Into the Cave

Spelunking:  the exploration of caves

Stage 7 of the Archetypal Story Pattern (ASP) is Approach to the Inmost Cave, the focus of our last blog. (click here to read)

The name itself—“approach” and “inmost cave”—clues us writers to the multitude of caves necessary for our protagonists’ transformative journey.


A cave is under the earth.  Yes, I know I am Miss Obvious, but I have a purpose.

Spelunking tools include crash helmet, boots, gloves, drinking water, food, and three independent light sources.

Common inhabitants of caves include bats (who navigate by echolation) and blind fish (who sense the tremors in the water).  Most other creatures stay near the natural light sources, using the cave only for a refuge or a lair.

For writers, “caves” lets us know that we are venturing deep into the dark unknown of our protagonists’ psyche—and our own.  We writers reveal much about ourselves—unknowingly—in our writing, especially our first ½ million words and often twice beyond those.

Caves—in literal fact and in our subconscious—are labyrinthine.  Monsters may lurk:  Who is predator?  Who is prey?  Who is both?

Okay, enough with Miss Obvious.  Here’s Miss Purpose ::

Such caves require hard choices—and our protagonists have been deciding and discerning and distinguishing since they abandoned their Ordinary Worlds and embarked on their journeys.

  • Through the tasks, they have delved deeply into antagonistic levels that revealed their own strengths and weaknesses. 
  • They don’t know who or what the monsters are, and they fear they themselves are one of those monsters. 
  • They don’t understand the means of navigation. 
  • And they don’t have three independent light sources.

The Inmost Cave of story is not a cage.  It’s not a prison.
A well-tended green maze is certainly not a labyrinthine cave.

The Ordinary World could have been a cage, but the protagonists have escaped it.  Even when the Dear One of the OWie returned to lure the protagonist back, they continued on.

The Inmost Cave is not a maze.

It can be labyrinthine, with blocked or twisted passages. 

A maze, though, is a puzzle that can be easily solved.  It lacks its minotaur, half-man and half-beast, waiting to devour the unwary. 

A maze can be an amazing walk, but it needs no thread to guide our Theseus-like protagonists in and out of the unlighted passages.


Joseph Campbell [Remember him?  From way back in mid-January > click here for a reminder] places the Ordeal in the Inmost Cave.

The terminology of “Inmost Cave” requires a series of caves:  the entrance, the journey into, the first vaulted emptiness, more passages, perhaps more caverns, and finally the deepest, darkest location.

We journeyed through these first locations, didn’t we?  The C2A, the Mentor, the 1st Threshold, the Tests.  Now, finally, we are heading down to our Ordeal.

Subconscious fears arise in even the most seasoned spelunker when equipment fails while exploring a new cave.

  • The fear of being lost, of being left alone.
  • The crushing weight of earth
  • The claustrophobia of enclosed spaces
  • The utter darkness that hides dangers:  creatures, projections, freezing water, and abysses.
  • The complete devastation of losing the way and being forever trapped.

Senses heighten in these situations.  Adrenaline kicks in.  Only the most stoic can hide their emotional reactions;  they still have them.

No one escapes emotions.

Not even our protagonists.


What fears plague the protagonists?

Unforeshadowed fears cannot undermine our protagonists in the Ordeal.  Plan for them.

  • Ibn in 13th Warrior suddenly announces his fear of heights as he must slide down a rope from a higher ledge into water.  The audience cannot appreciate his fear.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark left a snake in Indiana Jones’ seat as he flew away from his first encounter with danger.  The audience, therefore, anticipated and understood his fear as the last torch flickered out in the pyramid.

Fear is not the greatest darkness a protagonist confronts.

Evil is.


The darkness in us all is our greatest struggle.  We have dropped into the abyssal inmost cave that our humanity most struggles against.

And the greatest evil?  It’s the loss of our humanity, the higher and nobler motivations that elevate us above the animal.

How do we lose that humanity and sink into evil?  It’s revenge.

Revenge, rather than justice, is the greatest evil when facing our antagonist.

Revenge is not justice.  The ancient Greeks understood that, when they named justice Themis while they named revenge Nemeis … and the Erinyes, the undeterred Furies … and the Harpies, Zeus’ hounds of Hades.

Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Delacroix (1862)

What can revenge compel the protagonists to do?

The villain in The Incredibles wants revenge based on an early rejection.  Rejection seems a silly motive–until you examine the last Iron Man movie and Girl on a Train and Wuthering Heights and Dido of Carthage and James Bond’s villains and more and more.

In the Hobbit, Bilbo confronts Smaug, intense greed representative of the dwarves’ greed—and mirrored in the greed for the Ring itself that Bilbo and then Frodo (and Golum) must confront.  Smaug wants revenge.  The dwarves want revenge.  Bilbo avoids it.

Medea is rejected, abandoned, and cast out.  For her revenge on Jason, she kills a princess, a king, and her own children.

Hamlet’s father is murdered. He kills Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (deliberately causing their deaths is murder), and Claudius.  Ophelia, Laertes, and Gertrude are also killed in the maelstrom of his revenge.

Revenge has unintended consequences.  How many superheroes contend with villains motivated solely by revenge? 

Every crime, every terroristic act, and every war—revenge starts all of them.

Remember that as you prepare the protagonists’ Ordeal.


The Ordeal is the greatest suspenseful moment and the darkest action of the ASP.  It occurs at the 75% mark of the story.  Everything has built to this apex.  It is the Crisis, not the Climax.

The Road Back and the Resurrection of the Evil (Stages 10 and 11) are still to come.

How can the Ordeal seed the difficulties in these two stages?  Here’s a clue:

Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. ~ Goethe

Revenge isn’t kind.  Remember that.  The Ordeal will be all-out hatred.

Join us on the 20th for a discussion of the essentials of the Ordeal.

Building Characters :: Strong Women, part 2

The last blog presented “Bright Lights and Hot Messes” as we delved into building Strong Women for your stories . . . and in your life.  We presented the primary forms of the female lead protagonist in her positive and negative forms.



Positive Negative Jungian
Alpha Queen Bitch Ruler
Beta Counselor Courtier Seeker
Gamma Non-Conformist Rebel Little Miss Independent Destroyer
Delta Visionary Missionary Caregiver


Both hero and heroine seek to balance the dual sides of their nature.  In balance, they have achieved maturity and harmony with the world and social constructs.

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” ~ William Makepeace Thackeray

Ancient fairy tale presents the yin and yang of both protagonists.
In a dual story arc, Hansel rescues Gretel from the forest’s dangers, but it is Gretel who outwits the evil witch & rescues her brother.

Patterned the Same, but Games Change

I would be remiss were I not to acknowledge that the heroine has her own struggle as powerfully and viscerally transforming as the male’s arc, fully expressed as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

However, a woman’s conflict often is a metaphorical competitive hero-against-monster.  Her monster might be domestic abuse or the repression of a totalitarian patriarchal society.

The heroine’s conflict—as with any hero’s—remains one of the individual against community or society.  Or the conflict may be the self against the group.  Or even individual identity against the collective thought.

Hollywood sexes up this srong woman even more than in real life.
Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich

Her weaknesses are similar, just cast in different concepts.

  • An ancient hero like Theseus might struggle against a minotaur.
  • An ancient heroine like Medea might struggle against a foreign culture (embodied in her husband Jason) that views her as less and wishes to cast her aside.
  • A modern hero might struggle against a corporation that stole his invention, as in Flash of Genius, the 2008 film directed by Marc Abraham. for a Trailer of the film, click here.
  • A modern heroine will struggle against a corporation destroying a community’s environment while also challenging mores of a woman’s image in society.  This is Erin Brockovich, the 2000 film directed by Steven Soderbergh. for a Trailer of the film that reminds you of the heroine’s challenges, click here.

The patterns remain the same. 

The archetypal journey propels the hero and the heroine to godlike status.  (Apotheosis is the big word.)  That transformation might also be coercion, as sometimes the protagonist is pulled and pushed into the journey.

In broad strokes, the transforming journey of the hero and the heroine are the same pattern.  

Strong Women, however . . .

Valerie Frankel writes examinations of pop culture’s media, Game of Thrones and Sherlock and Mortal Instruments.  She presents the heroine’s journey as its own structure in her From Girl to Goddess:  the Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend.  Click here for a link to the book.

One reviewer notes, “Numerous stories . . . reveal heroines who battle for safety and identity, thereby upsetting popular notions of the passive, gentle heroine.  Only after she has defeated her dark side and reintegrated can the heroine become the bestower of wisdom, the protecting queen and arch-crone.”

One problematic idea within the Heroine’s Journey is her need to reject the feminine, assume the masculine, before returning to and becoming accepting of her feminine self.

In her introduction of Girl to Goddess, Frankel comments that the broad archetypal pattern is clearly seen in many works.  For heroines it is “a different story veiled beneath the hero’s, but just as ancient, just as valid, just as universal and empowering.”

Genetic Wiring in Strong Women

While all humans are wired for curiosity and amiability (my 31 December 2016 blog “New Advent :: One Resolution :: Be a Writer”), women have additional wires, two of which are paired yet vastly different.

(And yes, both males and females have these wires, just not as strongly, for we are both yin and yang.)

Men are competitive, with each other, with “the other”, with the world.  Just look at any little boy on a hiking adventure.  The competitive instinct drives out of him.  The others in the group, the rocks, the stream, the mountain climb, the boulder scramble: he is overjoyed to have something to pit himself against.

Women are cooperative. We focus first on unifying our community.  We nest with ourselves, our families, our friends.

Little girls become must upset at arguments in the family and between friends.  Their nest is threatened.  They lean naturally into carrying their baby dolls in their backpacks on that hike.

Women want to enrich the local sphere.  We feel called upon to reach out and bring others into our embrace.

Frankel agrees:  “The true goal of the heroine is to become this Archetypal All-Powerful Mother.

For this strong woman, the connection is undone.
Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Delacroix (1862)

“Thus, many heroines set out on rescue missions in order to restore their shattered families.”

The horrific Medea—who eventually murders her ex-husband Jason’s new bride, the bride’s dad, and then her own children—begins by wanting to restore the destroyed family unit.  Jason’s humiliating and total rejection of Medea drives her to wipe out any connection to him.

The children via their shared DNA is her greatest connection to him. 

Those little children never had a chance once she looked at them as mere connective tissue to a man she decided to destroy completely.

Strong Women protect the Nest

Stories of young women on quests to restore their nest abound in myths and fairy tales.

  • The heroine of the Seven Swans who uses nettles to weave cloth to save her accursed brothers.
  • Simple Psyche who ventures even into Hades to win back her love Eros.
  • Aataentsic jumps after the Sky Tree and its healing fruit to save her sick husband . . . which leads to the creation of a new sphere for humans.
  • Beauty agrees to enter the Beast’s castle to save her father’s life.
And strong women also kill.
  • Sygny’s revenge on the destroyer of her destroyed family requires her to wipe out the family he forced upon her, a lesson to all such men who think women are weak creatures.
  • Jael recognizes the enemy who is attempting to destroy her people. She offers him her tent.  When he enters and falls asleep because he believes he is safe, she drives a tent peg into his temple.

“This goal (of protecting the nest) does not indicate by any means that the girls are trying to ‘stay at home’ or ‘play house’.  Although they redeem beloved family members or potential husbands, these heroines’ work as hard as any fairy tale hero.  And they do it WITHOUT SWORDS.” (Frankel) (my emphasis).

Frankel’s last comment “without swords” is important.  Strong Women . . .

  • depend on cleverness.
  • enlist the aid of strangers (the other).
  • up-end the situation to look at it with a different perspective, all to achieve their goal. 

Yes, some become KickAss protagonists.  On that journey, as scary as any fully-armored hero, they become as terrifying as the ancient Medea.  They are motivated by familial love or revenge based on familial destruction.


KickAss 2010 directed by Matthew Vaughn presents a dual story arc of protagonists with the same goal of “protecting the nest.”

An even more fun film with a dual story arc of protagonists is the 2013 Hansel and Gretel:  Witchhunters.

Try it.  

Join us on the 20th for the last segment of Building Characters.  The last 4 Jungian character archetypes are discussed in “Last but Not Least.”  After that, we launch into story development.

~~ M. A. Lee