Consider sending your protagonist on an initiation

Among the most important events in our lives are various rites of passage – confirmation, high school graduation, drinking for the first time, obtaining a driver’s license, marriage, firstborn child. Often in fiction the protagonist also undergoes a symbolic rite of passage.

Called an initiation, the story centers on the protagonist entering and learning a culture’s rules and language. This culture could be a foreign land, but usually it is a group, organization or institution, or simply adulthood. The protagonist is a stranger to this culture, and though he may had known of its existence, his entry marks an introduction to it.

Among the famous initiation stories are J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, leaves the teen world of a preparatory academy for that of adult Manhattan, and Mark Twin’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in which Huck Finn leaves his small town of Hannibal for the world of the Mississippi River beyond.

While the initiation story serves as a critique of the society that the protagonist has entered – as well as the one he left – it’s more about the character’s growth. As he either rejects or joins the new culture, the contrasts between it and the one he left tests his beliefs. Ultimately, he gains greater self-awareness from the experience.

Holden Caulfield, for example, decides to rebel against the phony adult society. He since has become a symbol of teen angst and alienation for three generation of readers. Huck Finn realizes that his slave, Jim, really is equal to him, despite what the adult slaveholding culture says, and so helps him remain free.

An initiation marks a great way to tell a story when you want to critique widely held societal beliefs. Always remember, however, that your character must learn and grow from encountering these beliefs, or your work risks becoming preachy.