what is the hero's journey

 

Why do people tell stories?

It’s a fair question. After all, we’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve had language itself. The first known written story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is thought to be over 3,000 years old, but oral tradition—the practice of telling stories by word of mouth—is far older.

In prehistoric times, our ancient ancestors combined oral tradition with visual markers like gestures, rock art, cave paintings, and even elaborate rituals to tell the stories of the day. These stories served specific purposes: some were for practical instruction, like a hunter’s account of a particularly dangerous hunt. Others taught moral lessons or codified certain ways of life. And still others used supernatural explanations to account for unknown or frightening phenomena in the world, forming the basis of what we call mythologies today.

But these practices all have one thing in common: they each used narrative as an instrument in the service of understanding, a tool to help both storyteller and listener to make sense of the world.

Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth

So, if all stories serve the same general purpose, it stands to reason that they might all stem from one source as well.

That’s what Joseph Campbell posited when he wrote his famous work of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Based on Jungian theory and his own study of world mythologies, Campbell developed his theory of the monomyth, the ultimate narrative archetype, a singular story upon which all narratives are based.

Campbell summarized his theory thus:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
– Joseph Campbell

This framework, both simple and deceptively precise, is meant to explain narrative conventions and lend structure to the sometimes-nebulous world of storytelling. While stories are used to explain an unknown and unfamiliar world, Campbell’s monomyth is designed to explain narrative itself.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, particularly its description and explanation of “The Hero’s Journey,” has left an indelible stamp on narrative fiction. While George Lucas’ Star Wars films are perhaps the best known usage of the narrative framework it provides, authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.D. Salinger, and Stephen King have all written stories that could also be classified as monomyth. Even some religious texts, particularly accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, can be argued to follow this template.

how to write using the hero's journey

How You Can Use the Hero’s Journey

And of course, you can use Campbell’s monomyth theory in your own writing. While the Hero’s Journey may be either too broad or too limiting a template to follow—it’s been criticized for both by literary scholars—the framework it provides is also a roadmap to many laudable story qualities, including strong character arcs, escalating conflicts, and rhythmic storytelling.

The Hero’s Journey is broken down into three acts and 17 distinct and important stages:

 

Departure 1.      The Call to Adventure

2.      The Refusal of the Call

3.      Introduction of Supernatural Aid

4.      Crossing the Threshold

5.      Belly of the Whale

Initiation 6.      The Road of Trials

7.      The Meeting with the Goddess

8.      The Woman as the Temptress

9.      The Atonement with the Father

10.  Apotheosis

11.  The Ultimate Boon

Return 12.  The Refusal of the Return

13.  The Magic Flight

14.  The Rescue from Without

15.  Crossing the Return Threshold

16.  Mastery of Two Worlds

17.  The Freedom to Live

We won’t cover each stage exhaustively here; there are plenty of online resources that do just that.

Instead,, we’ll give you our top 5 techniques you can learn from Campbell’s framework, and teach you how you can apply them to your own stories.

1. Flawed Heroes

A significant portion of The Hero’s Journey is devoted to describing certain trials or struggles the titular hero must overcome on his or her quest.

And while the hero must eventually emerge victorious in order for the plot to move forward, the Hero’s Journey formula actually requires that the protagonist fail a certain portion of these tests. Because it wouldn’t be realistic for an unstoppable superman to arbitrarily fail at one of these tasks, the Hero’s Journey therefore requires the creation of a flawed hero.

No fictional character should ever be completely perfect. It’s pretty dang boring to read about perfect people leading perfect lives.

So remember: While part of the thrill of reading an exciting story is following interesting characters experiencing impossible adventures or surviving harrowing ordeals, it’s important that the characters not succeed all the time—if they do, the adventure may seem hollow, or the perils your characters face become toothless.

Failures don’t all have to be the same, either—they’re not all examples of a cunning villain throwing a monkey wrench in the works. Instead, these failures can come from without—from powerful threats or difficult tasks—but also from within, from the characters’ own imperfections.

Now, don’t think this means that your character needs to be weak, or useless, or unlikeable. Rather, a flaw should be some innate quality or character trait that hinders your hero from achieving his or her goals. This makes your protagonist relatable, and gives them room to grow over the course of the story.

2. Character Growth

Not only is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey an archetypical narrative arc, it also maps out what Campbell considered to be the archetypical character arc as well.

Center focus here is the Hero, not the Journey. The quest itself is incidental, and the character’s growth—or transformation, in some cases—is the real driving force of the narrative.

Simply put, your protagonist should grow and change over the course of your story. He should begin his story incapable of completing the quest, but over the course of the narrative become strong enough to achieve what he previously could not.

In Campbell’s theory, this growth is begun at Step 2, The Refusal of the Call, and concluded at Step 16, The Master of Two Worlds. At the start, the protagonist is afraid of the adventure and the perils it might bring, but finishes having conquered her fear and proven her ability to survive, achieving spiritual balance in the process. Often this is achieved by overcoming that flaw we discussed in the previous section.

This struggle takes a variety of forms. In action-oriented fare, it can come as a literal struggle to become stronger: think Rocky Balboa training to beat Clubber Lang, a physically forbidding opponent, in Rocky III. Or in a more psychologically driven story, it can be a quest for understanding: a detective struggling to understand the motives and thought process of a killer.

In either case, however, one element is required: to complete his transformation, the hero must have a revelation, gaining some new understanding that allows him to move forward. In Rocky III, this is Rocky’s admission that he cannot become stronger than Lang, and must outwit and outfight him to beat him. In our detective story, this is the realization that the killer’s victims were all connected in some way.

In Campbell’s framework, this step is called Apotheosis, and it represents a turning point—both for the hero, and for the story as a whole.

3. Choices Matter

As Campbell writes it, the monomyth’s story beats are structured around a series of seven important choices its hero must make. These choices alter the trajectory of the plot, and are important milestones in the hero’s growth as a character.

The second step, Refusal of the Call, delays the action, while Introduction of the Supernatural Aid sees the hero commit to her quest, already demonstrating greater courage than she began with. Crossing the First Threshold sees the hero willingly enter the “other world” of her adventure, and by entering the Belly of the Whale, she completely leaves behind the safety of the world she began in. The Woman as Temptress is when the hero resists the urge to give up her quest, while Refusal of the Return sees her deciding—temporarily—to forgo returning from her adventure at all. And at the last, the hero commits to returning to her origins in The Magic Flight, and the plot begins to wrap itself up.

So the hero cannot be a bystander. He cannot allow the story to flow around him like a river, or carry him from plot point to plot point. Your protagonist must take an active role in his own story.

His choices must have weight, for good or ill, and they must affect his path and the world around him. Without the driving force of these decisions, your story becomes less a narrative than a simple series of connected events with no satisfying conclusion.

4. Structure

If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve most likely learned about basic story structure. You’re probably familiar with “rising action” and “falling action…” or at least you’ve seen that chart that looks like a jagged mountain. You know, this one:

The Hero’s Journey includes such a structure, but goes a step further, structuring its quest around—you guessed it—a journey. More specifically, an incursion into another world where the main meat of the action takes place. The farther in the hero travels, the closer he comes to the enlightenment he needs to complete his quest, and after he achieves it, he is allowed to return home.

This inward-outward rhythm forms the bedrock of the Hero’s Journey’s structure; it charts not only the trajectory of the narrative, but the hero’s progress as well. And while your story doesn’t need to copy its movements pace for pace, the importance of some kind of structure cannot be overstated.

Consider basing the structure of your story around some other rise-and-fall mechanic. For instance, Flowers for Algernon’s plot follows the rise and fall of the narrator’s intelligence. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy uses a literal mountain to chart Frodo Baggins’s journey to destroy the Ring. A romantic plot could have the protagonist becoming closer and closer to a love interest, then distancing himself from her once he sees how heartless she truly is. Or a gangster movie might follow a hoodlum as he rises through the ranks in the mob, only to crumble under the weight of his own ambitions.

But no matter how you frame it, a good structure is a strong foundation for any story, and can lend weight to your plot where it needs it most.

5. Tropes Are Not Bad Things

We’ve all seen them: story elements we’ve encountered so many times that they’re hackneyed or cliché, and are so worn out that they drag an otherwise serviceable plot to a howling halt. Often these elements originated in older fiction, and have been imitated, duplicated, or simply repeated so many times that even the original work seems derivative now.

And since the Hero’s Journey is based in ancient myth—some of the oldest stories in existence—surely Campbell’s archetype is the most clichéd story of all, right?

Well, yes. But that’s not a bad thing.

This is the whole premise of the Hero’s Journey. If all stories can be traced back to one omnipresent narrative, then everything is a cliché, everything is a trope, and nothing is truly new.

Even this isn’t an original idea. Other scholars have posited that there are a limited number of basic plots in fiction. Some say that Shakespeare told every original story, and that all future plots are variations of his plays in some way. But if every story we’ve ever read is merely a variation on a theme, why don’t we get bored?

The answer’s right there: variation. The Hero’s Journey might seem like a fixed framework, but its beats are broad enough to allow for great creative freedom within its borders. Many stories follow the Hero’s Journey beat for beat, but some incorporate only certain elements, or tell them out of order, or tell the story from a unique or unexpected perspective.

But know this: you can copy the Hero’s Journey exactly and still tell an engaging story.

Because tropes are fun! We’ve seen the hero slay a mighty monster hundreds of times, but we still cheer for him when he gains the upper hand. And we’ve seen thousands of last-minute rescues, but we still clench our teeth even if we know for sure our heroes will be saved.

That’s why these story elements have survived for so long, from the days of myth to modern storytelling. Campbell’s archetypes aren’t clichés, they’re timeless… and as long as you use them to tell an absorbing story, they’ll always be good for one more thrill.

Writers at home: have you ever used elements from The Hero’s Journey in your own fiction? Tell us why—or why not—in the comments below.

 

For more information about structuring your plots, you’re not far off:

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As a Senior Editor at TCK Publishing, Jacob Mohr relishes the opportunity to work closely with the authors of tomorrow, creating new stories and exciting possibilities—and making the world a little more awesome, one book at a time. When he’s not editing someone else’s writing, Jacob can usually be found reading Stephen King, riding rollercoasters, or crafting his own stories.