Monday, September 23

Heroes, Dragons and Treasure

Yesterday I published an article about how to write a sequel that readers won't be able to put down. One thing I forgot to include in that article was another way of seeing the hero’s goal. I'd like to address that here.

By the way, what I’m about to say isn’t unique, but I've recently started to think about the hero's goal in a slightly different way, one I've found enormously helpful. I'm going to talk about this new perspective in the hope that it might help your writing life. Here it is:

The hero's goal in any story -- regardless of whether it is a sequel -- is to slay a dragon, claim its treasure and use it to remake themselves and their community for the better.

I think I’ve been expressing this general idea for years, but I don’t think I ever put it quite this way before.

Let's break this apart.


Above, I used the example of a dragon but, of course, that is a metaphor. But dragons work for this; they’re terrifying! I loved the way Game of Thrones depicted them. Who wouldn’t tremble if he saw something like that slowly emerge from the darkness of a cave?

The essential thing is that, in the story, the reader sees the hero confront the thing that terrifies her the most. That’s the hero’s purpose in the story.


The idea of a hoard of treasure guarded by a dragon is easy to grasp and just plain fun! But there is a serious question here:

Why would the greatest treasure be found with the biggest, baddest, dragon?

On one level that’s obvious. Big bad dragons are the ones who have lived the longest (at least that’s the way I’d write the story!) and so have had the most time to collect a massive hoard of treasure/gold. They’re also the strongest and so could possibly take treasure from other dragons.

On another level, I’m not completely sure. Yes, I can see it in the sense that if you tackle the most difficult task possible then, if you finish it, you’ll be the most elated since the difficulty of the task is related to how happy you are if you succeed!

Also -- and this is true in real life -- if we don’t stretch ourselves we’ll stagnate. There is nothing compelling about a protagonist who doesn’t try to stretch themselves -- and this applies to both heroes and anti-heroes. That’s how characters grow. Even anti-heroes believe in something passionately and, eventually, they put everything on the line to defend it.

There’s also this: The treasure represents what we desire, what we love. So it would make sense that what we love the most would be paired with what we fear the most, with what we most dread. Like two sides of the same coin.

Return Home

If all that happened was that the hero overcame the thing they were most afraid of and gleaned the reward that came from that victory, it could be a good story, but it wouldn’t be a complete story. (And that’s okay, not all stories have endings. I’ve gone to at least one movie like that. I would guess you have too!)

I mean, sure, the hero has the treasure so life is great for her (at least for awhile) -- and since we like the hero we’re glad about that -- but to make the story complete the hero needs to take what she's learnt (the treasure she's won) and bring it back to their community, back to the people they are connected to: their family, their friends, their acquaintances. In this sense, the hero’s victory is the victory of everyone. Even your reader.

And, ultimately, that’s what great stories are about: community. Even though a story generally has only one protagonist, the protagonist is telling a story about the community. It is a story about how the growth of the individual, the success of the individual, betters everyone. [1]


What I’ve been talking about so far is the hero’s journey. What the hero’s journey is all about is MEANING. The hero’s goal gives her life purpose, at least within the pages of the book.

A Note On Story

There are many different kinds of story, and often elements of the hero’s journey are subverted in creative and unexpected ways. Of course that’s fine. Just as one should know grammar before one intentionally subverts it, it’s a good idea to know the elements of the classic hero’s journey before one subverts them.

That said, of course a person doesn’t need to know about the hero’s journey before they can tell a terrific story. Absolutely not. But I think it helps. Also, if you’re writing a story and something feels a bit off, knowing the elements of the hero’s journey can help.


1. That’s one of the many things I love about Dan Harmon’s TV show, Community.

Photo Credit: Syd Wachs, Macro photo of five assorted books, from

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