Sunday, December 20, 2015

Guest Post: "THE ANTI-HERO'S JOURNEY" by Robert Lopresti

Please welcome Robert Lopresti to the blog. The name may be familiar to frequent readers of this blog as I often link to his work elsewhere. I have a couple of his books in my TBR pile and that includes his recently released novel Greenfellas. Today he gives us some background on the new novel as well as a different way of looking at the writing process.          

                      THE ANTI-HERO'S JOURNEY by Robert Lopresti

I'm usually deep into the editing process before I find out what the story I am writing is about. 

Oh sure, I know the plot and characters.  What I haven't figured out is the theme.  And the theme, as somebody said, is what the story is about other than the plot and characters.

Typically I will be editing away, checking for typos and overused words (my characters shrug and ponder way more than is good for them) when a sentence will leap out at me and I think: Oh. THAT'S what the story is about. Then I go back through the whole thing looking for places I can emphasize that point.

A good example came up when  I was working on my new comic crime novel, GREENFELLAS. I realized somewhere along the line that this book was a hero's journey, although my protagonist is more anti-hero than pro.

And that brings me to a classic book: THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, by Joseph Campbell.   Campbell was an expert on world mythology and you may be familiar with the series he did with Bill Moyer.  But when I read this book decades ago it was a revelation to me.  Imagine finding a huge mural and realizing that all your life you have seeking sketches, snippets, and cameos that were copied from the mural.  Now you are seeing the original, whole and complete.  That's how HERO felt to me.

Campbell argues that most myths, legends, fairy tales, and the like are variations on a single story, which he breaks down piece by piece.  And, of course, some modern literature uses the framework too -- especially since Campbell pointed it out.  If you think about Star Wars and the Harry Potter books you will realize that George Lucas and J.K. Rowling know their Campbell extremely well.

According to Campbell, the first phase of the hero's journey (and by the way, this character could be male or female, but I will use "he" since my character is a man), is "the call to adventure."   This is the moment when "destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown."  If you want examples of this in the mystery literature, open just about any Dick Francis novel and read the first sentence.  He was a master of starting at the precise moment the protagonist's life turned upside down.

But let's look at my book, shall we?  GREENFELLAS is about Sal Caetano, a top member of a New Jersey crime family.  His call to adventure comes on the night his first grandchild is born.  When he is in a bar celebrating, and pondering what life will be like when his granddaughter is ready for college, he hears a news story on TV: scientists are predicting that in twenty years climate change will have made the world a disaster area.  For Sal that is unacceptable.  He decides that he has to save the environment for his little girl.  The journey has begun.

The next event, according to Campbell, is the meeting with the wise old crone or elder who offers advice, knowledge, and possibly handy tools.   You may think of Gandalf, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, but in my novel that would be a much humbler figure: Wally Nyburg, a middle-aged ecology professor.  Sal goes to Waly for a rundown of the biggest problems the environment is facing.

Next along the journey we face the Threshold Guardian.  That's the ogre who blocks the path forward, threatening to stop the quest before it truly begins.  In my book that is Vince, the boss of Sal's Mafia family.  He is not interested in any plan to save the world.  "We're not the good guys," he reminds Sal.  So Sal, like any hero faced with an ogre, has to find a way to slip  around him.

I am not going to run through Campbell's whole book, nor through mine.  Probably no single story in the world has all the aspects Campbell describes, but that is part of the point: once you know the theme the variations become more interesting in themselves. 

In most stories the hero survives his ordeals, succeeds in his quest, and comes back to his family/tribe/world with a prize.  It might be a pot of gold or a spouse.  It might be magic powers or great knowledge.  Whether my adventurous Mafiosi ends up with something worthy of his efforts is something the reader will have to decide.  One reviewer called the book "a novel about ethics as a last resort."  That works for me.

One last note:  If you are a fan of Joseph Campbell, I urge you to read The Hero With An African Face, which fills in a section of the map Campbell largely left blank.

Robert Lopresti ©2015

Robert Lopresti was born and raised in New Jersey, where GREENFELLAS is set.  He is now a librarian at a university in the Pacific Northwest.

More than sixty of his short stories have been published, almost half of them in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  He has won the Derringer Award twice, and the Black Orchid Novella Award, and has been nominated for the Anthony.  His first novel, SUCH A KILLING CRIME, is a mystery set in Greenwich Village during the folk music revival in the early sixties.  He also conceived and edited THURBER ON CRIME, published by Mysterious Press. 

Lopresti has been blogging regularly about mysteries since 2007.  He currently scribbles at Sleuthsayers, Little Big Crimes, and Today in MYSTERY HISTORY.  His webpage is


Fl!p Breskin said...

I read Greenfellas and loved the anti-hero's journey. And in the end, loved the thought of what I might do to stop the damage we are doing to our planet if I weren't held back by wanting to be a "good guy." And Rob did make it funny!

Earl Staggs said...

You've given me a new perspective on this writing thing, Rob. I plan to ponder it some. Greenfellas is now on my Kindle and I intend to read it soon. Best wishes for continued success with your writing.

Robert Lopresti said...

Somehow I forgot to mention that HERO WITH AN AFRICAN FACE was written by Clyde Ford.