Tribal Cultures

Tribal cultures offer startlingly similar rituals in raising a boy to become a man. These rituals are similar to what your hero must go through to grow and change.

While listening to the radio, I heard a man explaining how tribal cultures all have a ritual to help transition boys from childhood into manhood. The more I listened, the more I realized that this transition is exactly what every hero goes through in a story.

In a tribal culture, a boy starts off as a child who has few responsibilities. The child has been raised and cared for by others, but everyone knows that this state cannot continue forever or else the child will simply grow up to become a man-child who behaves with in appropriate childish ways and thoughts.

The first step is to take the child away from all that is familiar. In many tribes, they do this by gathering up the boys and taking them in an unfamiliar area. The goal is to separate them from their past and teach them that their previous ways of solving problems (relying on others) will no longer work and that they must learn to develop new skills. In many tribes, boys are taught hunting skills all their lives, but this is the time when they must prove themselves by using their skills.

For many boys, their first attempts to solve any challenge is to rely on their old habits, but that won’t work any more and that’s the point of isolating the boys from their familiar way of life. Instead, the boys must take their new skills, such as hunting, and demonstrate that they mastered these skills to be accepted into manhood. To succeed, the boys must shed their old habits and adapt new skills and ways of thinking.

When they master their new skills, they’re re-introduced back into the tribe in a ceremony that finalizes their new status. No longer are they considered children but men. They’ve gone through a transformation from child to adult by going through a transition.

In the movie world of screenwriting, this is exactly what every hero goes through following the four part structure of story telling. First, the hero is stuck in a dead end situation that cannot continue. Second, the hero gets yanked out of the familiar world and thrown in to the unfamiliar world where he is taught new skills. Third, the hero must integrate these new skills into his life. Fourth, the hero returns back to the same world a changed person due to the transition of learning something new and mastering that skill.

Every hero’s story is about growth and change. By the end of the story, the hero is a changed person who sees the same world in a different light due to the transitional change. In “The Terminator,” Linda Hamilton is a shy waitress who gets stood up on a date. Her life is clearly at a dead end and cannot continue in that state.

Suddenly, she’s kidnapped by Kyle, a freedom fighter from the future who rescues her from the Terminator. She’s no longer in the calm, ordinary world of Los Angeles but in a new world of killing machines and time travel. Her first hint of change occurs when she and Kyle are cornered by the cops and Kyle is about to shoot his way out, but she convinces him to put down his gun because they’ll kill him. This is the first time that she’s taken charge. Before, she’s just been a passive character being acted upon rather than doing the acting.

Third, she begins to doubt what has happened to her, but then the Terminator returns and blows apart a police station. Kyle and Linda Hamilton escape. At this point, Linda Hamilton finally accepts her transition and she makes love to Kyle.

Fourth, the Terminator hunts her down. When Kyle gets wounded, Linda Hamilton takes control, showing that she has changed. She’s in the same world as before, but now she’s in control and no longer being cared for by others. Her transition from child to adult is complete.

Look at any of your favorite movies and you’ll see a similar transition for your character. First there’s a period of childhood where the hero is passive and reacting to circumstances rather than controlling them. Second, the hero gets yanked out of the familiar and thrown into the unfamiliar. Third, the hero accepts this transition and returns back to the familiar world. Fourth, the hero is now a changed person in the same world.

In “Up,” the old man is living the last days of his life, never having fulfilled his wife’s dream. Second, he floats off into the sky with his house tied to balloons. Third, he accepts the changes in his life and takes responsibility by helping the Boy Scout rescue the rare bird that the villain has captured. Fourth, the old man returns back to his familiar world a happier and changed man, looking forward to the future instead of looking mournfully to the past.

Think of your hero’s growth in terms of childhood, being yanked into an unfamiliar world, accepting responsibility, and returning a changed person in the same world. It’s consistent with tribal cultures and with good story telling too.

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