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.
Is the Monomyth the Ultimate Plot Archetype?
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.
What is The Hero’s Journey?
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.
ACT I: Departure
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:
- The Call to Adventure — Our hero is beckoned to embark on a journey that will most likely upset their routine and pull them out of their comfort zone.
- Refusal of the Call — The hero in question is reluctant, perhaps afraid, to take on the quest. Hard-boiled detective dramas love calling an unwilling detective out of retirement for one last case. In a similar vein, heist films often require one last big job from a key team member who doesn’t live that kind of life anymore.
- Supernatural Aid — At this point, our unwilling (or otherwise hindered) hero needs a bit of a kick out the door. This may come in the form of a sign, a dream or a half-giant named Hagrid (Yer a wizard, Harry!).
- Crossing the First Threshold — This is the glorious moment that our hero decides to leave all that is familiar behind and venture forth into the unknown.
- Belly of the Whale — Of course, one of the first things that happens after our hero leaves home is that they get themselves into a spot of trouble. This can take any shape, from getting lost in a strange new world (Alice, anyone?) to literally ending up in the belly of a whale.
ACT II: Initiation
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.
- The Road of Trials — The hero faces a series of obstacles that require them to learn new skills, try new ideas and learn valuable lessons that will probably come in handy by the end of the journey.
- Meeting of the Goddess — In this moment, the hero may face a test of their true nature as they come face to face with a divine being. As a reward for passing the test, they’ll often receive an item/items that will help them out later on.
- Woman as Temptress — It’s worth mentioning that Campbell’s version is outdated when it comes to gender. This moment can involve anything physical/pleasurable that distracts the hero from the main quest. In Frodo’s case, it was the One Ring.
- Atonement with the Father/The Abyss — This moment is the ultimate showdown, where the hero must face and overcome whatever holds power over them personally. This is often portrayed as a metaphorical, or in Luke and Darth Vader’s case, a literal father figure.
- Apotheosis — The “aha” moment, where a deeper understanding is achieved.
- The Ultimate Boon — This is the achievement of the hero’s goal. Everything they have gone through has prepared them for this moment, and made them noble enough to receive a reward as transcendent as the elixir of life, or in Harry Potter’s case, the Philosopher’s Stone.
ACT III: Return
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:
- Refusal of the Return — It’s time to go home, but our hero is no longer the same person they were back when they left. They have adapted to their new environment, made friends and allies and, of course, they’ve transformed. Alas, they must go home, and bring with them a new perspective.
- The Magical Flight — If the boon or gift the hero received is sought after by enemies, the hero must flee from danger in order to escape with the gift. This point can also take the shape of a gate or portal closing, and the hero must go on an exciting chase as they leave the newfound world.
- Rescue from Without — The hero may need assistance from the outer world to bring them back. Think of doctors bringing someone back from the brink of death, thus returning them to the real world.
- Crossing of the Return Threshold — Here, the hero must retain what they have learned, and manage to integrate and share this knowledge with their home world.
- Master of the Two Worlds — Typically, the transformation that the hero has undergone in the magical world will help them solve real-world problems they left behind, thus making them a master of both worlds.
- Freedom to Live/Denouement — With the great “evil” vanquished, the hero and their allies are free to live without fear, although the hero often cannot carry on as before, having undergone such an extreme transformation.
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.
Gender Roles in The Hero’s Journey
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.
Why is the Monomyth so Powerful?
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.
Looking for an expert storyteller to bring your ideas to life? Reach out to the team at Hire a Writer today.