Natural And Learned Talent: A Hero’s Journey

Hunter x Hunter (2011)

A hero’s journey is never easy. Sometimes, it destroys the very fabric of their being. This is much the case for Gon, who becomes so traumatized that he transcends the power structure of Hunter X Hunter (2011). During the Chimera Ant arc, this transcendence allows him to easily overpower the once terrifying Neferpitou, but there was a price to be paid. By letting himself give in to his anger, Gon lost all senses and ambitions. It nearly cost him his life. What did he lose to gain such power? How did Gon get to this point, and how was he even capable of such a feat in the first place?

Neferpitou on left and Gon on right from Hunter x Hunter, sitting down.
Sometimes the hero’s journey ends in pain | Hunter x Hunter (2011) Madhouse

The conclusion to the Chimera Arc is interesting not so much because of how it ended. But because of its implications to the inherent power structure and training the Hunters go through. It asked questions about how Gon can be so powerful at such a young age, and the consequences of developing characters in this way. Where do fictional characters go when they can very easily overcome training obstacles or transcend the very power structure of the world in which they live?

This is the core of how characters are developed to fit the type of story the author wishes to express. What kind of character, what perspective, what narrative aspects can best suit how the cast will interact with the world? In this article, I want to briefly explore an aspect of character building based on their capabilities to learn — here called natural and learned talent — and how that shapes the type of story being told. Can an analysis of the mythic hero and their journey inform the depth of a character and their relationship to the world in which they live?

A Hero’s Journey

A hero is a fabled character who leaves the comfort of the known world, goes through a series of tribulations which challenge what they know and who they are, and returns in some form with a gift or a fulfillment; a deed well done.

This is at the core of the hero’s journey, or what Joseph Campbell calls the rites of passage: separation, initiation, and return, in his groundbreaking work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. While Campbell’s work analyzes ancient mythology, what makes his insights so important is how the stories — no matter where they originate around the world — show similar paths and journeys that the hero must take. No matter where in the world these heroes must go, no matter what they must do, there is always the lingering presence of the gods.

The Hero’s Narrative

Every mythical tale begins and ends with a certain relationship between the hero and the gods, no matter how subtle or intense. The hero is either blessed with divine love of some sort or must overcome challenges the gods put before them. Hercules’ Labours is a prime example, as is the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, in how the gods are constantly involved in the hero’s story. Campbell’s research, by showing the common threads of the hero’s journey and the involvement of the gods, remains an influential analysis into how stories are created, no matter how contemporary.

Disney's Zeus, standing smugly and plotting his next move.
Hero’s Journey — So this guy’s basically responsible for everything bad in Greek mythology | Hercules (1997) Disney

There is a core aspect of how these relationships and journeys manifest in the capability of the hero, and that is in their inherent, natural talent. This is what separates them from the herd. This natural gift is what allows them to develop skills and learn new things with such ease. Where other characters in stories struggle to learn a technique, the story (manifesting as the natural talent) dictates quick learning and a natural tendency through the hero. Basically, it is the same plot armor which keeps a hero alive in the story.

Another way in which talent manifests is through the learned, more realistic talent of side characters or ensemble casts. This learned talent reflects a more expansive timeframe due to the knowledge needed to acquire the proper tools for success. Unlike a natural talent, a hero of learned talent views the world in a different way, and this can be broken down very generally into the narrative structure.

Focusing On Narratives

In a narrowly focused story, the naturally talented main character outshines any real learned talent character due to the constraints of time. In a small span of days or months, a naturally talented hero will surpass the learned talent, who will have been training long before the hero came around. And in a broader story with a larger cast, the learned talent character has more opportunity to shine because, typically, these stories adhere to a longer time sequence. These stories place more emphasis on the length of time — spanning years or decades — in which the learned talent gains knowledge and experience to impact the world.

So, depending on the story a writer wants to convey or what a reader is more acclimated to reading, the type of hero and how they learn, develop, and interact with the world changes. It dictates what messages can be properly implemented in the story, and what outcome can be generally expected for the character. When it comes to narrowly-focused stories, the main characters are naturally capable of immensely improbable things.

Gon – A Natural Talent

Of the many things Hunter x Hunter (2011) teaches us, one is just how gifted Gon really is. He is a natural talent who is capable of learning and developing at remarkable speeds. As a Shounen character, his mission is simple: to find his father by becoming a Hunter. He is the typical anime protagonist in that he has a deep need to become stronger and protect his friends, whom he cares for deeply.

Gon holding up a peace sign while smiling
Hero’s Journey — You think Gon’s cute until he gets mad | Hunter x Hunter (2011) Madhouse

What makes Gon remarkable as a character, however, is how quickly he develops his skills. Roughly two years pass between the beginning of his journey to the end of the Chimera Ant and Election arcs. In that time, he develops as one of the most powerful Hunters, or at least enough to be so powerful the leaders of the Hunter’s Association have no trouble allowing him to participate in fighting the chimera ants.

Gon represents much of the mythic hero and the rites of passage Joseph Campbell discusses because 1) Gon’s journey goes through various trials as does, say, Hercules, and 2) a deep relationship with the near god-like figure of his father, Ging, whose power is so massive he is able to create an entire island for the sole purpose of challenging Gon. In fact, much like the mythic hero’s journeys being dictated by the gods, Gon’s journey is itself largely anticipated by Ging, who builds challenges which even predict certain relationships Gon will develop.

Killua & Zushi

One of these core relationships Gon has is his bond with Killua, another example of natural talent. Killua and Gon represent two different types of hero Campbell mention: Killua a more localized, fairy-tale-like hero with his relation to his family, and Gon as a universal, mythic hero. These two are capable of immense feats of skill and quick learning and are directly juxtaposed against the learned talent hero. In each instance, they overpower the learned talent either in combat or through quicker development.

Killua, Gon, and Zushi all trying to make water in a glass move.
Hero’s Journey — Killua, Gon, and Zushi. Zushi never had a chance | Hunter x Hunter (2011) Madhouse

This is best exemplified when Gon and Killua were taught how to develop their Nen by Wing during the Heavens Arena arc. Another trainee, Zushi, had been training with Wing long before Gon and Killua showed up. Through Zushi, we are able to see just how taxing and difficult Nen is to develop; he is barely able to muster Nen when we first see him.

In a matter of a couple of months of training, Gon and Killua easily surpass anything Zushi can handle and proceed on to the next challenge. Not only is Zushi surpassed, but he is also — despite his long training — unable to graduate from Wing’s training. In this instance, the naturally talented Gon easily surpasses the learned talent.

Zomi – Learned Talent

If Gon and Hunter x Hunter represents a narrowly focused narrative and a naturally talented, mythic character, then Zomi Kidosu from the Dandelion Dynasty epic fantasy series represents true learned talent. Namely, her mistakes inform her future choices and her talent is developed over decades. Not only that, but Zomi must overcome the societal and cultural traditions of an academic and scientific world dominated by men, a key narrative in the second book.

Magical library with cherry blossoms floating in the air. Dark wood and little lighting give a quiet but comfortable feeling.
Hero’s Journey — No Zomi Kidosu fanart so here’s a library from Luis

Ken Liu’s Wall of Storms, the second novel in the series, is a broad narrative in the same veins as Game of Thrones, and because of this, Zomi thrives as a learned talent. Her relationships in the narrative are informed both by her being crippled by the gods at a young age and by her scientific curiosity at how the world works. This curiosity catches the eye of another god-touched character, Luan Zya, who takes Zomi from her poor, desperate life to the possibility of exploring the world and its machinations.

Who Is Zomi?

What makes Zomi such a great example of a learned talent is that she had to learn how to learn. She hated the rigidity of academia, hated having to learn how to read and write in the language the academics and ancients used and hated having to sit down to learn. But through practical experience and the patience which training and age bring, Zomi grows to understand the necessity of these things, so as to create the next innovations of the future.

“…what is destiny but accumulated chance made into a story in retrospect?”

Zomi, The Wall Of Storms (pg. 830)
Hero's Journey -- Dragon breathing fire at catapults and soldiers. Massive wings circle the background and a cliff separates the dragon and soldiers.
Hero’s Journey — You need to be innovative to take this on | Dayoung Lee

What is most important to progress? Blowing up dragons. Through the experiments Zomi and other characters conduct, they develop a deeper understanding of the world. We understand the necessity of the experiments not just as a curiosity, but essential in halting an impending invasion of people, the Lyucu, who have control over what are essentially dragons. Zomi, with the help of other characters, is able to create a way to bottle lightning, zapping and, depending on the situation, blow up the dragon menace in what can only be described as colorful mist.

Natural Talent In Broad Narratives

Unlike Hunter x Hunter, where the natural talents are the main characters, in the Dandelion Dynasty, there was only one true natural talent, the Hegemon Mata Zyndu. Like Gon, Mata had one mission, but unlike Gon, he was never able to accomplish what he set out to do.

Being naturally talented made Mata too confident and fixated on divine right, making his character relate to traditional views within his culture. His narrow views and inability to adapt — unlike Zomi’s recognition of change — spelled Mata’s downfall. Interestingly, no matter what, Mata, in a similar way as Gon, always stuck to his ideals, and even after death, this natural talent lived on as a legendary hero, whose journey was idolized by generations after.

In contrast to Mata, Zomi recognized through her observations of the natural world, and by her disdain for the traditional views of the woman’s role in her culture, that everything is in constant change. Zomi’s capability to develop innovative ideas and implement them through necessity and curiosity is what makes her such a powerful hero.

Conan the Barbarian cleaving into a  hoard of enemy troops. Weapons are flying everywhere, and bodies are stacking on top of each other as Conan dominates the fight.
Hero’s Journey — Conan the Barbarian who would get along swimmingly with Mata Zyndu | Frank Frazetta

Because of her learned talent, Zomi can see the world in ways characters like Gon, a narrowly focused hero, cannot. She does not have one mission in her journey, but rather an ongoing relation with the natural world. Through her actions and her learned talent, Zomi becomes one of the leading academics in her world and is an integral piece to the broad narrative of the novels.

The Hero’s Journey Is Our Own

“I was taught that what we fill our hearts with has much more to do with our fates than our native talents of circumstances…If our situation seems hopeless, we can either give in to it and lament our fortune, or revise the script and chart ourselves a new course. We’re always the heroes of our own stories.”

Thera, The Wall Of Storms (pg. 660)

While it may seem odd to compare a Shounen manga/anime directed at younger audiences to a fantasy novel directed at adults, the point here is not to contrast the two as narrative pieces, but to compare and develop further understanding into how narratives are built around characters through the interaction of the character to the world around them.

What makes Gon and Zomi such interesting characters is how they develop through the journeys laid out for them. As their narratives pulsate through arcs and they face new challenges, the hero’s journey becomes ever more pronounced. These stories reflect our need to create characters that encapsulate aspects of the human condition and the ever-present need to continue on, no matter the challenges that lie ahead.

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