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The Gearbox: The Rub with Resurrection

by on Aug.16, 2009, under The Gearbox

All right, all you Campbell-heads and McKee-ites, I’m about to talk about something which, on its surface, seems totally against my stated beliefs. However, try to bear with me and I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.

Let me start out by saying, I believe in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. I love the idea of the Monomyth, and I try to sell it to almost anyone who will listen. It’s an observable, anti-modernist formula, and it works fairly well for catering to the expectations of your audience. Don’t know who Joseph Campbell is or what the Monomyth might be? Click here for a quick education. If you’ve never looked into it before, you owe it to yourself as a writer. If you’re not a writer, plot dissection is a fun party trick to whip out on movie night. Okay, so maybe it’s just annoying to your friends. Don’t dissect movies on movie night.

Anyway, in some classes, the third act of the Monomyth is is referred to as the “Resurrection” after the “Atonement with the Father” segment (That’s sometimes called “The Ordeal”). Campbell makes no attempt to judge the quality of fiction that incorporates resurrection, but rather to catalog it. Resurrection could be physical or metaphorical, and I’m not sure that Campbell would say that one is better than the other.

So since he won’t say it, I’ll say it: Physical resurrection is garbage. I despise it.

“Atonement with the Father” is a major scene. It’s the part of the story where the hero and his or her friends pull out all the stops and confront their evil head on. It’s the moment in Star Wars Episode IV when Darth Vader kills Obi Wan. It is the moment when things were going so well, and yet Agent Smith just shot Neo in the chest. It’s a dim moment of horror when, instead of finding himself or herself at the end of his or her quest, the hero loses everything. Sometimes, that includes his or her life.

Now in the stories I like, the hero loses something extremely valuable, like an ally or a magic bullet, and the so-called “Resurrection” is a metaphorical one. The hero learns to triumph over adversity based upon his or her sheer grit, and though he or she mourns the loss, the hero understands that all victory comes at a price. It maintains the cost of a sacrifice while proving to us that the hero really and truly is a triumph of humankind. The very meaning of the “Atonement” is sacrifice, and it’s a potent plot point that serves to give meaning to the rest of the book.

Physical resurrection, however, feels like a cop-out. It is the ultimate Deus Ex Machina, where God reaches out and puts a character back on his or her feet after the villain rightfully slew them. It’s easy to write, too, as it requires no real cleverness to say, “Well, they weren’t really dead. Well, they were, but now they’re not.” There was no daring escape, no cunning plan to fool the villain and, most importantly, there was no sacrifice.

What is the meaning of sacrifice when we, the readers, are not allowed to grieve? How are we supposed to feel gratitude toward a character who has literally given up nothing? Indeed, in most instances of physical resurrection, the character returns wielding some ridiculous spiritual power that is also just a poor excuse for Deus Ex Machina. I don’t feel moved by physical resurrection… I feel tricked for caring about the fact that a character died.

It does not take a clever writer to resurrect a character. It takes a desperate one.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Chris

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. My friends all love it when I dissect the movie while we are watching it!

  • Johnnie A

    I’m coming late into this, but I would just like to point out that I agree with what you say. I can actually stand resurrection in a work of fiction if its a secondary character, but if its the person through whose eyes the story is told, or one of many central characters, then I tend to get annoyed.

    Though I suppose, while we’re here, would it count as resurrection if the character is on the verge of dying only to get healed by something alluded to earlier? I suppose the automatic answer would be, if cornered on the street by the news-media on a slow news day, then “yes” would be on my lips. But I think that there is a small difference, particularly if the resurrection comes at an implied price that would only add to the burdens of the main character instead of giving him some sort of fun tool (like the spiritual power you mentioned) that would make the plot march quicker to the end.

    As for Campbell, I haven’t read any of his work yet, mostly because I’m got this nagging feeling that it would just bother me as a wannabe author; that is, it might make me too aware of the structures in fiction and, being obsessive-compulsive, it would bother me too much. I learned recently that Neil Gaiman held a vaguely similar view and couldn’t finish HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES because he found himself thinking “if this is true — I don’t want to know. I really would rather not know this stuff. I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.”

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