Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Refusal of the call

I should start this blog by confessing that I was going to follow Rowena's lead and write a post called "Talk dirty to me" which is not -- as it might sound -- about sex in writing, but more about writing using tools of the erotic writers. (Yes, you in the back, I did say tools. Stop giggling. Don't make me come out there.

However, I'm running late on the present crushing load of work. I need another day to get through page proofs and finish going over this book, to send to the editor.

So I thought I would talk about what I'm doing. Refusal of the call.

The term comes from The Hero's Journey, of course, and some studies seem to indicate that the form of the Hero's Journey is how our brain is supposed to perceive/create story or at least satisfying story.

Disney films had a satisfying run of success when its head (Michael Eisner, or did he come after) tried to encourage the use of the Hero's Journey. We got films like Lion King and Mullan and Toy Story.

Since he was canned for "enforcing" formulaic movies (which is not exactly true, since there's a lot of leeway in the structure, which fits both things like The Odyssey and Cinderella) they've done things like Madagascar, where the only truly satisfying characters were secondary and Finding Nemo which was... well, wet.

These are, of course, my opinions and your milleage may vary. The last two movies still did fairly well, but it seems to me they fell short of the heights achieved by the others.

So... hero's journey -- writes the woman with virtually no brain after three of the busiest weeks of her life -- it's one of the tools I like to use, not so much to help me plot -- I don't usually look at it till after I've written the first version of the book -- but to make sure my structure makes some sort of sense. And sometimes to diagnose what bothers me about a book I just finished or about one long-laid aside which I'm trying to revive.

And one of the trickiest parts I've found is the refusal of the call. It happens in almost every book.

To recapitulate for those who've never heard of this concept, what happens is that the hero is in his normal world, contented, if not happy. And then something happens to throw him out of that normal world. This is the call. Ulysses gets the call to join his allies in the siege of Troy. Cinderella's family gets the invitation to the ball.

In almost every story there is a refusal of the call. A moment when the protagonist knows he has to go forth and do something, but does not wish to leave the safety of the ordered everyday world. Ulysses kills his oxen and pretends madness. Hamlet wonders if he really saw the ghost of his father or if it was an evil apparition. Cinderella ... I'm not sure. I'd rate the run at midnight as refusal of the call, but I could be wrong, as we're dealing with a truncated story. My mom had one of the older nineteenth century versions, and man, oh, man was it much longer. And more violent. And more sexual. And scary beyond all reason.

The refusal of the call is one of my sticky plot points. I think it's because despite the fact some of my best friends are imaginary and I spend untold amounts of time in made up worlds, beneath it all I'm actually a very sensible and down to Earth woman. It's hard when writing about fantasy creatures, for instance, to let go of that "she's accepting this to early." "She should be thinking of everyday explanations."

The problem is that you can't hold your character in the "normal" world forever. Your reader wants the character to make a decision, to take action, to do something and be the master of his own destiny.

If the character refuses to do it, the book becomes slow, tedious, or perhaps "candidate for the next nobel prize of literature," all things that are bad and could mean the end of your career or of your being able to look at yourself in the mirror.

So -- ladies and gentlemen -- which books do you like that you find this refusal of the call was very prominent in? Can you find a book in which the acceptance of the call comes nearly at the end, and which nonetheless works? (I could say Puppet Masters, though it's complicated. It's more like he has a mirror moment at the end.) Throw things. Banana peels or whatever. NO coconuts, because Dave already throws those.

And if this post makes no sense whatsoever, let me know. I'm about to hit the mattress, will look at it in morning. I'll try to give you some examples from my own and others works then, though I can't promise anything. (The problem is to give you the whole run of the refusal of the call would take perhaps two or three chapters, which seems to be the normal length of this narrative movement.)


Ori Pomerantz said...

I can think of a few biblical examples. Gideon requesting sign after sign to authenticate the angel. King Saul going home after his coronation, and getting back to work on the farm. Jonah who didn't just pretend the call didn't happen - he went the opposite way.

I can't think of that many examples in the novels I like to read, but I suspect it's because I don't enjoy urban fantasy.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, "refusal of the call" isn't exclusive to urban fantasy. It runs through all genres of fiction. If I remember correctly, Mike Starnes didn't really want to take the leadership role in 1632 and did so because he saw it as the only way to keep everyone united and such. Another example is Honor Harrington. The "refusal of the call" that first comes to mind there is how she refused to admit and then, later, act on her attraction to Whitehaven. That refusal led to her capture by the Peeps and her supposed execution. Another refusal, of lesser impact because it only impacts the events of one book and the opening of the next, was Honor's initial decision on the prison planet to be Commodore Harrington (Manticoran rank) instead of Admiral Harrington (Grayson rank). This led to the confrontation with Admiral Styles and her final assumption of the higher rank and complete leadership of the "prisoners".

Those are just a couple of examples I can come up with off the top of my head that are not UF. Of course, there are others in the romance/mystery areas. Eve Dallas initially refusing to give in to her feelings for Rourke in JD Robb's In Death series, for example.

There are others. Who's next?

John Lambshead said...

Really interesting analysis.
You are right about refusing the call. I never noticed that before.

Anonymous said...

Late in the book? How about The Warrior's Apprentice. Miles is all set up as the admiral of a mercenary fleet . . . Then gets word from home, and realizes that that is where his heart, soul and loyalty are.

Almost a combination of refusal and wrapup, and in the end, the point of the story.

Hmm, the story is full of refusals, when you look for them. The whole adventure starts as a not-quite refusal to try and be an ordinary Vor-Lord despite his physical problems. And he tries hard to remain "Mr. Naismith" instead of Admiral, as he collects more ships full of mercenaries.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Refusal of the Call.

There's a lovely line in the LOTR movie, when they are going through the mines of Moria when Frodo says he wishes the ring had never come to him and Gandalf says to Frodo something like, 'So do all, who come to this point.'

Can't remember the exact words but who, in their right mind, would want to risk life and limb for a concept when they could sit in their Hobbit hole, eating a second breakfast every day"?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Okay. I'm sort of half awake now. Page proofs have been done. Book not, but it's getting there, the creek not rising.

Part of the issue with the call -- part of the issue with a lot of these concepts -- it's that it's hard to distinguish the refusal of the call from the mirror moment. The only rule of thumb I have is that the refusal of the call USUALLY happens fairly up front. Usually. Not always.

Having had time to think more clearly, the most obvious example of refusal of the call in science fiction is RAH's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress -- which follows the hero's journey pretty exactly throughout, actually -- in which Manny not only refuses it, but refuses it in spades, first. He goes to the talk-talk, is not persuaded and it's only the mentor's input -- Professor de la Paz -- that convinces him to join the revolution by convincing him there's NO other way out.

You could say Hamlet is a product of the acceptance of the call taking too long -- he hesitates.

However, as I said, this is most useful as a diagnostic for stories that don't work. (Although we were taught the hero's journey as a literary analysis tool, in Uni.) When it's your own work, it's not easy to see. I had this epic novel, Mirrorplay that felt like a dead weight. I dragged the hero through it to the end and I couldn't figure out what was wrong. It's been set aside for almost twenty years now. However, now, as a grown-up writer, I can look back and go "It's the refusal of the call. Comes two pages from the end." Of course, I could also have said "It's the hero. he's a wimp."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Absolutely it's not an urban fantasy thing. At any rate, I'm only learning proper urban fantasy. Believe it or not my shifters series is NOT that, as it doesn't have a woman first person, doesn't have swords, it's not in a major urban center. It goes on.
I know it happens in Romance thing, but the whole refusal of the call is shorter. the Hero's journey was culled from ancient myths and stories that survive forever. I was desperately trying to think of this in mystery and I'm sure it exists a lot, in the abstract, but I couldn't think of an example from my personal collection lying about the house. I think the best example is Rex Stout's work. Almost always his hero, Nero Wolfe, tries to come up with some reason not to do it.
I think the refusal of the call is a traditional element because as humans we sympathize more with people who are forced to undertake risks, learn, etc, and therefore love their ultimate victory more.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam, in that case I'm not sure if it's refusal or a mirror moment. But you know, I admire anyone who can write a "book of refusals" and make it interesting. Mine so badly sucked.

Kate said...

Ori, "refusal of the call" and the rest of the hero's journey structure is so deeply woven into human narrative that you'll find it in almost everything that we call a story. Fairy tales, shaggy dog stories, you name it, it's got it.

Star Wars (the original 1977 movie) follows the hero's journey damn near to the letter. Lord of the Rings you can trace a hero's journey for every single member of the Fellowship.

The thing about the refusal of the call is that it's the hero refusing to leave his or her life to date (aka the ordinary) for the changed circumstances he or she has been given a taste of (aka the extraordinary). In Star Wars, this is Luke insisting he go back to his uncle's homestead instead of going with Ben Kenobi.

It can be, as Sarah said, as short as a sentence or take half the book depending on the story. Sometimes it's implied or shows up in flashback (Pratchett has done this at least once, in Wintersmith).

Some other examples, from whatever I happen to drag from the stainless steel lint trap of my mind:
Dave Freer, Slow Train - Howard's reluctance to leave his home habitat with the alien.
Dave again, Rats, Bats and Vats - Chip's continued insistence that he's just a grunt when he's doing much more and becoming much more than that.
Macbeth - Macbeth's reluctance to murder the king and take power for himself despite the prophecies of the witches.
Pride & Prejudice - Lizzy's refusal of Darcy's proposal at Hunsford can be seen as a refusal of the call
Les Miserables - Valjean's final act of theft (this isn't in the musical and usually doesn't make it into movie adaptations either). Later, Marius's hesitancy to join his fellow student rebels is his refusal of the call.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, you challenged me with your comment about not being able to think of a mystery that has the refusal in it. Now, it took a bit, but I remembered a series that had been tickling the back of my mind. Back in the '80's, Evelyn Anthony wrote a series of mystery/suspense books featuring Davina Graham, who works her way up from minor operative to head of either MI5 or MI6, iirc.

Basically, the first book has the classic "refusal". Davina hasn't done any real work outside the office and she is tapped to go undercover. While it is exciting, it is also scary and she hesitates. She doesn't want to do it but duty finally wins out -- at a price. Over the course of the series, she has to out her brother-in-law as a Russian mole, her lover as a spy, is almost killed and has to do things she would never have done if she'd "stayed on the farm".

Again, I'm over-simplifying because I don't have the books at hand. But there was a definite moment of not only, "no way, but ain't no way in hell" before she finally accepts the mission and does what she must for God and country.

Mike said...

Mysteries with refusal of the call? First thought -- most of the amateur sleuth mysteries have a point where someone says "You should let the police take care of it" -- but of course, they aren't doing the job or have the wrong person, and the amateur decides that they have to do it. Second -- take a look at Shadow Unit -- almost every episode involves them trying to find someone, and there's often a point where they question whether this is really a case for them or not.

Hum -- thinking about it, some of the police mysteries (I'm thinking of the Navajo ones, and I can't think of his name -- Hillerman, that's it!) often start out with something that the policeman says belongs to another department, another jurisdiction, or something -- and often that leads to the death or crime that drags him (or her) into the real case. So there's at least a flavor of refusing the call there?

Mike said...

Just mulling it over in my head. The inciting incident usually kicks the protagonist out of the happy rut, but... the refusal of the call really sets up the first doorway of no return, the commitment that takes the protagonist into the second act. It raises the stakes.

For example, as Kate said, Luke saying I'm going home ... only to find that home has been burned out, and he is now firmly committed. If Luke had said, "Well, what the heck, I'll give it a try" he wouldn't have really been committed, which would have meant somewhere down the line he might try to skip out when things got tough. But as it is, we know he is going to keep fighting.

Chris McMahon said...

I guess the first one that springs to mind is David Gemmell's Midnight Falcon. In the story, Bane, the illegitimate son of the High King Connovar, is driven by bitterness. He has many of the traits that made Connovar a great warrior and leader, but has grown up marginalised as Connovar refused to recognise him (long backstory there).
He drifts away from the Rigante tribe (ancient neo-Scotland) to Stone (neo-Rome) to become a gladiator, driven by a quest for revenge for the death of his sweetheart at the hands of the leader of the Knights of Stone.
He becomes deadly, and wins his quest to face his nemesis in the Arean - yet is cheated of his revenge at the last minute as his friend and trainer steps in the fight for him (knowing he would not win).
At this point he returns to the Rigante and lives a separate life. Finally, as the aging Emperor invades the lands of his homeland, he step in for his father int he final battle (Connovar is drawn to a stone circle to meet his half-brother who intends to betray him).
I guess just about the whole book is about Bane's refusal of the call of his own Rigante heritage. Finally, he sees defending his people as a higher purpose and gets past his bitterness at Connovar to triumph.
OH - and they win the battle!