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I’ve talked about plot archetypes and story structure before, but there’s one narrative framework that warrants its own moment in the spotlight: The Hero’s Journey. This structural outline works for — and has been applied to — just about any genre, and it famously charts the course of one of film history’s most beloved heroes, Luke Skywalker. It seems that even after seeing an infinite number of iterations, audiences never tire of The Hero’s Journey. Read on to learn more about this plot structure and why it resonates so deeply, regardless of how many ways we’ve seen it play out.
The Hero’s Journey, also known as the Monomyth, is a narrative template popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell was a professor of literature who worked in comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934 up until his retirement in 1972.
The idea behind the Hero’s Journey sprang from a combination of efforts by psychologists, anthropologists, and of course, Campbell himself. Among other sources, Campbell used Carl Jung’s analytical psychology to analyze narrative patterns that tend to show up in stories spanning across centuries, cultures and genres. Campbell himself summarized The Hero’s Journey as follows:
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.
While multiple versions of varying complexity have been popularized over the years, Campbell broke down The Hero’s Journey into seventeen stages that fit into a three act story structure. Get those lightsabers, wands, swords (and my axe!) ready, and let’s dive in.
The first act in a three-act adventure sets the stage for all to come. We are introduced to our main characters, the current status quo of the setting and the main conflicts of the story.
Plot points along the departure phase of The Hero’s Journey include:
At this point in the tale, our hero is well underway. It’s time to sink or swim, and to see what this hero is really made of.
Having completed their journey, faced down their demons and achieved their initial goal (or not), it’s time for the hero to return home. The third act in The Hero’s Journey may encompass the following plot points:
Not every “hero’s journey” follows this template exactly, of course. It’s more useful to think of this structure as a rough outline or blueprint that countless stories use as a foundational starting point.
Joining ranks with Luke Skywalker in stories that utilize The Hero’s Journey are Simba from The Lion King, Neo from The Matrix, boy wizard Harry Potter and our favorite blue-eyed Hobbit, Frodo Baggins. Now, if you’re thinking “that’s quite the male-centric list,” that’s because The Hero’s Journey is a male-centric plot archetype.
In his studies, Campbell looked back in time, analyzing ancient mythology and studying cultures where gender roles were clearly defined — and often quite limited for women. In fact, the only roles specifically set aside for female characters in The Hero’s Journey are that of temptress and divine goddess — no sword-wielding or general badassery in sight.
The answer to this inherent gender-bias, which has given us multitudes of interesting male heroes and only a select few heroines like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley, isn’t as simple as taking The Hero’s Journey and switching genders. Doing so would erase the unique and singular conflicts women face. That’s why author, educator and psychotherapist Maureen Murdock came up with a set of stages for The Heroine’s Journey, essentially a version of Campbell’s template that’s been adjusted to account for and include a female narrative.
Blockbuster hits like Wonder Woman and The Hunger Games have sent leading ladies on The Heroine’s Journey to great success. As more storytellers embrace this template, we can look forward to seeing more compelling female characters take their place within the Monomyth. Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll discuss The Heroine’s Journey in detail.
Some variation of this story has been told thousands of times, yet it continues to capture audiences across the globe. That’s because, regardless of gender-identity, we all essentially have to go on this journey. At its core, The Hero’s Journey is a universal coming of age story. It mirrors our own psychological development as we embark on the adventure of our lives. Each step — or plot point — can feel metaphorical and relatable to our own journeys of overcoming those pesky inner demons, stepping up to the challenges of life and progressing ever-onward on our quests toward individuation.
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