In my previous post, I discussed one of the most popular story templates of all time: The Hero’s Journey. As noted in that discussion, the classic Hero’s Journey structure is a male-centric archetype, where the only roles specifically outlined for women are that of temptress or goddess — never the hero. That limited narrative is changing, making way for new templates like The Heroine’s Journey. Read on to learn more about how female characters are stepping into roles traditionally reserved for men.
The salve for this gender inequality in storytelling may seem as simple as using Joseph Cambell’s outline for The Hero’s Journey and swapping out genders. Surely, a feminine character can cross the threshold into a new, mysterious realm, experience a road of trials and meet up with some charming entity trying to lure them astray.
One could try this approach, but the end result ignores — and therefore undermines — essential elements of a female narrative. Men and women experience the world in completely different ways. To neglect taking these core differences into account when writing a female protagonist into The Hero’s Journey is to deny the unique, singular struggles women face. In short, it’s a very male-centric solution, and it doesn’t fly.
That’s exactly why author, educator and psychotherapist Maureen Murdock came up with The Heroine’s Journey — a version of Campbell’s template specifically adjusted to support a female protagonist.
Murdock's outline for The Heroine’s Journey is broken up into ten plot points or story “beats.” Anyone familiar with Joseph Campbell’s outline will quickly recognize where the templates overlap, and where they differ. Let’s dive into The Heroine’s Journey:
Initiating the heroine’s path is often a rejection or separation from a key feminine figure, such as a mother or female mentor. Another approach to this beat is a female protagonist who rejects a traditionally feminine role prescribed or forced onto her by society. This opening plot point immediately recognizes a major barrier many female characters may have to overcome before they can even set off on their heroic path. Male characters may be expected, encouraged or even forced to go on such a journey, while a female protagonist may need to struggle for the privilege, or risk alienating herself from her community/society.
This concept brings to mind Arya Stark from George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. In HBO’s TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, Arya asks her father, Ned Stark, if she can become the lord of a holdfast the way her brothers will. Ned responds by telling her: “You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons shall be knights, and princes and lords.” Arya then shakes her head and says: “No. That’s not me.” In expressing this sentiment, Arya rejects the feminine role that’s being prescribed to her.
It’s time for the heroine to choose a different life path for herself. This may involve entering a male-dominated sphere, training for her journey and finding allies.
Overlapping with the 6th beat in Campbell’s template, the heroine experiences a road of trials or obstacles. Here, she may encounter people or entities trying to lure her away from her path or outright trying to destroy her. The heroine must prove herself worthy to those who doubt her ability to succeed (by male standards).
Examples include Elle Woods of Legally Blonde, who proves herself by getting into Harvard, and Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill Vol. 2, who suffers under the tutelage of Pai Mei when she must learn to punch through wood at an impossibly close distance. Skills acquired during this stage often come in handy at a crucial moment later on in the plot — like when Beatrix Kiddo is buried alive and must punch her way out of a wooden coffin.
The heroine prevails, overcoming the obstacles in her way and defeating the great “evil.” This plot point happens much sooner in Murdock’s version than in the classic Hero’s Journey, where it often takes place at the story’s climax. In Murdock’s version, it sets off a new phase of our female protag’s path.
Engaging with the heroic journey often requires the heroine to create a new way of life, eschewing those parts of herself traditionally considered “feminine.” Despite the transformative journey she’s been on, these parts still exist somewhere deep down. The heroine may find her new, more masculine way of life too limiting. The success of attaining the “boon” or reward for their efforts is temporary, or it requires a betrayal of self which now needs to be set right.
At this point, the heroine may fall into despair. Her new way of life is insufficient, and the strategies she learned from the “masculine” approach aren’t working.
The heroine yearns to return to her initial state, but she is unable to do so due the transformative journey she has undergone.
In order to heal, the heroine must reclaim some of her former skills and traits, or she must learn/gain them from others like her, now able to view them from a new perspective.
The heroine makes peace with or learns to live with the “masculine approach” while still honoring her authentic self.
To gain a new, deeper understanding of themselves and the greater world around them, the heroine must integrate her “feminine” and “masculine” traits or perspectives. This enables her to transcend these binaries and exist in a complex world.
Elle Woods in Legally Blonde merges her former and new identities when her knowledge of hair perms helps her solve a big murder case. We see that true success could not occur without both sides of the heroine coming together in the end.
This idea of bridging the gap between masculine and feminine is a key difference between Campbell and Murdock’s narrative structures. Addressing the inner complexities of how to exist outside of the lines in a world that hasn’t held much space for heroines honors those uniquely feminine challenges. As part of her journey, the heroine must overcome additional obstacles that simply don’t exist for traditional male protagonists.
Writing to a structured outline may seem dull, but it’s important to remember all plot archetypes and narrative structures are simply blueprints. They don’t need to be followed exactly, but they can be a powerful tool when it comes to plotting an outline or diagnosing why a story feels boring, confusing or out of pace.
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