The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey, or Monomyth, is a basic pattern for recognizing the major developments in the journey of the main character. It seems that almost every story ever told, from antiquity to modern day, follows this pattern with probably up to 90% completion of every step listed. For the writer who properly understand the hero’s journey, they will develop the ability to predict with reasonable accuracy the outcome of most stories and will have the tools necessary to develop compelling and exciting plots.
The rebels out there are screaming, “Not me! You can’t put me in a box!” Don’t be that way. You’re going to write a bad story. This is not a set of rules, per se. It is an observation over time of how stories work, just like the Law of Gravity came about by the observation of something that naturally existed. The reason the hero’s journey is so prevalent in so many stories is because it is simply the story of life. The ups and downs of life, the dreams and fears, the expectations and goals, the adventurous and romantic spirits…these are things that are part of our lives. It shapes us, our families, our ambitions, our careers, our hobbies. And what so many writers over the ages have done is simply to try to record life. Although often glorified or romanticized, these stories resonate because we want to put ourselves into them, to live them out and take the experiences of the hero as our own. We see ourselves in the hero. We recognize our faults, failures, and successes in those pages.
A good story is a reflection of life. That is why a good story can almost always be described in terms of the hero’s journey, whether the writer intended it to or not. Because a good writer wants to write good stories. Good stories are about life, and the hero’s journey is life.
Joseph Campbell is recognized for his work in developing seventeen major steps for proper development of the hero’s journey. For those who enjoy the deeper methods of how stories are developed, I’ll include Campbell’s steps alongside my own. But I’ve found that a condensed ten step process is easier to handle while plotting and outlining fiction. Please note that as you begin to use this to analyze your own or some other writer’s stories, that the steps may not appear in the story in any particular order. They might not even all be included. But most stories will have at least eight or nine of these ten steps. On the other hand, keep on the look out for variations of the steps used with multiple characters or even villains and anti-heroes. Genres also make a difference in how it unfolds. A comedy might utilize these steps differently than a tragedy.
Here are my ten steps of the hero’s journey, with the Campbell equivalents notated with each.
1. The Dysfunctional Family
The hero must come from a dysfunctional family. If the hero is rich or popular, the audience might villainize him or cheer for his demise. Hero’s must connect with the audience, and I don’t know of any family that has it all together. Popular trends with heroes include, one or less parents, poverty, homelessness, abuse, orphaned, weakness, or vices. Campbell – NA.
2. Reluctant Quest
The quest, task, or journey given to the hero is not one of his/her own choosing. In fact, they’d probably rather not do it at all. They might even be forced into the situation. Regardless of the individual circumstances, every hero experiences some degree of reluctance when faced with the quest at hand. Campbell – The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call.
3. A Journey
The hero must leave their home, their family, their friends (usually, except for one or two that might get caught up with #4 below), and most importantly their comfort zones. The journey must take them far away from everything they know and take them into lands and situations they could only imagine about. After all, life is really about the journey, is it not? How can our hero experience life to its fullest without embodying a fantastical journey of some sort? And even if the journey turns out to be painful, it will be a journey that will change their life forever. Campbell – The Crossing of the First Threshold, Rescue from Without, Crossing the Return Threshold.
The great thing about life is we never have to do it alone…even if we think we’re alone, we never really are. Nothing is more valuable than good friends and a journey is not complete without someone to share it with. The hero will either bring or obtain companions along his journey. They will become life-long friends, or in some cases tragic enemies. The companions are the people who help shape the experiences of the hero and help the hero actually become the HERO they were meant to be. Campbell – NA.
5. First Blood
Steel is tempered by fire, and so is the hero. The hero must endure tests and trials, each growing the hero a little more and preparing the hero for the ultimate showdown at the end of the journey. Classic heroes endure a series of trials in the literal sense, whereas a modern hero of a simpler, less epic story, may only endure a few. But the benchmark of every hero in this category is the First Blood…the first testing, the first trial, the first realization that they just might have something within them worth becoming a hero. Campbell – The Road of Trials.
6. Death of the Mentor
Heroes almost always have a crutch…after all, who doesn’t have someone they look up to? A hero will have a mentor figure, who guides them, teaches them, trains them, helps them wake up the sleeping hero within. And the hero will always stand in the shadow of this wise, parental type figure. That is why the mentor must die. Although it need not be a literal death, the important thing is that the mentor be removed from the hero’s life so that the hero must sink or swim of their own accord. Campbell – Atonement with the Father.
7. Belly of the Whale
Usually accompanying the Death of the Mentor or some other ultimate tragedy near the end of the journey, this is the point where the hero has tried their best…and failed. It is the lowest point in the emotional journey, and in the classic hero it is often manifested in a literal way…such as a deep cavern or dungeon. It is at this lowest point that the hero truly comes face to face with who they are. The hero’s reaction will ultimate define what sort of legacy they will hold. They can either choose to give up or to overcome. A true hero will always overcome. But the tragic hero may give up. Campbell – Belly of the Whale.
8. Hand of God
There is more to life. A person cannot hope to make it on their own merit. Though some people may not have a spiritual bone in their body, the great majority of the world and of people throughout history have all been spiritual people. They believe in a higher power. To make the hero truly believable, the hero must have an experience with a power greater than himself…even greater than whatever tragedy or foe the hero might be facing. The hero must know that no matter what, life has the means of going on and surviving beyond the outcome of the quest. That is why at some point in the journey the hero must face a situation that is utterly insurmountable. The means of overcoming this situation arrives from a source unforeseen and even unknown to the hero. Without this unforeseen “divine intervention” the quest cannot continue. It may be small, big, unrelated, or directly related to the quest. It may even be a literal divine encounter as in the ancient mythologies. But the hero comes away knowing that the quest could have ended there if a higher power had not been helping. Campbell – Supernatural Aid.
Often a direct result of the Belly of the Whale experience, the hero finally comes to the full realization of the significance of the quest and their role in fulfilling it. It is a life changing realization, the point where they cease to be the bumbling commoner and become heroic royalty. They know who they are, what they are capable of, and what must be done. It is the clenching of the fist and the firming of the jaw before the hero enters the fire for the last time. Campbell – Woman as Temptress, Apotheosis, Master of Two Worlds, Freedom to Live.
10. Get the Girl
At the end of the quest, the hero always gets the girl. This is the fulfillment of the romance factor. It may be the whole point of the quest or a side effect of the quest. But don’t take this too literally. “Getting the girl” may not be about a girl at all. It may be about restoring a family member, saving a village, or bringing joy to an elderly shut-in. It is the emotional satisfaction that comes with accomplishing the quest. And it can be to the hero what reading a good book is to a reader…that they sit back after the last page, sigh with a little regret, and smile knowing it was all worth it and they would do it again in an instant. I call this “Get the Girl” because so many stories use a little romance as a vehicle or catalyst to complete this emotional journey of the hero. But every hero should have a “girl” which they are trying to “rescue.” And at the end of a good story that hero should always “get the girl.” Campbell – The Meeting with the Goddess, Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight.
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