Two months ago, I started an unofficial series studying some of the greatest stories in history. First on the list was The Iliad; now, we will continue this epic trek through literary history with Homer’s second poem, The Odyssey.
Where will this series take us next? How far will it go? I have no idea! The future is exciting!
Meanwhile, here are 3 timeless storytelling lessons we can learn from The Odyssey.
1. Your character needs to grow.
There are few things as boring and uninspiring as a static character. What’s the point of reading such a story, anyway? If the character didn’t learn or gain anything from his own story, why should you?
Character arcs give a story meaning and purpose. They distinguish a series of unfortunate, disjointed events from a united, purposeful story.
Now, I won’t go into detail explaining what a character arc is, what the proper form is, blah, blah, blah. Really, the base concept is simple: The character changes. He’s a different person at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. That’s the essence of a character arc.
For example, in The Odyssey, the main character (Odysseus) starts off as a rather arrogant man. First, he chooses not to offer sacrifices to the gods, who helped the Greeks achieve military victory, and boasts that he does not need them. Of course, this makes the gods angry, and they decide to delay his return home by ten, miserable years.
Throughout these years, Odysseus continues to show his arrogance, and often pays for it. For instance, after escaping the cyclops, he taunts the creature from the relative safety of his ship:
“Cyclops, if anyone asks you who it was that put your eye out and spoiled your beauty, say it was the valiant warrior Odysseus son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca.”
Well, guess what, Odysseus, you idiot! The cyclops you just taunted so happens to be the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea. And where are you right now? On the sea. So what does the cyclops do?
He calls out to his daddy, of course. And his daddy is furious.
Poseidon gives Odysseus many more troubles during his hopeless quest to return home, as revenge for blinding his son. He nearly kills him, multiple times. But, by the time Odysseus finally makes it home, he is a changed man. Somewhere along the way, his afflictions humbled him. He shows up to his house disguised as an ugly beggar, and is mistreated by the foolish suitors in his home, who don’t recognize him. But unlike his former self, he is not provoked by their abuse, and is not hasty to reveal his identity and boast about his prowess. Ultimately, his patience and humility works to his advantage. *chuckles darkly*
2. Use repeated themes.
If character arcs give a story purpose, then themes give it soul.
For example, the two most prominent themes in The Odyssey are home and hospitality. The first one, home, is rather obvious; the entire story centers around Odysseus’s striving to return home, and around the difficulties his wife and son face in his absence.
The second theme, hospitality, I find more intriguing. Throughout Odysseus’s adventures, we see a contrast of good hospitality (such as the kind strangers who help him), and bad hospitality (such as the cyclops who literally eats his men, or the suitors who take advantage of his unguarded home). The result is that we come to appreciate the value of hospitality, as something almost sacred, which is exactly how ancient Greeks saw it.
3. Create anticipation before a showdown.
Okay, this hands down my favorite part of the story.
While Odysseus is lost on his adventures, a group of young suitors take advantage of his absence and simply welcome themselves into his home, eating his food, drinking his wine, and doing essentially whatever they want, much to the frustration of Odysseus’s helpless, highly-outnumbered son.
Their excuse for their unruly behavior is that Odysseus is dead (“how could he still be alive, after all this time?”), and they won’t leave until Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, chooses one of them as her new husband. Of course, she holds out in hope that her husband will still come back to her, so the suitors stick around.
By the end of the book, you come to hate these headstrong, impudent suitors. Omen after omen warns them that justice is coming for their evil behavior. But they scoff and laugh, confident in their collective power.
“Odysseus will never return!” they say. “And even if he did, what could he do to us?”
The final part of the book – when Odysseus returns to his home undercover, waiting for the opportune moment to unleash vengeance on the suitors – actually had me up late at night. This ancient story, written thousands of years ago, had me so intrigued that I couldn’t put it down.
What was Homer’s secret to keeping me so riveted?
In a word: Anticipation.
The story lingered here for many chapters, waiting for Odysseus to finally reveal himself, waiting for the suitors to finally receive what was coming to them. In fact, the wait was so long, it was frustrating.
But, as a result, tension just kept climbing. The longer the story waited, the more desperate I became to see the impending showdown, and the faster I turned the pages.
When the showdown finally broke out… it was all the more epic for its delay.
Have you ever read The Odyssey? What are some of your favorite parts as a reader and/or storyteller? Share your thoughts in the comments below!