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The Hero's Journey

If you're not familiar with The Hero's Journey, a.k.a. the Monomyth, it's a model of a common narrative arc found in myths and fairy tales across world cultures. Joseph Campbell, who first published the idea in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), describes it, "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."

A couple of weeks ago I read a more recent book on The Hero's Journey, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. Vogler is a story consultant who's worked for many of the big guys in Hollywood: Disney studios, Fox pictures, Warner Bros. Though his book is aimed primarily at screenwriters, it's often on recommended reading lists for novelists, playwrights, and video game developers.

What I Liked

Vogler provides some great insights into story structures, and some okay insights into character archetypes. The archetypes are really additional comments on structure, because they're classified exclusively by function, not personality. The Herald delivers the Call to Adventure, the Mentor helps the hero with gifts and advice, etc.

I also liked the explanations of what each of the stages and archetypes do for the audience. I've read other writing books that say, "You must use an Inciting Incident to transition from Act I to Act II," but they don't explain why that's so important. But for each stage, Vogler includes his theories on the dramatic function and provides plenty of examples from well-known stories to get you thinking.

What I Didn't Like

To get to the good stuff, I had to sit through long passages parroting Jungian pseudo-psychology about "male egos" and "female energy." Modern psychology is a good, solid science. Hundred-year-old Freudian/Jungian "psychology" can be called philosophy, at best.

It's blatantly sexist philosophy, too. For example, Vogler explains the "psychological function" of the Shapeshifter archetype like this.

"It's natural for each sex to regard the other as ever-changing, mysterious....Women complain that men are vague, vacillating, and unable to commit. Men complain that women are moody, flighty, fickle, and unpredictable. Anger can turn gentle men into beasts. Women change dramatically during their monthly cycle, shifting with the phases of the moon."

The moon is in its waning crescent phase today—no wonder I'm feeling particularly fickle! Now I need to go provoke Sweetie and see if he turns into a werewolf.

Summary of the Hero's Journey

To save you the discomfort of reading about how the Wizard of Oz represents Dorothy's unconscious yearning for "mature male energy," here are the key points of the model of The Hero's Journey.

Hero's Journey Diagram

Different literary analysts have slightly different models for the Hero's Journey (or the "Monomyth"). Pictured above is Vogler's version, which is the most recent and the one described in The Writer's Journey.

Ordinary World

This is the set-up for the story. The hero leads his everyday life in a familiar setting.

  • Harry Potter lives with the Dursleys in 1990s British suburbia.
  • Katniss Everdeen lives in "the Seam" of District 12 with her mother and sister.
  • Bilbo Baggins lives in his cozy hobbit hole in the Shire, content with his well stocked larder and his favorite pipe.
The Call to Adventure

This is the story trigger, or the Inciting Incident. The hero encounters something (an event, an object, a person) that pushes him to leave his safe and "ordinary" existence and face challenging new experiences.

  • Harry receives a letter of admission from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
  • Katniss attends the Reaping.
  • Bilbo meets the wizard Gandalf, who literally invites him on an adventure. ("I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone....")
Refusal of the Call

The hero often resists the adventure for some reason or other. He might be afraid, or he might like his ordinary life as it is, or he has no interest in the reward of the adventure.

  • Bilbo is appalled by the very thought of taking risks and politely declines Gandalf's offer. ("I don't want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning!")
Meeting the Mentor

A mentor often appears to prepare the hero and guide him into/through the Special World.

  • Hagrid bursts into the Dursley's hut on the rock and tells Harry he's a wizard.
  • Gandalf arrives for tea with a band of hungry dwarves and a treasure map. (Gandalf does double duty in this case, first delivering the Call and then pushing Bilbo to respond to it.)
Crossing the Threshold to the Special World

The adventure begins! The hero either leaves his ordinary life willingly or is forced to leave by other characters or circumstances.

  • Harry flies away to the world of magic on Hagrid's motorcycle.
  • Katniss takes her sister's place in the Hunger Games and boards the train to the Capitol.
  • Before Bilbo can even finish his second breakfast, Gandalf sweeps him away to join the dwarves as their "burglar."
Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The hero faces a series of trials that test the his mettle and force him to grow.

  • Harry starts his life at Hogwarts, where he encounters school bullies, bat-like Potions professors, and talking hats.
  • Katniss survives a series of attempts on her life during the Hunger Games.
  • Bilbo narrowly escapes trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and other enemies during his travels.
Approach to the Innermost Cave

This is the build-up to the Ordeal, the hero's biggest trial.

  • Harry, Ron, and Hermione conquer a series of obstacles on their way to stop Voldemort from stealing the Philosopher's Stone.
  • The Gamemakers force Katniss and Peeta towards the final arena, where they'll face off against the most formidable tribute, Cato.
  • Bilbo & Co. climb Lonely Mountain, the site of Smaug's lair.
Ordeal, Death, and Rebirth

The Ordeal is the ultimate test of the hero's skills and character, which all the smaller tests leading up to it have been preparing him to face. He often places everything on the line and "dies" literally or metaphorically, and then is "reborn" as a true hero.

  • Harry faces Professor Quirrel and Lord Voldemort. He struggles to protect the Philosopher's Stone until he faints, then reawakens in the infirmary.
  • Katniss defeats Cato and, when the Gamemakers change the rules on her, nearly commits suicide by eating poisoned berries.
  • Bilbo enters Smaug's lair and audaciously steals a cup to show the dwarves.
Reward, Seizing the Sword

The hero claims his reward for passing the big test. This is often an ultimate weapon of some kind, like a legendary sword or a powerful new skill.

  • Dumbledore rewards Harry with the knowledge that his parents loved him, Harry's "ultimate weapon" against Voldemort.
  • The Gamemakers reward Katniss for her defiant stunt by allowing her to live. The incident also earns her the popularity and romantic image she'll need to pass her final test.
  • Bilbo is rewarded for his bravery with the knowledge of Smaug's one weakness, a chink in his scaly armor.
The Road Back

The opposite of Crossing the Threshold, the hero starts on the Road Back to stable everyday life.

  • The school year winds down and Harry prepares to leave Hogwarts.
  • Katniss leaves the bloody arena of the Games and returns to the comfort of the Training Center.
  • After Bard slays Smaug, Bilbo returns to Lonely Mountain to take his share the treasure and go home...but his trials aren't over yet.
Resurrection and Return with the Elixir

These are basically repeats of the Ordeal and the Reward stages. If the Ordeal wasn't the final climax of the story, the hero will have to face one last test before he can return to a peaceful life. The "Elixir" is the ultimate reward for his troubles: wealth, love, fame, wisdom, etc.

  • Harry attends the final feast and goes through the emotional trial of seeing Slytherin nearly win the coveted House Cup. But at the last moment, Dumbledore adds the points for Harry & Friends' heroic deeds and Gryffindor wins. Then Harry takes the Hogwarts Express and returns to a marginally improved life with the Dursleys.
  • After the Games, Katniss must get through one last trial: her appearance on television as a victor, under the watchful eye of the wrathful government. Only then can she leave the Capitol and return to her family in District 12.
  • Bilbo survives the Battle of Five Armies, claims his small slice of Smaug's treasure, and returns the Shire a very wealthy hobbit.

The Hero's Journey Is a Subclass, Not the Parent Object

While writing this blog post, I tried very hard to squish every story I could think of into the Monomyth mold. But most of the stories on my bookshelf wouldn't cooperate. Jane Eyre? Nope. Pride and Prejudice? Close, but no cigar. Middlemarch? Don't even think about it—the attempt will turn your brain to goo.

Still, I tried. I insisted Pride and Prejudice might fit if you just ignore these stages, and repeat those stages, and think of Elizabeth's first unpleasant encounter with Mr. Darcy as "kind of like crossing a threshold, right?" Then I realized I was being foolish. My attempts to change the model and claim it fit the story were like Cinderella's stepsisters' attempts to cut off their heels and toes and claim their feet fit the golden slipper.

Vogler's book implies that the Hero's Journey is a universal model, and that stories that don't quite follow it are subtypes with stages removed or reordered. But it's actually the other way around. It's not that all stories fit the shape of the Monomyth, but that the Monomyth follows the basic shape of all stories: beginning, middle, end.

The first "Ordinary World" stage is simply a common type of beginning. The "Call to Adventure" and "Crossing the Threshold" stages transition to the middle of the story, the "Tests, Allies, and Enemies" stage. The middle culminates in the resolution of the main conflict through the "Ordeal" and "Reward." Then the "Road Back," "Resurrection," and "Return" stages describe the end, in which the hero ties up loose ends and returns to a life free from major conflict.

This is an effective way to construct a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it's not the only way. The Monomyth is common in stories about grand adventures, such as high fantasies, shōnen manga and anime, and role-playing games like the Zelda and Final Fantasy franchises. But it rarely fits quieter stories about personal growth and interpersonal relationships. Just because Pride and Prejudice also has a beginning, a middle, and an end doesn't mean it follows the Hero's Journey. Even some of the movie analyses in Vogler's book are iffy. The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, Episode IV might fit, but Pulp Fiction is really pushing it.

What I Learned

Stories that follow the Hero's Journey structure are so common because their beginnings grab the audience's interest, their middles build towards exciting climaxes, and their endings deliver big emotional payoffs. Here's my understanding of what each of the stages do for readers.

  • The Ordinary World is an opportunity for readers get to know the hero and identify with him before the plot takes off.
  • The Call to Adventure is a signal to readers that interesting things are about to begin.
  • The Refusal of the Call highlights the high stakes of the main conflict, which ups the tension and excitement when it finally starts.
  • The Meeting with the Mentor pushes the story forward when the hero can't or won't do it himself.
  • Crossing the Threshold is the true start of the story. The setup is done and over with and we've entered the arena of the main conflict.
  • The Tests, Allies, and Enemies stage is the emotional roller coaster, the reason people picked up the book in the first place.
  • During the Approach to the Innermost Cave, the coaster car reaches the bottom of The Big Hill and climbs up, up, up, clicking ominously.
  • At the Ordeal, Death, and Rebirth, the coaster car slips over the edge and plummets down, giving readers the emotional rush of facing danger and coming out safe and sound.
  • The Reward lets readers share the hero's relief and happiness at accomplishing his goal and harvesting the fruits of his efforts.
  • The Road Back is the signal that the main conflict is over and the story's end is nigh.
  • The Resurrection and Return with the Elixir stages give readers one last burst of adrenaline followed by a feeling of relief and contentment. The conflict is over and all is well.

People across generations love Harry Potter and The Hobbit because the stories produce great emotional effects. But there are many ways to produce the same effects without following the same formula. Let's examine Jane Eyre.

We meet Jane as a young orphan, and we empathize with her because of her strong principles, her passionate nature, and the horrid way her relatives treat her. She encounters conflict on page one, when her aunt banishes her from the cozy drawing room saying "she really must exclude [Jane] from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children."

Jane faces many trials at her aunt's home, at the Lowood School for Girls, and at Thornfield Hall. The middle of the book delivers many emotional highlights that build towards the Gothic climax: Mr. Rochester's dramatic introduction and proposal in the rain, the insane Mrs. Rochester's attempts at murder and mayhem, and finally the big revelation at the wedding.

In the end, Jane cashes in her good karma to become a wealthy heiress and marry the tragically widowed Mr. Rochester. Her sufferings are finally over.

So when writing, instead of asking, "Does my story follow the Hero's Journey?" I think it's more sensible to ask, "Does my story move forward? Does it deliver emotional highs and lows? Will readers feel satisfied at the end?" If the answers are no, and you want them to be yes, you might borrow some tricks from the Hero's Journey to help. Give the hero more Tests and Enemies, introduce a Mentor to push the plot along, or make the climax a deadly Ordeal of epic proportions.


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