Hero's Journey

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

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    When Star Wars makes a bazillion dollars, people want to know: what is its secret? And that's the shimmer of Joseph Campbell's work. It has this air of numinosity, it has this air of almost religious truth to it, and something vaguely special and sacred. And Hollywood eats that up. It's a great story.

    That's, I think, the political danger. If everyone is thinking that they're the hero, then there's no possibility of thinking with compassion from the point of view of other people who are experiencing completely different stories as you are.
    —Sean Hood, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, quoted in "How mythologist Joseph Campbell made Luke Skywalker a hero"

    The Hero's Journey—sometimes also called the "Monomyth"—is an archetypal story pattern, common in ancient myths as well as modern day adventures.

    The concept of the Hero's Journey was described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and refined by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey.

    The Journey itself

    It can be boiled down to three stages:

    • Departure: the Hero leaves the familiar world behind.
    • Initiation: the Hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world of adventure.
    • Return: the Hero returns to the familiar world.

    More elaborate taxonomies usually include the following stages, not all of which need be present:

    • Miraculous or unusual circumstances around the Hero's conception or birth. Bonus points if there was a prophecy. Less common in modern stories, which tend to emphasize that anyone could be The Chosen One. It appears in Harry Potter and The Dresden Files, though.
    • Begins in the ordinary world of the Hero's hometown, often in one of two flavours:
    • The Hero may be dissatisfied with the ordinary and express a desire for adventure. In musicals this can be expressed through an "I Want" Song.
    • The Herald brings a Call to Adventure. The Hero learns that s/he must leave the known world behind and travel into the land of adventure.
    • The Hero must then decide how to answer the Call:
    • Frequently, the first step on the Journey is receiving some kind of magical tchotchke or other Supernatural Aid
      • ... from the Mentor, often an older man.
    • Crossing the First Threshold: The Hero must make a conscious, willing decision to embark on the adventure and leave the known world behind. This is the First Threshold. The Hero may have to defeat Threshold Guardians, who are not necessarily adversarial but do test the Hero's resolve.
    • The Land of Adventure: the Hero enters a strange, dreamlike realm, where logic is topsy-turvy and the "rules" are markedly different from the ordinary world. Carl Jung identified the Ordinary Realm with the conscious mind, and the Realm of Adventure with the subconscious mind.
    • The Belly of the Whale represents a symbolic death for the Hero: the Hero is defeated and killed, his flesh scattered, ready to be reborn and emerge as a new person.
      • If you think the symbolic death ought to come later, don't worry: The Writer's Journey omits this step altogether in favor of a Resurrection step just before the end.
    • Road of Trials: the path out of the Belly of the Whale. Usually the meat of the story; The Writer's Journey calls it Tests, Allies, Enemies, while Booker goes into detail on different types of tests (deadly terrain, monsters, temptations, deadly opposites, and a journey to the underworld). Stops along the way might include:
    • Night Sea Voyage: the Hero must sneak into the Big Bad's Elaborate Underground Base and retrieve something or someone. Campbell noted that these Stealth Runs were usually at night and often involved water; hence the name.
      • Link's initial attempt at rescuing Aryll from the Forsaken Fortress in The Wind Waker is a near-perfect example of one of these.
      • Perhaps the best known example is the infiltration of the Death Star by Luke Skywalker to rescue Princess Leia.
    • Time out just before the big battle: the Heroes gather around a campfire and prepare for the battle, tell stories, confess their feelings, etc. It reminds them of what's at stake, and serves as a breather after all the action of the Road of Trials.
    • Apotheosis / Fight against the Big Bad / Ultimate Boon (These are typically very closely related, often intertwined.)
      • Apotheosis: The Hero comes to view the world in a new and radically different way, either because of a critical breakthrough he's made or some crucial information he's uncovered. If it is something to do with himself then this is a good time for an I Am Who?.
      • The Hero confronts the Big Bad in a typical David Versus Goliath fashion: He is usually called upon to sacrifice himself or something/someone important to him. "Friend or Idol?" Decision is a common scenario. Note that asked is the key word here—it's usually enough that the Hero be willing to sacrifice something without actually having to do it. Someone else will sacrifice himself in the Hero's stead, or the Hero will prove to have outwitted the Big Bad somehow (so that the apparent sacrifice isn't really a sacrifice), or it was all a Secret Test of Character, or...
      • Ultimate Boon: getting the reward the hero's been chasing all this time, often but not always a MacGuffin.
    • Refusal of the Return: At this point in the story, the Hero has mastered the strange world he was thrust into at the beginning of the story. He probably has earned a permanent place here, if he wants it. He may even want to stay, but usually there are forces at work that propel him home.
    • The Return: Also called the Magic Flight; the Hero now has the boon and high-tails it away, with the villain or his forces in hot pursuit; while they engage in a battle of wits and magic (especially shapeshifting) during the chase. (See the Celtic story of Taliesin's escape from Cerridwen for a textbook example of this.) The Hero's escape may not require actual magic, but will require all of the new skills he's learned and new allies he's made. Or alternately he could realize the Awful Truth that he can't return home because sometimes Failure Is the Only Option...
    • Crossing the Return Threshold
      • Sometimes a fight against the forces of the Muggle world, which the Hero wins thanks to help from his Muggle allies.
    • Freedom to Live: The Hero grants the boon to his people.

    Use of the Hero's Journey in fiction

    The pattern of the Hero's Journey can be found in shows ranging from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. George Lucas claims to have used it as a guide when writing Star Wars. Traditionally, the Hero's Journey was cyclic; a female Hero's Journey is more likely to be cyclic than a male's. Buffy The Vampire Slayer fits this to a tee; the movie is the first cycle, and each season roughly corresponds to one additional cycle.

    The Harry Potter books can also be seen to be cyclic in this fashion, although the journey was followed more closely in the earlier installments. The sixth and seventh books are arguably one cycle divided into two parts. With the final book having been split into two films, the last three films kind of form their own mini-trilogy, with each installment covering a step in the departure-initiation-return model. An interesting element is the fact that in the first five books/films, the Muggle world is the ordinary world and Hogwarts is the world of adventure, but in the Prince/Hallows duology/trilogy, Hogwarts has become the ordinary world and now it is the world beyond Hogwarts which is the world of adventure.

    Compare Campbell's description of the journey with Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, especially the plots of Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, and Voyage and Return. Like Campbell, Booker invests a lot of symbolism in the various elements, to the point where messing up the symbolism kills the story for him (for example, he calls Star Wars flawed because they rescued the princess way before they killed the Big Bad, when ideally those should happen at the same time, since the death of the Monster causes the release of the Anima).

    No examples, please; we could potentially list every story in human history.

    Flaws of the Hero's Journey, or why you might want to avoid using this narrative structure

    As pointed out here, the Hero's Journey is about the Hero - it leaves no room for contrasting points of view or the meaningful involvement of a deuteragonist in the story. Thus, it is a poor choice for a narrative structure in any cooperative work (such as a tabletop RPG), or for a story that seeks to depict more than a single point of view.

    It also relies on turning stories into myths. Not every story needs to be a myth, even if you disagree with Prof. Keith Dickson of Purdue University who says that myths "are basically stories that are told by those in power in order to convince others that they should have power." Not every story needs to be an epic tale.

    Compare and Contrast

    Compare The Quest. See also Propp's Functions of Folktales. If you experience a Heel Realization mid-Journey and realize your efforts so far have been for the wrong side or wrong reasons, please take the detour to your Redemption Quest.