The Hero’s Journey, Part 3: Character-Driven Nonfiction

A N-95 respirator mask.

Last week I offered a generic look at what a nonfiction hero’s journey looks like. Today I’ll get specific by deconstructing a character-based example. Once again, I’ll use this this Wired article that looks at the efforts aerosol scientists made to convince health officials that COVID could be transmitted by air. I’ve already deconstructed this article once with a focus on who the different characters are and the general arc of the article as an explanatory narrative. You can read my fully annotated version of the article here.

Today I’m breaking it down again, specifically to highlight the Hero’s Journey that it contains.

The Character-Driven Hero’s Journey

A 4-part Hero’s Journey structure.

Here, again, is our four-part structure for the Hero’s Journey — whether in fiction or nonfiction. How does this correspond to our example article?

The Ordinary World

The story begins with Linsey Marr, the scientist who serves as the narrative’s hero, sitting down to a Zoom meeting with public health officials in April 2020. She and her fellow aerosol scientists are trying to convince health officials that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can spread through airborne transmission, but instead, they get shut down. The article then reflects back on Marr’s career so far and the many roadblocks she’s run into when trying to convince medical professionals that pathogens can spread through airborne paths. The problem she faces crystallizes around a specific dichotomy that medicine uses: anything larger than 5-microns is considered a droplet (which flies ballistically, like a cannonball from an infected person) and aerosols only exist at smaller than 5-microns. This idea — widely accepted in the medical community — is in direct conflict with physics. As Marr and others have shown, droplets larger than 5-microns can remain airborne for long periods, providing a path for infection.

The Ordinary World phase of this article handles several important pieces of exposition. The narrative:

  • introduces our hero character (Linsey Marr)
  • demonstrates the state of the world around her (public health officials are denying the physics of aerosols), and
  • posits a problem that the hero faces (as long as medical professionals refuse to question this 5-micron limit, their recommendations for COVID protection will be inadequate).

All of this is very much in keeping with the classic fictional Hero’s Journey, though nonfiction versions are typically more explicit in laying out exactly what the problem the hero faces is. Marr’s problem is extremely clear here — it’s part of the hook that draws readers in. In contrast, a hero like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz or Bilbo from The Hobbit have only a vague desire to explore life outside of the ordinary. With nonfiction narratives, the problem, especially if cast as a mystery, is key to engaging readers. Most readers aren’t looking for an article on the physics of aerosol transmission. Marr’s problems getting medical professionals to believe the physics is the draw for readers here; they’ll learn the science along the way.

The Transformative Journey

The narrative recounts Marr’s own studies into aerosol-based disease transmission (and the difficulties she’s faced over the years in getting her work accepted outside of physics). This phase includes rejections from medical journals and abortive attempts to track the origin of the ever-present 5-micron rule. Marr finds like-minded colleagues in Yuguo Li and Jose-Luis Jimenez, but their pleas continue to be ignored. Marr turns to Tom Ewing and Katie Randall, historians at Virginia Tech, who work to track down the origin of the 5-micron rule. Randall digs through study after study, slowly unraveling the mystery.

As in other Hero’s Journeys, this narrative section accounts for a large percentage of the overall article. Many characters get introduced, and scenes shift frequently between describing the action and providing necessary digressions into the science. The journey here is not a literal one in the sense of The Lord of the Rings or The Wizard of Oz. It’s largely an intellectual journey — a journey of understanding. It’s always, however, tied back to Marr. She serves as the story’s anchor, the familiar figure that readers recognize and follow.

The Revelation

In this section, Randall solves the mystery of the 5-micron rule: it comes from a conflation of results from a mid-twentieth-century researcher who died before his findings were widely accepted by the medical community. That epiphany alone, however, isn’t enough to shift public health officials’ opinions. So the Revelation section also includes Marr’s campaign with her colleagues to educate and inform the medical community about the true physics of aerosols (and the fact that the 5-micron rule stems from a misunderstanding).

Compared to the typical Revelation in a fictional Hero’s Journey, this Revelation is somewhat drawn out. For some nonfiction stories, the Revelation section will be smaller and more concentrated — maybe a single epiphany from the researcher. But here, since the researchers already know that the 5-micron rule is wrong, the Revelation gets stretched out into a campaign to change public health officials’ minds. Solving the mystery of the 5-micron rule is one step in that process; the Revelation isn’t complete until health officials are actually updating their COVID guidance to take airborne transmission into account.

The Return

Once convinced, health officials begin to update their guidance, emphasizing N-95-type respirators and increased ventilation as ways to decrease COVID transmission. But they do so without emphasis or drawing attention to the changes, so the victory feels somewhat hollow for Marr and her companions. The piece finishes by returning to Marr’s everyday life. Her gym followed her ventilation recommendations and was able to continue operating without spreading COVID. She has, in some sense, succeeded in her years-long quest to change medical minds, and, in a quiet moment, she is briefly overcome with tears. Then, as befits a scientist who is also a busy mom, the moment passes, and she continues on her way.

Arguably, the resolution of Marr’s story is unsatisfying compared to something like Star Wars or Harry Potter. She doesn’t earn a huge reward or receive broad recognition for her achievements. But that’s a difference between fiction and nonfiction Hero’s Journeys. The stakes may or may not be lower than the fate of the world/galaxy, but the final rewards are typically more modest. That’s okay. It’s realistic. We’re not all getting medals and parades daily, but our efforts to change the world matter no less.

Narratively, the Return shows us how the world has changed, due to our hero’s efforts, since the Ordinary World we saw at the beginning. Marr’s work is no longer ignored; she’s convinced public health officials that COVID can, indeed, be transmitted by aerosols and that those aerosols are not constrained to smaller than 5-microns in size. We also see the consequences of that victory in terms of updated guidance. The story arc is completed, and we, the readers, now live in a world changed (if only slightly) by Marr’s efforts.

Bottom Line

Hopefully that in-depth look at a character-driven nonfiction Hero’s Journey will help you recognize more examples of this style. As you might imagine, the technique appears frequently in biographical stories that focus on a specific, famous scientist. But it’s useful for more than Einstein, Curie, and Newton. Any scientist can tell their own research story in this fashion; it works particularly well for describing the arc of one’s research to general audiences. In that case, the formula looks something like this:

  • The Ordinary World: “Here’s a problem that was bugging me…”
  • The Transformative Journey: “These are the things I tried to figure out why X was happening…”
  • The Revelation: “Suddenly, I realized Y…”
  • The Return: “Here’s how Y solves my initial problem and what the implications are…”

The audience gets drawn along by the human story here. That’s why it’s important to include the failures and frustrations that happened on the way to victory. Those may not matter in a journal article, but, in this format, they’re forming the basis of the story that carries audiences through the science.

The “formula” I give here may seem overly simple, but give it a try. You may be surprised how effectively it works!

Looking Forward

For now, I plan to wrap up this series next week with a post giving examples for concept-driven nonfiction Hero’s Journeys. Until then, can you think of other good examples for a character-focused nonfiction Hero’s Journey? If so, share some in the comments. I’d love to collect a library of examples for readers.

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(Image credit: Mask – B. McGowan, Hero’s Journey – N. Sharp)

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