Last week I wrote a post about how some of the most popular stories are ones that introduce the reader to a familiar and relatable character, and with them then journey into increasingly fantastic and strange corners of the world. I presented the notion that part of this structure’s success is due to the way it has a gratifying pace and aesthetic inherent in its design. Beyond this, though, it is also effective because it happens to be a subset of one of the most powerful genres of stories, one that is designed to resonate with the very soul of a reader. And that genre is adventure stories.
The scope of this genre is immediately apparent: adventure. To adventure is to experience something new, especially something exciting, often entailing some risk along the way. Adventure stories that fall under this definition have been around for a long, long time, dating back at least as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh, estimated to have been written around 2100 BC. Within this broad genre are several sub-genres. There is the epic, the hero’s journey, the treasure hunt, the heist, the superhero romp, the space exploration, and more. There is magic and tech, good guys and bad guys, danger and fun. Adventure stories dominate the box office in the film industry, the bestseller lists in the book industry, and game of the year awards in the video game industry. A single popular adventure story in any of these media types can make billions of dollars in revenue, and dozens of popular new adventure stories are released each year.
So what is so captivating about the adventure story? There’s a pessimistic answer, I suppose. It could be argued that this phenomenon can be chalked up to nothing more than unhealthy escapism. Humans are unwilling to face the realities of life and so they numb out their emotions and escape their responsibilities with mindless pulp. Do I believe that this happens? Of course. There are plenty of shallow adventure stories, and they definitely get used for self-medicating. Often these sorts of films, books, or games will be huge when they first come out, only to be forgotten a year later when the next iteration releases. But I do not feel this describes the reality of every adventure story, once-in-a-while there comes along a true adventure, and those are timeless.
True adventures are meaningful. They garner an ongoing passion, which cannot be achieved just by being stylish or trendy or even “fun.” This sort of deep connection to the audience can only come as a result of positive, healthy stimuli, the sort that makes us want to be better people for having taken part in the journey. These stories speak to a particular facet of our human condition, the part that, not surprisingly, craves adventure in our real lives.
The fact is each one of us has, at times, looked at who we are and found it wanting. We feel that gap in our souls and it perpetually gnaws at us. We all seem to know a few who are really “living the dream,” but the majority of us feel that we aren’t charting the courses we were meant to blaze. The true adventure story speaks to that inner yearning, and specifically to three major desires that every person has.
No one wants their story to be that they stayed the same for the rest of their lives. Granted, stagnation is comfortable, it doesn’t require the pain of overcoming barriers, it undoubtedly carries the least risk, and for all these reasons it is the most efficient way to live. It also destroys us. If all our lives we are going to remain the same person that we are right now, then we’ve already reached the end of our story with scores of blank pages left over. Deep down we know that’s unacceptable.
One adventure story that has always resonated with me is It’s a Wonderful Life, where our main character George Bailey faces this exact dilemma. He doesn’t want to be stagnant in life but he feels that he is. He knows he has unsung songs and unsought adventures and it is making him bitter and regretful. When fate does shake up his monotonous life, though, he shrinks and cowers from it. It’s not until he has an escapade with his guardian angel that he realizes this predicament is also an invitation to finally live with passion. He doesn’t end up with a life that looks very different from the outside, but it is clear he has changed internally and the family and friends that he previously took for granted are now the very adventure he always craved.
Another tale I love is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In it we find two slaves, Tom and Eliza, who both live under a beneficial master and are very comfortable with that arrangement. Neither of them seeks to upset the order of things, though clearly there is so much more life they could be living if their situation were changed. Once again fate intervenes, and Tom is passed through a variety of different masters, ending on a cruel Simon Legree with whom he engages in a great moral battle, one in which he ultimately triumphs. Meanwhile, Eliza saves her son by fleeing with him to Canada and freedom, hunted by slave-catchers the entire way. Each character evolves through the course of their respective adventures. Tom was good, but by the end he is a literal savior of souls, redeeming the downtrodden from the clutches of evil. Eliza was intelligent and kind, but through her journey she becomes a lioness, accomplishing incredible feats and facing down danger to escape her would-be captors.
There is a lot of resistance to committing to an adventure, because by definition a true adventure needs to be something hard. I once was told that the problem with so many of us is that we don’t try anything until we’re 90% sure of success. Do we really want our story to be that we spent our lives accomplishing the things that were obvious and likely? There’s nothing interesting in that.
No one wants their story to be that they were beaten by their demons or weaknesses. Another of the gaps we feel in our lives is that we aren’t as good or nice or honest of a person we feel we should be. We might have vices that we are ashamed of or weaknesses that we feel cripple our success, and we are afraid of being consumed by these shortcomings. There is another genre of story, opposite to the adventure, one that speaks to this fear. The Greek Tragedy was designed to follow a very specific format, one that captures the demise of a hero. This hero was always highly relatable to the audience, a generally good but imperfect being, and one that has great potential. Over the course of the story, however, their success is snatched away as a direct result of their common human failing, culminating in a tragic downfall. This pattern was designed to provide a cautionary tale for all those who share this same flaw and do not correct it. Achilles is baptized in purifying water, but not entirely. There remains a single part of him that is holding back and you can be sure his enemies find that weakness and destroy him by it.
But what if things went the other way? What if we identified our failings and we corrected them? Any true adventure story will feature a main character that changes and improves over the course of the tale, providing hope to each of us that there is a better life available if we can do the same, and thus avoid our tragedy.
We see this in Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol. Each introduces us to mean and bitter men, but men that we see strokes of ourselves within. We’ve all had times of being rude to others and prioritizing worldly wealths over human connection. We do not doubt that each of these flawed humans is on the way to their miserable destruction, but then, once again, fate intervenes and they are taken away on an adventure. Phil Connors learns to care for others and so does Ebenezer Scrooge. Once again, it is not an easy journey for them, if it had been the audience would reject it because real life obstacles we face are not trivial. If they were we would already have overcome them. And so the audience doesn’t want to be told that going on their self-improving adventure is easy, just that it is possible and worth it.
No one wants their story to be forgotten. Just as how a good book stays with us for years, people want to be remembered. And how are they are to be remembered if not by some sort of story? “Here is your Great-Aunt Agnes, let me tell you about this one time when she…” Our heritage is only going to last if we went somewhere, did something, or became someone. Went, did, became: a journey, a quest, a calling. We all feel that there is a hero inside of us, someone who is made of greatness. And that hero was meant to do something. Not just any old thing, either, we each want it to be something that “only I could do.” We want to have our story validate that we had a purpose in life, a reason for being here.
There’s a game I always come back to called To the Moon. In it, a man named Johnny has reached the end of his life and is filled with great melancholy. He has an overwhelming sense that he has not measured up or been true to his potential, and now there is little time to change that. On his deathbed he is granted a final opportunity to go on one more adventure, and in the course of it he is able to find a promise he had forgotten, and with it a core part of himself that had long lain dormant. He maintains his promise, and for a moment becomes the hero he was meant to be, in the process leaving a legacy to be remembered by.
The Princess Bride is another wonderful example of timeless remembrance. Buttercup and Wesley are introduced as thoroughly ordinary people, ones that are of little import to the world. They develop a love for each other, though, and it is the beginning of a romance that is anything but ordinary. Like with all of these examples, fate once again intervenes, this time to separate the two. Though divided by miles and years, neither forgets the other or the love they share. To return to each other requires them to become more than what they were, and it is their burning desire which forges them into the heroes they were born to be, fighting the world for the right to be together again and leaving legends in their wake.
As you might have guessed the stories I mentioned are some of the true adventures which have meant the most to me. To the Moon, A Christmas Carol, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Princess Bride, and Groundhog Day have each made me feel a better person for having experienced them, and each has urged me in a different way to seize my own life adventure. All of us would likely have a different list for what stories should be included in that personally-meaningful true adventure category. I would encourage you to see which ones have stayed with you over the years and ask what they are trying to tell you about your own life. If you’re comfortable sharing your findings I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I think a common trend we’d find is that the stories that stick with us are not just ones where we are living out our adventures vicariously through the characters, but where our hearts were stirred and we were pushed closer to taking that fateful step ourselves, thus the tales become a real force for good in our lives.
Over these last several weeks I have been trying to craft short adventure stories of my own. Both To the Great Infinite and Imposed Will have featured characters who venture into the unknown to try and secure a better world for themselves, and grow personally as a part of that endeavor. On Thursday I will wrap up Imposed Will and bring a close to this adventure series. I look forward to journeying with you to a new series next week.