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Women in SF&F Month starts today with a guest post by New York Times bestselling young adult author Traci Chee! Her work includes the fantasy books in the Reader trilogy—The Reader, The Speaker, and The Storyteller—and the historical fiction novel We Are Not Free, a National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor Book. A Thousand Steps into Night, her delightful Japanese-influenced fantasy novel about a girl who starts turning into a demon, was just released last month.

A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee - Book Cover

What Makes a Hero?
by Traci Chee

I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes lately. What does a hero look like? (Caped? Broad-shouldered? Fundamentally alone?) What makes them heroic? (Power? Perfection? Self-sufficiency?) In the United States, the way we talk about and conceive of heroes, at least in fiction and particularly in fantasy, is very much shaped by the hero’s journey, a mythic storytelling template popularized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and explicated specifically for writers in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. In stories shaped by the hero’s journey, a hero (usually a young man) travels from the familiar-but-unstable Ordinary World into a Special World (often magical or somehow heightened), where he has adventures and overcomes obstacles, before returning to the Ordinary World again. For many of us, the stages of this journey are easily recognizable: The hero meets a mentor (usually an older man). He experiences some trials. He defeats a monster. He returns home with tools and/or experience that help him to restore stability to the Ordinary World.

Having grown up surrounded by books and movies that draw on the hero’s journey, I’m a huge fan of it as a storytelling structure. In fact, I’ve plotted all of my novels with it—including The Reader, with its multiple timelines, and We Are Not Free, a novel-in-stories with fourteen different protagonists—so it was my first instinct to plot my latest book, A Thousand Steps into Night, the same way. After all, it’s a story about a hero (this time a cisgender girl named Miuko) who is cursed to transform into a demon, which sends her on a literal journey from the Ordinary World of her small, isolated hometown into the Special World of the open road, where she hopes to find a way to remove her curse and restore her humanity. In keeping with the hero’s journey, she meets a mentor (a variety of them, in fact, from a shapeshifting magpie spirit to a testy demigod to an elderly nonbinary priest named Hikedo). On her journey, she also experiences some trials, which involve rapacious men, feral forest spirits, and a manipulative demon prince, and after all that, she returns home.

The further I got in drafting this book, however, the more I realized that the structure of the hero’s journey, while apt, was also incomplete. A Thousand Steps is set in an oppressive patriarchal society where women’s freedoms are severely limited—they are not allowed to own property, for example, or travel without the company of a male relative—so to have a hero who is a girl, on a road trip that forces her out of the cultural confines of her gender, fundamentally changes the nature of her journey. The movement of her story is outward, yes, as she confronts external obstacles and physical dangers, but it’s also inward. As she experiences more of the world, she begins to understand that the inequalities she’s been led to believe are fundamental and fixed are, in fact, neither—they are mere constructions of a flawed human society, which means they can also be deconstructed.

Rather than moving from instability to stability, as in the traditional hero’s journey, the arc of A Thousand Steps is toward flux, toward change, toward shaking things up, and it starts with Miuko herself. All her life, she’s been taught that she’s too loud for a woman, too clumsy, too opinionated, too plain, and she’s resigned herself to being inadequate and undesirable in the eyes of her society. On her adventures, however, she learns that the qualities she’s always believed were shortcomings can actually be advantages. Her clumsiness earns her the aid of a ruthless snake demon. Her loudness helps her escape from a serial killer. These are parts of herself she’s been taught to be ashamed of, but now she realizes they are attributes to be embraced.

Unlike the hero’s journey, which tends to be fairly linear, Miuko’s path toward self-acceptance isn’t a straight line. Throughout her journey, she vacillates between relishing her freedom and retreating behind the boundaries she’s known all her life. She wrestles with an ever-shifting set of possibilities: the person she wants to be, the person she could become, the person she’s told she should be, the person she knows she is.

This internal deconstruction is mirrored by the disarray Miuko always seems to leave in her wake. She upends a community that hides its daughters from monsters they’ve been allowing to live among them. She wreaks havoc on a spirit palace with floors literally stratified by class.

And she doesn’t do it alone.

A traditional hero gains allies that aid him on his journey, but I think that his story is primarily one of individualism—it’s about one man accomplishing a huge and impossible task. But Miuko’s story is, by design, a little different. As she transforms into a demon, she gains fancy new powers that allow her to see in the dark and drain the life from anything with a single touch, but her greatest strengths are the friends she makes along her journey. She helps them. They help her. They band together. Maybe at the very moment of crisis, it comes down to Miuko and a monster, but her strength here is not a solitary strength, and the greatest changes she can make, she cannot make on her own.

In this story, defeating a monster doesn’t restore balance to the Ordinary World—it merely helps to uproot it. The real work, the real unmaking of an unjust society, is still to come, and it will take more than a lone hero to do it. The end of A Thousand Steps is one of change: small and slow, a little community of people working together to improve the world where they can.

At a time when so many of our real-world problems seem too big for any single person, I wonder if we can start to reconsider the way we think about our heroes. Maybe they aren’t extraordinary. Maybe they’re plain or clumsy or fallible. Maybe our definition of heroism should no longer be confined to these huge, impossible acts but expanded to include the everyday connections and coalitions between regular people. Maybe heroism isn’t individualism but solidarity. Maybe it doesn’t have to be dramatic and quick but gradual and steady and even, at times, boring. As the traditions and institutions we have taken for granted are revealed to be unjust, I wonder if maybe our journey into the future is less about one male hero restoring an old way of life and more about many heroes, of many experiences, working together to make a new world, a more just one, and a better one for all of us.

Photo of Traci Chee by Topher Simon
Photo Credit: Topher Simon
Traci Chee is a best-selling and award-winning author of books for young people, including the instant New York Times best seller and Kirkus Prize Finalist The Reader and Printz Honor Book, Walter Award Honoree, and National Book Award Finalist We Are Not Free. Her latest title is A Thousand Steps into Night, a Japanese-influenced young adult fantasy. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, egg painting, gardening, and hosting game nights for family and friends. She lives in California with her fast dog.