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Classic Stories: Writing With the Hero’s Journey

November 8, 2023

Have you ever noticed a pattern in your favorite stories? This could be that something bad always happens to the characters that makes them leave home or that they always experience a moment of horrible defeat before rising to the occasion.

Joseph Campbell noticed a pattern that traveled across stories from ancient to modern times, which provided a narrative framework that outlines a protagonist’s adventure and personal transformation. His book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes this framework as a monomyth – a single, cohesive story structure that can be found in stories from all over the world. This is known as the hero’s journey.

What is it?

The hero’s journey is when a hero goes on a quest to complete a goal or dream, but in order to do so, they have to overcome unexpected obstacles and fears. In the end, they return home as a new person.

While Campbell’s monomyth covers 17 steps, Christopher Vogler later broke it down to 12 steps in his book The Writer’s Journey. Writers and filmmakers have used the steps as a practical guide to creating hundreds of thousands of books and movies. But the point of the structure isn’t to replicate a single pattern. If everyone did that, all the stories that follow it would feel the same. They would lose their spark. Instead, a writer should take time to understand what the steps tell us – how to build a compelling story by using powerful themes to resonate with an audience.

Three Pillars

The Hero’s Journey is supported by three foundational concepts: the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return. Each represents a distinct phase of the protagonist’s growth and journey of self-discovery.

The hero leaves the familiar world

The Departure is the beginning of the hero’s story, and starts with the protagonist in their ordinary world. This is where they grew up, or where they are most comfortable and familiar with their surroundings. Showing this allows the reader to get to know them and understand their background.

Soon after, the hero receives a call to adventure. This can come in many forms, and the protagonist may resist it due to fear, but ultimately it pushes them to start their journey. If they do resist it, a mentor or friend may appear to encourage them to continue (ex: Bilbo Baggins does not want to go on a quest for the ring, but Gandalf pushes him to do it).

The hero navigates the unfamiliar world

The Initiation is when the story really begins to play out. After beginning their quest, the hero is faced with a series of challenges in their new and unfamiliar surroundings. Throughout them, they make friends and become more familiar with the antagonist. The climax of the story occurs near the end, when the hero stands up to the antagonist, or their greatest fear, and undergoes a dramatic transformation.

The hero returns to the familiar world

No longer the same person they were at the Departure, the Return is when the hero leaves their new world and visits the old one again. Back in the familiar environment, they realize how their quest changed them as a person.

The 12 Steps

The Hero’s Journey is a collection of experiences that shape the protagonist’s character arc. Here are each of Christopher Vogler’s twelve steps to apply to your own hero in order to fully develop their story.

  1. The Ordinary World: The hero’s ordinary world is established, setting the stage for the contrast with the extraordinary adventures to come.
  2. The Call to Adventure: Something disrupts the hero’s ordinary world, beckoning them towards an unknown destiny. It comes in the form of a challenge or problem that they cannot ignore.
  3. Refusal of the Call: The hero hesitates or fears the problem they are faced with, symbolizing a normal human reaction to leaving one’s comfort zone. Something ultimately changes their mind.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: Now on the adventure, the hero isn’t ready yet to face all the troubles to come. They meet someone who becomes a mentor to them, giving them wisdom, training, or magical help. Whatever it is, it gives the hero the confidence they need to take the next big step.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold: The hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure, stepping into a new and unknown world. This is the point of no return and by now the central conflict should have been introduced, the theme established, and your character should have experienced some development.
  6. Tests, Friends, Enemies: The hero faces a series of increasingly difficult challenges that test their skills and determination. As they learn to navigate their new surroundings and situation, they meet other characters who will become friends or enemies.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: As the hero approaches their goal, they prepare to take the final steps. At this point, something appears that threatens their whole journey. This can be an external danger or an inner conflict that the hero has shoved aside until now.
  8. The Ordeal: The hero hits rock bottom as they face their greatest challenge. This is a make-or-break moment for their journey: if they succeed, they transform into a true hero. If they fail, their journey is significantly impacted. Everything may end here, their world may be changed for the worse, or they might lose something valuable.
  9. Reward: After the hero overcomes their greatest challenge, they are rewarded with something that is vital in their efforts to meet their goal. This can be a powerful object, wisdom, a person, a secret, or anything else that has significance in their story.
  10. The Road Back: The hero begins the journey back to their ordinary world, facing more tests and challenges along the way. These are the consequences of the conflicts they faced previously.
  11. The Resurrection: The hero undergoes a final test to see if they truly learned their lessons in the ordeal. If they fail, others will suffer. If they succeed, they will be transformed again.
  12. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns home changed and with a gift from their journey that improves their ordinary world.

Each step is a thread in the tapestry of the narrative, woven together to form a tale of trial, triumph, and transformation. These steps are not just plot points but are reflective of the hero’s inner journey of growth. As we explore these steps, we will also look at how they can be adapted and interpreted in various ways to fit different stories, ensuring the Hero’s Journey remains a versatile tool for writers.

Using the Hero’s Journey in your writing

Using the Hero’s Journey as a framework for writing can be a powerful tool for structuring your narrative and developing your protagonist’s character arc.

To do so, first map out the key moments of your story according to stages in the Hero’s Journey. Begin with the Ordinary World to establish your hero’s initial state before the adventure begins. Then, create a compelling Call to Adventure that will disrupt the hero’s life and propel them into the narrative.

As you develop your story, pay attention to the Tests, Friends, and Enemies that will shape your hero’s path. These steps add complexity to the narrative and provide opportunities for character development. The Ordeal, or the central conflict of the story, should be a reflection of the hero’s greatest fears and a test of their resolve.

After your hero has seized the Reward, the Road Back should challenge them to apply their new knowledge or power. The Resurrection is the climax where the hero must prove their transformation is complete. Finally, the Return with the Elixir allows your hero to demonstrate how they have changed and what they have gained from the journey.

Remember, while the Hero’s Journey offers a structured approach, it’s also flexible. Feel free to adapt the steps to suit the unique aspects of your story and your hero’s personal journey. The goal is to use the Hero’s Journey as a guide to create a resonant and satisfying narrative that will captivate your readers.

By understanding and implementing the Hero’s Journey in your writing, you can craft stories that not only entertain but also offer profound insights into the human experience, reflecting the trials and triumphs that define us all.

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