-known the myth is. If you want to contrast modern life to the ancient world, following a popular myth closely won't hurt a thing. If you want your story to be fresh and original, choosing something well-known and following it closely won't do unless you break ground like Joyce did with his stream-of-consciousness writing.
This is where it can be a great idea to delve into those dusty old tomes for a myth that the majority of your target audience has probably never heard of or has only a passing acquaintance with, and using it to flavor your story accordingly. Imagine following a Taoist story about people searching for immortality, only it's set in Small Town, USA. I can so see housewives getting together in their spare time, pursuing an elixir while the kids play in the back yard. Can you?
Superimpose disparate themes together - again, Joyce did this in Ulysses, with a main character who's pretty much just Average Joe instead of Big Hero who is following Odysseus's course. Transform major elements: the war in the myth becomes a conflict between boss and employee, maybe. Play with bits and pieces, changing, rearranging, until you have something that pleases you and your readers. Play the What If? game continually as you consider the myth you're working with, and you'll come up with something unexpected.
Using fairy tales as inspiration is also a fruitful course to pursue. There's nothing simple or trite about fairy tales. Originally, they weren't even for children. Dig a little further than Grimm's, and you'll find some pretty dark and scary goings-on. Play the Where Are They Now? game, and see where you end up: where's Little Red Riding Hood in the Big City? How can you transform those tales to reflect a new age where the world has changed, but people really haven't? And the plot structures themselves are classic: you can create completely different characters, situations and settings, but use the fairy tale structure to give your story a pattern that will be eerily familiar to readers. It can be an intriguing result.
Mine urban legends for really interesting story ideas and patterns if you want something a little closer to modern-day life. Snopes.com always has some really great stuff: so does your Inbox, if you've got the kind of friends who like to forward silly emails. You can have a lot of fun with some of those stories, taking elements from them to comment on modern life, and you've got the added benefit of using something you know people find fascinating. After all, they wouldn't have become urban legends if they didn't interest folks.
When you're considering all of these sources - myth, fairy tale and urban legend - look for ways to tell the story that haven't been used before. Has anyone written a story about the alligators in the sewers becoming a homeless guy's pets? Written the story of the Hook from the serial killer's point of view? Even when things have been done before, like placing gods and goddesses in the modern age, there are still endless variations left. See where your imagination takes you.
Wherever you end up, whatever you end up doing, I can promise that reading myth and legend will greatly expand your talents as a writer. These stories have endured because they're told right, have the right elements and the right characters to keep them alive. You can learn a lot by seeing what continues to hold the interest of so many people. And in the midst of all of it, you might just discover a sense of wonder in the world you haven't felt since childhood, which will enrich your writing immeasurably.
I'll leave you with a quote from Neil Gaiman's poem "Locks," based on the story of Goldilocks, that I hope will give you as much of a sense of purpose as it's given me:
"We owe it to each other to tell stories...
PART THREE RESOURCES:
The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. The definitive work on mythic structure and pattern. It's heavy going at times, but soldier on: some of the best stories in the world owe their telling to this book.
The Universal Myths by Joseph Campbell, Alexander Eliot and Mircea Eliade. It's written by three of the giants in comparative mythology, and deserves to be on every writer's bookshelf. This book will help you see the commonalities in mythic thinking the world over, and help you find structure for your stories that works.
The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. (With apologies to Glynis, who doesn't like this book). If The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a little too dense for your reading pleasure, try this one: it's a very readable book about the Hero's Journey motif in writing, written for writers by a writer, and breaks down the elements into an easily digestible form. It's a good book to use as a kind of Cliff's Notes to Campbell's work. Just remember that it's not a map to success, just a guide to a structure that, with proper care and consideration, will probably work quite well for you, too.