I fell in love with the concept of the mythic quest when I read Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, so much so that I knew I had to write my own quest story. I’m not one for fantasy, either in real life or genre fiction, so I decided to use the hero’s journey structure for Daughter Am I, my contemporary novel of a young woman — Mary Stuart — who goes on a journey to learn about her recently murdered grandparents. Accompanying her are six old rogues — gangsters and con men in their eighties — and one used-to-be nightclub dancer.
Developing so many characters at one time is difficult under normal circumstances, but the mythic journey archetypes helped me create the characters and keep them focused on their roles. Whether gangster or wizard, hit man or Darth Vader, the archetypes — and the power of the archetypes — are the same.
The hero is the one who grows the most in the story, who gains knowledge and wisdom. Heroism, in the mythic journey sense, is connected to self-sacrifice, risk, and responsibility. The hero must perform the decisive act of the story, though at the beginning, before their transformation, heroes often need to be goaded into action. Mary starts out only wanting to learn about her grandparents, and ends up becoming intensely loyal to the elders in her charge, which changes all of their lives.
A herald gets the hero started on the journey. Kid Rags, a dapper forger forced into retirement by computer technology, eggs Mary on, challenges her to find out more about her grandparents. Kid Rags is also a mentor, giving guidance and gifts, a role he shares with Teach. Teach is a con man who believes everything is a con, and he is not hesitant about sharing his vision.
Every mythic journey needs a trickster, a character who embodies the energies of mischief and a desire for change, and who provides comic relief. The trickster in Daughter Am I is played by Happy, an ex-wheelman for the mob. Happy wants to be on the move, is always urging action, and he peppers his talk with morose and unanswerable pronouncements about death. Did I mention that he carries a gun, but that his hands shake too much to be able to aim it properly? Poor sad Happy.
The shapeshifter is Tim Olson, Mary’s romantic interest. He doesn’t actually change shape, but he appears to change constantly from Mary’s point of view. He tempts, dazzles, confuses her, and makes her question his loyalty.
The shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the villain, and in the case of Daughter Am I, the villain truly is a shadow — Mary and her band of feisty octogenarians never even get a glimpse of him until the very end. Iron Sam, a dying hitman, is also a shadow. Although he is not a villain who has to be vanquished, he represents the dark side of Mary, a sinister balance to her guilelessness.
The story of Daughter Am I lightly follows the stages of the mythic journey, from a glimpse into Mary’s ordinary world, to the call for adventure (her own curiosity as to who her grandparents were and why they were murdered), her reluctance to commit to the journey, meeting her mentors, deciding to take a chance and just head out to talk to others who might have known her grandparents, undergoing tests and ordeals, and ultimately returning home, knowing who she is and what she wants to do.
Although Daughter Am I takes the same “hero’s path” that worked for such disparate stories as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Tin Cup, the journey is Mary’s own, not a rehash of any of any other quest story. That is the beauty of the hero’s journey — the structure is infinitely malleable, giving any story a mythic undertone without overshadowing the story itself or confining it into a strict formula.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”