The Hero Myth Versus Everyman: The Two Faces Of Adventure Storytelling

End of Norooz

Tales of adventure tend to fall into one of two camps.

The first is about the adventurer who sets out to overcome an impossible challenge. Setting forth from familiar surrounds, he (it’s almost always ‘he’) regales us with impressive-sounding escapades that take place in worlds of decreasing familiarity, undergoing transformation after transformation — until a flash of enlightenment occurs: the impossible has been conquered! And the adventurer returns, transcendant, heroic, victorious, to bestow his new-found wisdom upon we adoring legions.

The second is about the common man (or, increasingly, woman). We see that he has no abilities beyond normal human potential. But he is afflicted by some deep desire; one with which we can all identify. And this leads him into extraordinary circumstances which test him in a variety of ways, and he, too, undergoes transformations and enlightenments. But we can see that we’d respond in just the same way, and that the challenges, while real enough, are not as impossible as they seem. And he returns, transformed, but humbled, to live again among us.

Almost every tale worth telling could be fashioned in either of these two ways. Which is chosen depends almost entirely on the ego of the teller. Because there are no superhuman adventurers; not really. It’s just Hollywood and its many messianic narratives that have convinced us that there are.

And so, as an adventure storyteller, it’s easy to play to the stereotype, thinking that only feats of physical and mental domination are worth writing about, and that sounding more outwardly impressive than anyone else is the only way to justify your opening your mouth or picking up your pen. Indeed, entire careers are built upon this principle, and with that much at stake, the myth of the superhuman adventurer will be readily defended.

There’s another way, which is to acknowledge humanity and frailty and self-doubt, and in turn to invite a reader or audience member to see that he or she has a hell of a lot more in common with us than not, and to acknowledge that anything impressive-sounding is simply the result of lots of tiny actions about which, individually, there is nothing very impressive at all.

But because this makes the storyteller’s neck an extremely inviting target for people (and they’re out there, especially on the Internet) who’ve been conditioned to judge and draw comparisons and who derive self-worth from belittling the actions of others, and because we’ve believed since school that external praise is the ultimate goal and that heroics are the easiest means of getting it, it’s very difficult to muster the bravery to lay ourselves bare. Casting yourself as the star of your own hero myth is less painful than acknowledging publicly that you are, in fact, just everyman.

I’ve tried with all of my storytelling to point out that there’s no difference between me and any other unathletic middle-class British bloke, and that my pedal-powered mile-count is beyond meaningless. I won’t even use tired rhetoric along the lines of “the only difference was that I took the first step”, because there were so many people who pushed me until I stumbled forward.

And while I’ve enjoyed — superficially — reading plenty of adventure travel narratives composed of cherry-picked, obviously exaggerated anecdotes, written for gob-smacking derring-do value alone, I’d rather read a book that ends with me saying to myself not “wow — I could never do that!” but “wow — I can’t wait to give this a go!”.

And so I’d rather write words that have the same effect — even if it means sticking my neck out.

What do you think?

7 Responses to “The Hero Myth Versus Everyman: The Two Faces Of Adventure Storytelling”

  1. andy

    Reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut wrote about once – http://sivers.org/drama

    I hope you enjoy reading the cherry-picked anecdotes from the cycle diaries book, out…eventually!

    Reply
  2. Ariel

    For me, it almost seems as if the stories that are brilliantly over-exaggerated (which are admittedly exciting to read) tend to actually inspire me less than the genuine, raw, relatable, tales of adventure.

    Really refreshing post!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      That’s pretty much the choice — exciting or relatable. A more skilled author than me could no doubt do both!

      Reply
  3. Saeid

    Hey man, a little bit difficult to understand for me, but I know and remember the top photo taken by you!

    Reply
  4. Martin

    Hey Tom – I love your blog and I think this post sums up why.

    But there is a third, peculiarly British style of adventure/travel writing. A category that can be further divided in two. We could call it the Bumbling Flashman category…

    First is the ‘bumbling idiot’ style (Redmond O’Hanlon? Bless him!) where we suspect that the author is no such thing (if he truly is a bumbling idiot, as most of us are, then he fits into your preferred category of honest story teller).

    Second is that of the falsely modest egoist who thinks that downplaying all the exaggerated feats he has apparently bravely and deftly overcome makes him appear both heroic and modest! If you who have read Flashman you will know what I mean!

    Anyway mate, keep blogging, this is always an inspiring, fun and really refreshing read.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      That’s a very good point! It boils down to the choice between portraying your real self or your ideal self, which is usually a question of how needy your ego is…

      Reply

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