March 7, 2012

back to basics: the hero's journey, stage three

Continuing with the series on the Hero’s Journey, today we’re going to talk about stage three of the mythic structure, Refusal of the Call. To see all the posts I’ve done so far, check out the “writing help” navigation tab at the top of the page.

Once the Call of Adventure has sounded, the problem of the hero becomes how to respond to it. It’s a difficult passage. The hero is being asked to journey into the unknown, into an adventure that will be both exciting and dangerous. As the hero is prepares to undertake a great adventure, the Ordinary World knows somehow and clings to the hero. The hero’s home holds him in the safety of its ordinariness. Countless distractions tempt the hero away from the threshold of the journey. The hero may be afraid, or hesitate before the threshold, which is only natural.

This halt is known as the Refusal of the Call, stage three of the Hero’s Journey. The hero may hesitate for only seconds, or he may try to reject the call altogether. The purpose of the Refusal is to signal to the reader that the adventure is risky, that it’s not going to be easy for the hero. By crossing that threshold, the hero enters shark-infested waters, and those sharks have lasers on their heads.  The hero might lose companions, treasure, or his own life. The pause makes the commitment to the adventure a choice, even if it doesn’t really seem like a choice.

Using examples from my post on the Call… In my novel, The Clockwork Giant, Petra hesitates at the Call to Adventure. She isn’t sure she should trust Emmerich, even though working with him will be a step toward everything she has ever hoped for. It takes a talk with her brother Solomon to convince her that this is what she should do, no matter what the outcome may be.

In Tangled, Rapunzel is at odds with herself, wanting to turn back home, thinking she is an awful daughter, reasoning that she shouldn’t go on the adventure, even though she’s already left. This hesitation, the inner struggle, is what makes the Refusal such a great stage in the Hero’s Journey.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the first Call to Adventure is the arrival of R2D2 and C3PO on Luke’s home planet. R2D2 relays a message from Princess Leia addressed to Obi Wan Kenobi. Luke figures that Ben Kenobi, the old hermit, might know this Obi Wan, and takes the droid to him. He accepts the first Call, thinking that the adventure will end at Kenobi’s home. But then, Obi Wan (Ben) Kenobi gives Luke his father’s old lightsaber and challenges him to leave his home and become a Jedi to learn the ways of the force. This is where Luke hesitates. He isn’t ready for that kind of adventure. He refuses the Call.

There are many different ways that the Refusal of the Call can manifest. At first, heroes may try to dodge the adventure. Usually, this is the case in experienced heroes, ones who have already encountered enough trials and tribulations to last a lifetime. They suggest “Is this really necessary?” Of course it is. We as the writer and reader know that. Sometimes heroes persistently refuse the Call, which can be disastrous. The world has to crumble at their ears before they finally accept the Call, having nowhere and no one to hold them back any longer. The hero could also make excuses, as Luke does. He has work to do on the farm. The Empire is too far away for him to do anything. When heroes make excuses, it is as an attempt to delay facing their inevitable fate. They would go on the adventure if not for this, that, and whatnot.

There is a certain satisfaction in seeing a hero overcome his reluctance. The more unyielding the Refusal, the greater the gratification.

The Refusal of the Call is usually a negative moment in the hero’s journey, threatening to halt the adventure in its tracks or lead the hero away from the right adventure. Sometimes, however, refusing the Call is a good thing. When the Call is actually a temptation directing the hero toward evil, the hero is smart to say no. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, toward the end when Harry is facing Voldemort/Quirrell, Voldemort offers Harry the chance to live, a chance to see his parents, power more great than he could ever imagine. Of course Harry could never accept that Call to Adventure. He’s too good to turn evil.

While many heroes express fear, reluctance, or refusal, willing heroes don’t hesitate or voice any fear. They are the heroes that have accepted the Call to Adventure. Instead of the willing hero expressing the reluctance, another character will attempt to keep the hero from advancing forward, usually the threshold guardians, who I will talk about later. They are the last sentry standing in the way of the hero and his journey, and oftentimes, they mark the next stage of the journey. For example, in the movie Stardust, Tristan Thorne commits to cross beyond the wall to fetch the fallen star for his love, Victoria. But when he tries, the guardian of the wall stands in his way, beating him with his staff until the young hero gives up.

The Refusal of the Call may be a subtle moment, a short hesitation by the hero, or it may be a flat out rejection of the Call, where the hero does anything and everything to avoid the adventure. The hero hesitates at the threshold so that the audience can understand the danger of the challenges ahead. Eventually, the fear is overcome, and the hero steps forward, or finds away around the obstacles in his path.

Just as every stage in the Hero’s Journey, the Refusal of the Call is not a necessity, and it can be altered or removed as the writer sees fit. Its placement usually follows directly after the Call to Adventure, but not always.

If you have any questions about the Hero’s Journey, don’t hesitate to ask. I know a lot more about it than I’ve said here, and I would be happy to clear anything up, if you need me to. This is a rather general overview, since I don’t want you guys to have to read insanely long posts, but if you would like a more in depth analysis as it pertains to writing, check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. If you are just interested in the Hero’s Journey in itself, check out A Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.


  1. I wonder how a character like Thomas Covenant the Unbeleiver would fit into the various Hero's call stages?

    1. I'm not familiar with that character, but it would be interesting to apply the Hero's Journey to his story. It's always fun finding out that a story has strong similarities to the Journey!