The Hero’s Journey – Part 1 An Introduction

In 1949, Joseph Campbell – an American mythologist (how do you get that job?! One to take up with my career adviser), wrote what is widely considered one of the seminal works on story and story structure. It was called ‘ A Hero with a Thousand Faces‘, and rapidly became one of the most referenced works on stories. Others came after him to rework his original idea, such as David Adams Leeming, Phil Cousineu and Christopher Vogler, but Joseph Campbell is widely regarded the father of the ‘monomyth’.

What is the monomyth I hear you cry? Well rather than me cack-handedly trying to summarize it, I will allow the great man himself to do it:

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.

This, Joe (I’m not one for formality) argued, was the underlying structure of a large number myths, legends and stories from around the world. This was the monomyth! He broke down the structure into 3 distinct sections. The Departure, The Initiation and The Return. Below I outline in a very top line manner what each section contains, and in future weeks I will go into detail for each stage of the Hero’s journey, demonstrating its presence across various types of story telling, be it novels, comics, tv or film and how you can use it to help you craft stories that resonate with your readers.

The Departure

This section is very much about scene setting. It is the set up, the prelude to the storm the protagonist is about encounter. At the beginning of any piece of writing you need to know what your jump off point is and what causes the character to embark on their journey.

  1. The Call to Adventure
  2. Refusal of the Call
  3. Supernatural Aid
  4. Crossing the Threshold
  5. Belly of the Whale

The Initiation

This is the body of your story. These are the trials and tribulations that birth your hero. Prior to these, they are merely a human being (or a dog, or a plastic bag for all I know!) stepping out of their front door.

  1. The Road of Trials
  2. The Meeting with the Goddess
  3. Woman as Temptress
  4. Atonement with the Father
  5. Apotheosis
  6. The Ultimate Boon

The Return

This is the part of the myth / story that shows your characters growth, and how they will be changed going forward. I consciously used the word changed there, as I don’t believe stories have to be wedded to the idea of the change being positive.

  1. Refusal of the Return
  2. The Magic Flight
  3. Rescue from Without
  4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
  5. Master of Two Worlds
  6. Freedom to Live

If you scan the above, it feels like this is almost the traditional 3 act structure of a film. And you’d be right! The number of films that follow this structure, or at the very least use it as a skeleton, is vast. In fact, the films which culturally lodge into our psyche more often than not follow this. Think about Star Wars, The Matrix, or the Never-ending Story (I think this title was almost a pun on Joseph Campbell). There is a great list on IMDB which shows how these films tap into our love of this structure.

The monomyth seems to tap into something almost primal in how we respond to stories. The narrative of overcoming adversity is a plot that we all have running through our lives. We set things up to be insurmountable in our lives only to overcome them.  In many ways the monomyth also taps into what it means to be a writer. We all have a call to adventure, we suffer doubt before someone tells us we should do it. We then embark, into the belly of the whale of writing, facing trials a plenty, before we finish and then return to share our stories with the world.

Joseph Campbell, like all theorists, is not without his detractors. Many argue that his ‘generic plot’ removes all the nuances of each myth or story, and creates a ‘story soup’ which is disingenuous to the cultures that birthed them. However like all things, we are finding out new things about stories, why we tell them, how we tell them and why we love them so much. As technology changes, and we move from books, films and TV to virtual reality and games, how does the protagonist change when the agency and choices are placed in the individuals hands? When the reader becomes the character, and they can affect their personality in more active way, how does this change the stories we tell? We move from the archetypal hero above, into a brave new world. Feels like we are all waiting to hear that call to adventure.

Next Time: The Hero’s Journey – The Call to Adventure

 

1 reply
  1. Antonia says:

    I am new on this meme and appreciate your introduction .
    You seem very well versed and academically trained in the art of writing. However it is almost like a discourse in the classroom . This is not an insult and maybe my own mentors were also very academic but I would love to hear you just say what you want. I believe you came close.

    Reply

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