Monday, April 9, 2012

A-Z Challenge: H is for Hero's Journey

H is for Hero's Journey

If one single person could be said to have changed the face of story telling in the last century, it's Joseph Campbell. His work with global mythology is most widely known in relation to the hero's journey. George Lucas was so inspired by Campbell's work that he wrote a series of films following the steps of the hero's journey (Star Wars, anyone?)

Simply, the steps in the hero's journey are:

1. Ordinary World
2. Call to action
3. Refusal of the call
4. Meeting a mentor
5. Crossing the threshold
6. Tests, allies, and enemies
7. Approach
8. Ordeal, death, rebirth
9. Reward
10. The road back
11. Resurrection
12. Return with "the elixir" (magical knowledge, an object of power, something that could transform the ordinary world)

Think of the ancient myths: over and over again, the structure of the hero's journey has played out in our history, with some variations. It's a powerful structure for storytelling, something that taps into the shared subconscious.

But what does this all mean to writers?

Christopher Vogler's excellent manual The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is a great resource for writers of all genres. Whereas Campbell applied the stages of the hero's journey to myth, Vogler applies the steps to characters. (In this context, "hero" is being used to describe the protagonist and can be applied to characters regardless of gender).

I'm still reading my way through this volume, but so far, I really like it. The first writing class I took was built around this text (and Campbell's work), and I find that when I am conscious of the path that the hero takes in myth, my own writing gets better.

When you craft your tale, think about the hero's journey: what's the call to action? Who will serve as a mentor, and who will test the hero along the way? Your protagonist should be changed in someway at the end of your manuscript: is this change something that still allows the hero to exist in their old world, or have they transformed so much that they are not content with normalcy anymore?

Has anyone used the hero's journey to guide your writing process? What examples of this story arc can you think of in modern pop-culture?

Remember to check in with the other A-Z challenge participants!


  1. I've never written a "straight" hero's journey story. I have stories that would fall into that category, but I just wrote it. I wasn't overly concerned with hitting each element of the cycle as described. But I think it still works because these types of stories are so ingrained in our collective unconscious that they are easy to draw on when writing, whether it's deliberate or not.

    1. I completely agree! I tend to write some variation of the hero's journey, but I've only recently been intentional about it. But now that I am intentional, I've found it's easier to plot my stories.

  2. Follow the formula, plot the story. Does the structure help produce a better story or limit the spontaneity of the writing?

    1. That's a good question: when I've consciously used the formula, I've still found that the characters have the freedom to take me to unexpected places. I guess story trumps all!