What the Hell is a Herald
What the hell is a Herald, and how do you use it… them… that?
Using a herald appropriately can be the difference between people reading your entire story or stopping after “Once upon a time.” By the end of this post, you’ll have an adaptive and practical understanding of what a herald is and how to use it.
The King’s Messenger
The original use of the word herald and its function in literature began in the Renaissance. Certain men held the title Herald of Arms or a Herald for short. These men were messengers for the kings. They announced things. The start of tournaments, new laws to the people, decorations of war to their enemies.
Try to imagine life without telecommunications. Just for a moment, don’t worry. If a king wished to declare something, like war, to another nation, he - of course - would never go himself. It’s dangerous. And he’s likely busy eating fancy feasts and punishing poor peasants.
So, he would send his herald.
Imagine now that you are that other nation. Imagine seeing a herald ride towards your castle. Depending on the flags they wear, you might start prepping your army before they’ve had a chance to speak. That is the exact the function of a herald in writing.
It’s a character archetype that acts as a signal of coming change. A proclamation of coming conflict
Heralds Have Three Functions
They promise the audience that something will happen. They promise that this story is working its way toward some event. Toward some conclusion.
They often act as a call-to-action for the protagonist. One big enough to indicate the stakes involved and motivate them to actually act.
They give both the audience and the protagonist a glimpse into the unknown world they’ll soon enter.
A key thing to note here is that heralds can be for the audience or for the protagonist. Sometimes they address both, sometimes not. You’ll see what I mean in the examples.
A Herald is an Idea
Throw perspective in the mix. Let’s continue thinking about a Herald of Arms sent by a King.
So you’re the king of a castle. Being the king, you’ll hear the herald speak his proclamation of war, firsthand. If you’re a guard at that castle, you may only see the herald ride in. You might even see that the herald is more heavily guarded than usual. Because of this, you might infer that a proclamation of war was made, but you won’t know for sure. There will be a level of uncertainty. Now, if you’re a chef in the castle, you may have missed the herald’s appearance altogether. Still, you might see strange things around the grounds; more guards moving toward the gates; having to cook extra food for the night etc…
In writing, this sentiment holds true.
Though commonly referred to as character archetypes, archetypes don’t have to be associated with characters. Campbell wrote in his masterwork on the craft of storytelling, The Writer’s Journey, that archetypes are like masks. Many character’s or objects can wear the mask during different points in a story. It’s the writer’s job to know and use these masks intentionally.
A herald can be many things. A black cat crossing the street might signal 7 years of bad luck. R2-D2 delivered a message signaling that a princess needs help. The signs telling Scooby-Doo and the gang to “Enter at your own risk” signal that a mystery is afoot. Spilling your cup of coffee in the morning might signal a bad day. Finding out your neighboring country is conducting nuclear weapon tests could signal that war is lurking around the corner.
The title of a story can be a herald! John Dies at the End.
There can be many heralds in a story. The most typical scenario is having two main heralds. One at the very beginning, telling the audience that conflict is coming. And one about 10% or 15% into a narrative acting as the call-to-action for the protagonist. Both will give a glimpse into the unknown world to come.
In movies like Sean of the Dead, there are a lot of Heralds, seen as foreshadowing, that the protagonist misses without a clue.
Examples of Heralds Meant for the Audience:
Because you can look up heralds for protagonists on your own - there are tons of examples, trust me - I’m going to go over a few examples of heralds meant to signal audience members of impending conflicts.
The opening scene of Harry Potter features Albus Dumbledore talking with Professor McGonagall, then delivering Harry, as a baby, to his Aunt and Uncle. They discuss the antagonist Voldemort and how he will no doubt try to find and kill young Potter. First, this tells the audience, if they stick around, they’ll see the conclusion to that conflict. Second, we see the use of magic, giving us a glimpse into the magical world that Harry will soon enter (most likely 25% into the book).
Later in Harry Potter, Hagrid delivers Harry’s acceptance letter in person, acting as a stereotypical herald for the protagonist.
In scary movies, an opening herald often begins during the opening credits. It’s the ominous music. Because of it, we’ll sit and watch a boring couple go on a boring date, then go back to their boring house. Once we hear those squealing, unnerving, introductory violins, all we can think while we watch that date is, “Oh these poor, boring bastards are gonna die, for sure.” Hell, the opening of The Shinning is just five minutes of a family driving on a mountain road. But, in the background, ominous music plays for way too long and makes us sure that something horrible is going to happen to this family.
Some authors and directors have enough notoriety that their name acts as a herald long before anyone even buys their book or movie. You can grab a Stephen King book and assure yourself that, even if the beginning is slow, something big is coming. You know any movie by M. Night Shyamalan will end with a twist. Everyone understands that a Quinten Tarantino movie will most likely end with some kind of shootout.
The beginning of this post was a herald. Thesis statements in the essay-format is a herald that tells the reader, “Pay attention, you’ll learn something.”
Remember, heralds are essentially a signal of things to come. It has three functions that communicates impending conflict to either the audience and the protagonist. Heralds don’t have to be people, they can be objects or events, too. Also, there doesn’t have to be just one. The idea of a herald is adaptable and necessary to keep people reading!
For more information on the herald archetype as the other main archetypes in literature, I highly recommend Joseph Campbell’s book, The Writer’s Journey.
Hope that helps!