Refusing the Call, or Devices of Potentially Limited Use

I don’t believe in observing all the "rules" of storytelling all the time, but when I become aware I’m breaking one, or decide to break one, I do like to acknowledge it and think over why I’m making the choice and whether there’s a trade-off and if it’s the right choice/trade-off for the story. I want to throw out something I’m thinking about, but not have the discussion really be about rules and conventions, per se; I want to talk about this specific one.

So.

One of my very least favorite things in a quest narrative (or, if you want to be all prissy and Campbellian about it A Hero’s Journey) or any sort of story where the protag has to take up a torch of some kind is the initial "refusal of the call." So often, it strikes me as story water-treading. I, as a reader and audience member, know the call will be accepted. If the call’s not accepted, then there’s no story. The reasoning for the refusal often becomes perfunctory for just this very reason.

Romantic comedies are the worst offenders, or one of the worst anyway, in that the resistance is sometimes silly and sustained for wayyyyy too long. But that’s not really a quest narrative in the way I’m talking about it here, unless you view the romance as the quest, which would really make it an incredibly lame quest. I think of quest, I think Big Stakes and Personal Stakes, not just one or the other. I’m pretty sure you’ll instantly know the kind of story I’m talking about.

I’ll say again. I hate that refusal to the call business, at least when it’s given more than an inch of space. I’m thinking about this because Aztec Dance Tunes is a quest story. I don’t want to get too far into the details, because I’m not ready to talk about them yet, but for the sake of clarity there is a girl and she is given a huge, impossible task with huge, impossible stakes if she screws it up. And I think she can skip this step, the refusing the call step.

Because I think a character can be reasonably expected to know when something like this falls on top of them that there’s no easy way to get out from under it. I think it’s believable emotionally for a character to think, "Yeah, got hit by that. Even I know I have to do this now." And there can still be all the rational fear and doubt and why me? of it, but the story doesn’t stop for this step. I might also say that this particular character has been around some pretty weird things and is a reader (in other words, she knows how stories go) and whip-smart.

Why I bring this up is that you are a pretty savvy lot of readers and I want to see: Do you feel like you do need this step to buy into a character taking on a quest in a narrative like this? (And yes, I realize that execution is everything and there are no details here; it’s not something I’ll hold you to!) Or are you impatient with this dithering step too? Discuss.

p.s. I promise, swear, cross my heart and stick pins and needles in something nearby, that I’ll catch up on email before I leave for BEA. Because after that, comes Wiscon, and after that, sleep. So if I don’t answer now, there will be no answering!

22 thoughts on “Refusing the Call, or Devices of Potentially Limited Use”

  1. I think it was Barth that I was talking to a couple of years ago about how you have to know the rules in order to break them intelligently, and it seems like both those conditions apply here. The refusal can be done well, but very often it comes across as rote and mechanical; and in fantasy it can read as willful denial of realities, e.g. “That statue didn’t actually address me as Prince Sparkle” or “I’ll stop seeing fairies if I stop mixing Boone’s Farm and Benadryl.” I think it can be used effectively to briefly put the brakes on a story that starts at a fast pace, and create a chance for setting and character development. But there are other ways to do those things.
    The lack of the refusal strikes me as the irreal approach, as in, it may be realistic but it goes against the learned expectations of what realistic is. The value of those expectations is questionable, but some readers will always want to be eased into the weird. But those aren’t necessarily the people you’re aiming for in any case.

  2. You know this is funny because I’m kind of in the same place. In my YA fantasy the main character (also a teenager girl) just had something dumped in her lap and she is moving forward with it but definitely wondering why. I was thinking yesterday that maybe she was wondering too much, but I’m doing the wondering out loud in conversation with other characters so it kind of advances all of their relationships a bit to discuss this (and also provides her with some family history), so I think I’m okay. But I know the action part has to happen again soon. (Preferrably after we leave the church though!) I do think that sometimes authors spend too much time anaylzing and less time letting characters just do it. Part of what I liked about Buffy was that she was pissed about being “the One” but she still did the job (and I liked Faith even more for how she really embraced the deal). I would say she can think and do at the same time though – again like Buffy. She would kick ass but wonder why and that’s fine. Just don’t stop kicking, ya know?

  3. Thanks both of you. Very helpful and what I’m thinking.
    I just realized I may have written myself a little bit of a loophole, in the same way that you have your refusal advancing character relationships, Colleen. This character’s mother initially doesn’t want her to heed the call and has to be brought around to allowing it (and she’s a pretty powerful, mythic sort of mother). So their conflict over whether she should do it or not may negate the whole issue.

  4. …there is a girl and she is given a huge, impossible task with huge, impossible stakes if she screws it up.
    In a case like this, the character has to have a certain amount of focus upon the depth of the task. As a reader, I’d want a certain amount of acknowledgement of that from the girl. And, in that acknowledgement, there would have to be moments of doubt and the wish of avoidance. Especially in the beginning. IMHO.

  5. OK, I am ALSO having this issue (maybe this is a trope whose time has come and past?). In the book I’m working on, the characters can’t actually refuse their call, so they have to learn to manage it — what kind of heroes do they want to be? How do they not die? etc. So far their “refusal” is everyone acting like assholes. It’s kinda fun to write, but I think ultimately I need to figure out how they’ll move beyond that.
    I’ve been thinking about Princess of Roumania a lot, actually — in a way that whole book is about the heroine refusing a call, except she’s stuck, and she doesn’t even know what the call is, and really she’s too busy trying not to die to figure it out — so maybe there’s something to be done w/ acceptance and acclimation instead of refusal. Like a rom com where someone falls in love in the first twenty pages and then can’t deal w/ living with their lover b/c they’re an insane neat freak or whatever.

  6. I think there’s a world of difference between a protagonist who, when faced with a quest, says, “Really? Me? The Chosen One?” *batting eyelashes* “Sure, I’ll take the job!” and a protagonist who looks at the situation and says “This is going to be possibly the hardest thing I’ll ever do… but it’s worth doing, and I have to do it, so let’s get going.” (And I figure you’ve probably got the latter sort of protag anyway.)
    As long as your character is honest about the drawbacks of the situation, I think you’re okay with avoiding the “No… no really I couldn’t… well, all right then!” dramatization. (Which does grate. Who really wants to stick around the moisture farm with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru?)

  7. Funny, I have no working knowledge of rules and didn’t know this was one till you mentioned it.
    I agree, it grates, and I immediately thought back through my own work to see if I’ve been guilty. Fortunately, the YA book I’m working on is a quest but the “hero” is already in the thick of it.
    I think the one way it does work is if that initial refusal becomes a driver for the character – ie, if throughout the book they keep throwing back the fact that they never wanted to do this and knew it was a bad idea.

  8. Thinking over all that you’ve all said. But please know I love you all and you’re all geniuses.
    It seems like Chris McLaren and I used to talk about loving the fact that in Bloodsucking Fiends Christopher Moore avoids this entirely. Mr. McLaren, show yourself. Am I remembering correctly?

  9. My book has this also! (Clearly it represents some deep strain in real lived experience, or else it would not be showing up in all of our stories.) For me, it always comes down to the character stuff. I HATE HATE HATE the chick-lit Pride & Prejudice rip-offs that start with the boy & girl hating each other–they are so tiresomely familiar, you know exactly how it will end, and Gwenda’s original post is similarly annoyed about tired “deny the call” rehashes in (esp. YA) fantasy. The protagonist of my novel has been brought up in an alternate-universe version of 1930s Scotland, and has a ridiculously overdeveloped sense of responsibility, so that it doesn’t occur to her to avoid the call although it certainly makes her more dogged and depressed than ever as it starts weighing her down. There are an infinite number of variations on this theme, and so long as they are psychologically plausible and well-rendered in sharp prose they will be more than acceptable.

  10. You know I have to second Darice’s comment about Uncle Owen’s moisture farm – it always drives me crazy when someone who wants change, wants adventure, is postively aching for it, then sits back and thinks about it. Granted, you get to be shocked for a little bit but still – what teenager doesn’t want to be the last freaking jedi?!!!

  11. I am late to post on this, Gwenda, but you’ve read Bobbie Faye (in all its incarnations), and Bobbie Faye has a big freaking quest dumped on her at the very beginning and she cannot refuse it or someone dies. Maybe even more than one person she loves. There are moments of self-doubt, moments of confusion, moments of “this can’t really be something I have to do,” but she knows she has no choice but to try. I think in moments like that, the refusal to move forward when there really are big stakes is a cowardly trait; I even feel this about romantic comedies and think they suffer greatly from the cross-purposes not being real cross-purposes, if that makes sense. (The rom/com assessment could be a whole blog by itself.)

  12. Gwenda, the thing about the refusal thing, I think, is that for your protagonist (and when I say your, I mean one’s) to just suck it up, and accept the responsibility right away, seems to take an unusual maturity and strength of character. Since one of the main strands in the standard quest narrative is the protagonist developing maturity and strength of character . . . well, you see the problem.
    But that’s some stock hero character from Central Casting; that’s not your character. If you think it makes sense psychologically for your girl not to refuse the call, then have her go for it.

  13. In my book, at the end of the first chapter there is an occurence, an appearance (sorta), that gives my character her mission … and it occurs in a pretty odd, clearly supernatural way. Add to that that her mother is several thousand years old and a witch. I have the mother initially saying “no way are you doing this” because she believes there are ulterior motives behind it, but the girl knows it has to be done because the real world evidence she has supports what the voice said. At the same time, both she and her mother are worried about the why of it being her and afraid something else is going on — that’s ultimately why her mother caves, because she’s afraid it will endanger Alexa further if she doesn’t at least begin the quest.
    To me, I suppose this step is most annoying when a character is confronted with something clearly supernatural and disbelieves it. In the real world, we know that people will seize on things that aren’t even supernatural and believe that they are. Most people tend to trust their senses (I do, anyway). Now, the character doubting the nature of the task or their ability to do it is more understandable, but I still think a little of this goes a long way. But the actual Campbellian “no, no, I’m not going so just leave me alone” should definitely be as condensed as possible unless the character warrants otherwise. I think humor can be a major help in fast-forwarding through this kind of thing.

  14. Don’t confuse “rules of storytelling” with “conventions of the genre.” Just because something’s been done before, and often, doesn’t mean it needs to be done again. (Quite the opposite, actually: it’s a good indication that maybe it’s been over-done.) Plot structure is more convention, whereas with “rules” I’d like to think it’s a lot more basic — like simply the existence of a plot to begin with.
    Everything should be dependent on the story you’re telling, its needs, and on the characters involved. If your character is naturally hesitant and disbelieiving, then a lengthier refusal of the call might be warranted. On the other hand, there’s no reason she couldn’t jump at the chance to eagerly accept the call if that makes more sense.
    That being said, if there’s not *some* acknowledgment, either from the protagonist or those around her, of the danger and fear that might lead one to refuse the call…well, your readers might not get how dangerous or fearful the call really is.

  15. Hey Fred, agree completely. It’s all about the story at hand…
    With the caveat that I’m not entirely in agreement that the rules/conventions distinction is all that helpful in this particular case. The argument Campbell made in identifying the “monomyth” and outlining the various components of the heroic story based on his research into narratives from a slew of cultures is a pretty powerful one, worth thinking about and _can_ be helpful. There’s a reason those elements recur. These stories aren’t what I think of as a “genre,” since they can be done in all sorts of genres; fantasy does seem to have a special affinity for them.
    I’m not plotting my book around those components, but I am definitely unable to put them out of mind. And, frankly, most of them just happen in one way or another organically if that kind of heroic quest narrative is what’s being done. And since this is one I’m somewhat skipping, it’s worth it to me to think through why it’s in so many of these narratives in the first place and if it’s something a modern audience _needs_. (The answer to that seems to be no, as long as you give the audience something that helps them make sense of the character’s reaction to the call, which is what I hoped and figured.)
    And, of course, it’s the specific way in which these things are played out and reinvented in new stories which gives them life and makes them work.

  16. I classify quest novels into two categories: “Coming of Age” (a character has not yet realized her path/potential) and “Redemption” (a character has realized her path/potential but has fallen from it). Both can function with the “refusal of the call” step, but I don’t think it’s required. I completely agree that this stage can feel very tedious. Ditch it, I say!

  17. gwenda, yay you! yes, please, leave it out! the one reason i can see for having it is (well, two): 1) add tension to the character’s personal arc and 2) have consequences for their first refusal which add tension to the xtr’s personal arc (i.e.if the xtr refuses and, as a result, some loved one dies.)
    i think that the function of the refusal of quest is to assist the willing suspension of disbelief. since quest stories are so often set in fantasy worlds, this is important. the refusal of a ridiculous sounding and impossible quest is a bridge between the protag, with whom we’re supposed to personally identify, and the utterly unbelievable world of the fantasy.
    however, i think you can take for granted at this point that the reader will go to meet a questing protag half way. furthermore, if your protag is spunky, she might very well be the sort to agree to a quest immediately. in that case, however, i would expect there to be negative consequences along the way which cause her, belatedly, to regret her questing alacrity. that will waste less time and still achieve the same purpose, while being truer to the xtr.

  18. You know Gwenda I just thought of something else. You might need to write her refusal as part of the story, just so you (as the writer) understand your character. That doesn’t mean you leave this in the final copy, but as a draft it might be good to write it for yourself. I am fairly certain that some of the conversation I have written will not remain in the later drafts, but for now I like to know where Brigid’s head is at – it gives me some perspective on where she should be going.

  19. I think I’ve written that (and that it will stay in) in her having to convince her mother to let her do it.
    And it may turn out that to another reader, there is a refusal of the call moment, or at least something that loosely fits that.
    The one good thing about something like this, I think, is that if it turns out I did need to make it more explicit, I’m not sure it will impact so much what comes later. It’d be more tweaking the first couple of chapters.
    But yes, heartily, that often you have to write through a lot of internal dithering in a first draft, to know where your character’s head in. The lovely thing is how easy that stuff is to cut!

  20. Actually, Gwenda, it seems as if you’re still taking the step; you’re just using the mother as proxy for the refusal. Which totally works.

  21. The Australian satirist Ian McFadyen explains “The Refusal of the Call” like this:
    “Most of the people who read your book will be unconfident males. So make your main character a Loser. Aimless, shy, cowardly, guilty, ill, lazy, rural – any of these will do.”
    “The Loser/Hero must achieve his goal, gain the power, discover the secret word or whatever only at the last possible moment when all seems lost. To do this it will be necessary to make him fall down and twist his ankle, have an identity crisis, become enchanted etc continually on his way to the goal. Most of the Motley Bunch (his companions) must die in terrible pain and degradation before the Loser/Hero gets his act together. This is to keep us mad at the Enemy, thought it is basically the Loser/Hero’s fault for being so slow and incompetent.”
    From “How To Write A Best Selling Fantasy Novel”, at
    http://members.ozemail.com.au/~imcfadyen/notthenet/fantasy.htm
    ———
    Jokes aside… I tend to regard the fantasy cliches as symbolic elements.
    I.e. the “Refusal of the Call” represents the protagonist’s unwillingness to leave the family and assume the responsibilities of an adult.
    So the Refusal may not make “rational” sense, but an adolescent reader’s psychological makeup makes it easy for him/her to identify with the Refusal.
    (Translated into everyday-life terms, the “Refusal of the Call” is the equivalent of “I didn’t ask to live in this house! I’ll move out soon, you’ll see! Uh… Dad, can I borrow your car on Saturday, and some gas money?”)
    ๐Ÿ˜‰

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