What is the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey was first composed by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s the meta-myth, the story running through all myths, which Campbell formulated from his study of ancient stories.
Since its conception, the hero’s journey has been used as a plot structure guide for countless books, movies, plays, and any piece of media that has a story element.
The structure is divided into 3 acts and 17 stages. You don’t have to write your story in 17 chapters, though. If you want to follow this guide, simply hitting (most of) the stages as points in your story is good enough. The hero’s journey doesn’t require you to rigidly adhere to its narrative. Use it as you see fit.
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What is the use of the Hero’s Journey?
If you want to write a story, whether a novel, a video game, or even a non-fiction article, you can make use of the hero’s journey as a narrative structure.
The hero starts out as one person, goes through a series of obstacles, wins, losses, and becomes a new person at the end. He has gone on a quest which required him to face not only outside conflict, but inside conflict as well.
When we engage with a story of transformation, we become transformed in a small way as well. Good stories therefore are catalysts for change. These are stories that stick around, become myths and legends.
Is it still relevant?
Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces was first released in 1949, over 70 years ago. Not a lot of people engage with stories written in the 50s. But since Campbell’s meta-myth is based on stories hundreds or even thousands of years old, it still holds up. This is evidenced by the numerous modern derivatives of Campbell’s original work.
Plenty writers have adapted the original formulation to suit more modern tastes. The original can feel a bit vague, flowery, and at times problematic. Modern versions are simplified, distilled for practical use.
Yet, the ambiguous nature of the original meta-myth is unsurprising, as it is the abstraction from stories of pagan, Abrahamic, and shamanic origin, stories that served as the backbone of ancient cultures. Their very nature defies practical application.
It’s precisely this archetypal quality that makes for the best guide. The best structure is one you can make your own. A structure shouldn’t mold your story; your story should mold the structure.
You may also use this guide in addition to a modern one if that will help you get your story onto paper.
Now let’s get started with the hero’s journey.
Act I: Departure
In this first act, the focus lies on the hero’s day-to-day mundanity and the reason for his setting out on his adventure. His world is one of dependence and safety. You may think of your hero in this stage as a child who cannot survive without its parents.
Your hero has to rise to a challenge and in doing so accept his inevitable fate of completing the quest or to die trying. It’s daunting, but necessary for him to reach his full potential as a human being.
Stage 0: Ordinary World
The stage is set before the beginning of your story. A few metaphors and symbols are established that set the tone for the journey to come, that foreshadows transformation into their opposite, events to come.
Here you briefly explain the backstory without relying on too much overt exposition. Part of your explanation will include the establishment of principles of existence in your world. This means setting up rules for how your world works that will immerse the reader. Examples: mechanics in a video game, magic systems, or political power structures.
The hero makes his entrance and is introduced. His behavior in this everyday settings will reveal his traits, flaws, and desires. He will soon have to leave his comforts to battle with his fatal flaw.
A series of questions may be raised to the reader about the nature of good and evil in relation to the hero’s frame.
Stage 1: Call to Adventure
Suddenly, there’s a trigger: a message from the frontier or some other catalyst gets the story rolling. A call to action puts a direct threat on the hero’s established safety and his way of life. His family, peace, security, and community may hang in the balance.
Conversely, the hero may be offered a temptation and by his flaws willingly though unknowingly put his own world in peril.
Heralds of change enter the hero’s life. These are people or events that present the hero with an invitation or challenge. The balanced life he used to enjoy has tilted to one end and he is called upon to right it. His ordinary world is unstable and he must stabilize it by risky action.
The purpose of the call is to alleviate either a lack or a need. There’s a necessity put upon the hero to survive, help, or grow.
This stage may also be called the inciting incident in other plot structures. It is the moment that kicks off the rest of the story. It’s receiving the message from Hogwarts. It’s your parents getting shot in an alley. It’s the start of the whole thing.
Stage 2: Refusal of the Call
Your hero is still a child; his immediate reaction is to refuse the call to adventure. The heralds he meets predict events that are too dangerous and scary. They ask too much of him and his undeveloped soul.
The hero is too comfortable and has an array of excuses which he can hurl at the world as to why he is not up for the task, why he is unfit to change, why he shouldn’t go on the adventure.
Yet, these excuses are only attempts to delay his inevitable fate. There’s a fear in the hero that needs to be overcome. He will only face this fear if the stakes are raised exceedingly high or the world forces him to undergo his character change.
What would you do if you were asked to leave everything you love behind and put your life at risk? There better be a damned good reason, otherwise you would be mad to go. And even if there is already a good reason, your hero’s first response could be one of emotion instead of reasoning, like a child clinging to its mother.
Next, someone will enter the story that takes the screaming child and throws it at the monsters.
Stage 3: Meeting the Mentor
When the hero can’t run from his responsibility any longer, he’s forced into accepting the call. The dire need for deliverance reaches levels that overpower the fear the hero is faced with. At this point, he may realize that he has to change if he is to be successful in the stages to come.
A mentor now appears from who he receives something he needs. This may be an object of importance, secret information, wise advice, practical training, or something else.
The mentor is a figure that has gone before to the special world that the hero is about to enter. The mentor’s wisdom dispels the hero of his doubts and fears and gives him, above all, the courage to start his quest.
The archetypal mentor is an old man, but it doesn’t have to be like that. The mentor can take the form of an older sister, a talking book, or even a dog. As with all of these stages, it’s important not to follow it too closely, and to let your creativity ebb and flow around the archetypes laid out here.
Stage 4: Crossing the First Threshold
The hero is now ready to start his quest. Despite his great efforts to resist, he will eventually cross over from the familiar world to the unfamiliar world: from the normal to the special. It’s a world with new rules, novel situations, and plenty of challenges.
The new world may really be a new world in a story where the protagonist has to travel to a different country, it may also be the first day of high school, or a new workplace.
The new world can even be the same geographical place, but in a different frame. Perhaps the hero was losing someone to a disease and now mourns their passing. Even if he goes back home, he is in a new state.
At the threshold between the normal and the special world you may often encounter a guardian. This guardian is the gate-keeper of the new world, protecting the path in between. Examples of such guardians are engraved into the doors or walls of old temples, keeping out the uninitiated.
Archetypally, the guardian symbolizes a force that stands in the way, but is actually an illusion of threat. The temple engravings can’t hurt you, they trigger feelings of danger and the unknown, of threat. But if you’re brave, you can just touch them and pass.
The guardian doesn’t have to be an outside entity, it can also be internal doubt of the hero, or conflict between characters. Perhaps the hero has to say goodbye to his wife. Often there is a price to be paid: a toll to cross.
Most often, the guardian is an outside conflict, reflecting the hero’s inside conflict.
The guardian may also appear as a trickster who tests the hero. The bridge troll and his riddles come to mind. The hero needs to use his wit and reflect back at the gatekeeper the skill he has developed.
In psycho-analytical terms, the threshold guardian represents the hero’s confrontation with the powers of the shadow of his own repressed unconscious mind. The power of the shadow is drawn from the ego. So if the hero is to overcome the shadow, he must overcome himself.
You cannot defeat the shadow with violence. You must defeat anger with compassion, fear with courage, you must face the shadow with its opposite, which is the authentic ego of the hero.
The only way to overcome the shadow is to surrender to it and sacrifice that to which you cling. The ego must believe in a greater power in order to do this, or its inherent fear of self-destruction will win out. To pass, a piece of it will have to die. This is the agony of change.
Basically, the hero has to believe that the pain of crossing the threshold is worth entry into the new world, whether that be physical pain in a fight, emotional pain in a breakup, or the mental pain of a character change.
Once he has crossed, he will have changed. Change is painful. The rest of the story better be worth it.
Stage 5: Belly of the Whale
In this stage, the hero enters the new world, blinded and disoriented by the novelty. It’s a rough landing.
At this point in the story, there may be a small twist. The hero had a plan but now that he’s actually out on the streets, he finds out the plan is incompatible. He has to adapt in the next act.
The Belly of the Whale represents the final separation of the hero from the known world. There’s not turning back now.
Continuation of the Journey
Now your story has truly begun. In act 1 it’s important to welcome the reader into the story, to get the hero out of his mundanity and into the magic. Act 2 will be the meat of your story, the promise of the premise.
Next up, your hero will make enemies and allies, battle foes and party with friends. He will master the new world and make himself ready for the climax in Act 3.
This post is the first part in a three-part series on the Hero’s Journey. Press the button to go to the next part. I still gotta write part 2. You can subscribe to my newsletter for now to stay posted. Thanks!