To understand the hero’s journey, you first need to remember that every story that has ever been told can be analyzed and divided into several blocks. By breaking up a story into its components, you understand the structure of that story. Although there are no rules per se to define what a story structure should be like, and writers have the leeway to create structures as complex or as simple as they could be, there are still several story structures that have worked well and stood the test of time.
The Story Structure
Some of these story structures are so natural that many writers who are not even aware of their existence use them in their plots naturally. One of the most basic story structures is the one that organizes a story simply into its beginning, middle, and end. If you want to know how old this structure is, consider that in the third century BC, Aristotle wrote that “a whole [story] is what has a beginning and middle and end.”
Aristotle described these parts of the story as follows: “A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it. An end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent and with nothing else after it. And a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it.”
Millennia later, in 1949, American Professor of Literature Joseph Campbell published a book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book, Campbell proposes a theory about the archetypal hero’s journey, which appears very common among many mythologies around the world.
Campbell used the word monomyth to identify this journey, common to many heroes, a term he borrowed from a book written by James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, published in 1939. Together with other researchers, Campbell was able to apply his monomyth theory to people’s lives, such as Jesus Christ, Moses, and Buddha.
Although no hero’s journey is the same, and each has its own individuality, the overarching structure of that journey is very similar. And although it’s tempting to take the most well-known heroic journeys from real life and literature and break down their specifics, Campbell was interested in those elements that were common. He was looking for a pattern.
So the hero is not just a character, but a type, and, more specifically, an archetype. Many philosophers and psychologists studied the archetype and gave their own definitions. Plato and Jung, for example, produced many works in this area. In the context of how Campbell looked at it, an archetype is a set of ideas, images, and specific behavior patterns.
Think about Frodo or Luke Skywalker. Although very different, you will find many similarities if you break down their journey, although their specific contexts are vastly unrelated.
What is the Hero’s Journey?
But what is the hero’s journey besides a pure structure in which we generate the plot? The most important part of the journey is related to what it does to the hero. The journey is the process of transformation that the hero goes through. At the beginning of the story, we find the hero in his current state, seemingly unaware of being a hero at all.
As the hero proceeds on the journey, he sets out on a path of self-discovery and self-creation. The hero grows throughout the journey and completes a full circle, which represents one stage of growth. He goes through trials and tribulations, and in the end, they are a changed person with an elevated understanding of the world and about themselves.
Below is how Campbell originally described the journey. It involves 17 steps at its core, but not all heroes’ journeys must include all of them. Some journeys focus on certain parts, while others go through all the steps.
- 1. The call to adventure
- 2. Refusal of the call
- 3. Supernatural aid
- 4. Crossing the first threshold
- 5. Belly of the whale
- 6. The road of trials
- 7. The meeting with the goddess
- 8. Woman as a temptress
- 9. Atonement with the father
- 10. Apotheosis
- 11. The ultimate boon
- 12. Refusal of Return
- 13. The magic flight
- 14. Rescue from without
- 15. The crossing of the return threshold
- 16. Master of two worlds
- 17. Freedom to live
Below is a diagram created by Reg Harris from www.yourheroicjourney.com, which groups these elements into compartments and provides additional details. One thing to notice is that the hero’s journey always starts in the ordinary or everyday world; we can think of it as the known world. As the adventure commences, the hero steps into the unknown or the special world. Once the adventure completes, the hero, now a changed man, steps back into the everyday world, but of course, nothing is the same anymore.
Also, you can now see the parallel between the three-act structure and Campbell’s three-step approach to the hero’s journey.
Let’s take a deep dive into the details behind each of these steps.
As explained above, the beginning of the story finds the hero in his regular, everyday world. Nothing seems out of the ordinary at first. But, soon enough, the hero gets the first push into his journey. However, the hero is not too eager to jump into the new adventure, and he seems at first tethered to his ordinary world. But somewhere along the way, someone or something will appear that will change the hero’s mind and propel him along on his path.
The Call to Adventure
This is the first event that signals to our hero that something is about to change. Either a person arrives, or an event occurs that tells our hero that they must step out of their ordinary world and that something extraordinary is about to begin.
In Star Wars, Luke’s call to adventure is the message from Princess Leia he discovers hidden inside R2D2.
Refusal of the Call
Because at the beginning of the story, the hero doesn’t see him or herself as a hero, they resist the temptation to leap out on the journey that has been presented. They are very well anchored to their ordinary world, and they don’t want anything to change.
Luke Skywalker goes through that stage when he initially refuses to follow Obi-Wan, under the pretense that he must stay home and help his aunt and uncle around the farm. But when the empire kills his family, that anchor to the ordinary world is severed.
Meeting the Mentor
Because the hero is an ordinary person at the beginning of the story, it is often the case that they require some support from an outside force. This could be another person or some supra-natural entity. They usually serve as a coach or mentor and help propel the hero on their journey.
Obi-Wan is Luke’s mentor in the first part of the saga. Later, Yoda takes on that role, but Obi-Wan helps too, although through a vision. These father-like figures keep the hero steady on his way.
Crossing the First Threshold
This is the place of no return. This is the point where the hero has gone too far already, and there is no turning back. The hero must embrace the unknown as they have decided to move forward and leave the ordinary world behind. It’s not necessarily the point at which the hero realizes that he must or should go through an internal change, but the point in which the hero has decided that they must do something to change the status quo.
In Luke’s case, Leia’s message, the meeting with Obi-Wan, and the murder of his uncle and aunt push him over that first threshold, and he decides to become a Jedi.
Belly of the Whale
Being inside the belly of the whale is the hero’s first signal that the journey is perilous. It’s also the point at which the hero realizes that the adventure he’s set out on will require a personal transformation to be successful. They can no longer be the same ordinary person from the familiar, ordinary world. While in the belly of the whale, the hero must fight his first fight. There might be a setback that fires the hero up or even a small victory that increases their confidence.
Once the hero has passed the point of no return, he has taken solid steps into the unknown world. Now he is committed to the adventure and is all in. This is the middle of the story, where the hero will face his trials, begin his transformation, and, eventually, gain his reward.
The road of trials
Once the hero is committed to the journey ahead, they must prove their worthiness along the way. In the case of Luke, his training with Master Yoda and his failures represent these trials. There are usually several tests that the hero must undergo before they can face the big enemy. As the hero trains and fails these tests, he becomes stronger and usually identifies some inner strengths that will come in handy later in the journey.
The Meeting with the Goddess
This is a metaphorical way of saying that the hero gets some tools that will help him on his journey. These might be actual objects that the hero will need, other people who join them, or even information. A glimpse into the future or past or some other kind of vision qualifies because it gives the hero something that he needs to complete his journey.
Woman as Temptress
Here the woman is presented as a metaphor for temptation. In reality, it can be anything that would tempt the hero to abandon their journey. It’s usually some kind of pleasure or need that the hero might have, which could sway them from their path. This is an important step because the weakness in the face of temptation humanizes the hero and gives them dimension. Resisting the temptation shows the hero’s character and connects the readers to them.
Atonement with the Father
Every hero has something or someone that exercises control over their powers. In more traditional storytelling, for a male hero, that person is his father. But if we generalize, this is whatever the hero, male or female, must face and defeat. Whatever kind of entity this is, it holds immense power, and the hero must put up a valiant fight to conquer it. This is not necessarily an external enemy but an internal struggle the hero must face to discover who they truly are.
The Eureka! This is the hero’s light-bulb moment. It’s the point where the hero achieves a superior level of understanding, and from here on in, they will continue the journey with a new perspective on things.
The ultimate boon
This is the story’s climax when the hero achieves their goal-the final Holy Grail he’s been after. It’s the moment that all the previous moments have led up to, and he has become successful. He has won and has defeated whatever he had set to defeat (whether a villain or something else)
Once the adventure is complete, the hero-now a changed man-returns to the ordinary world, wielding his reward.
Refusal of Return
The journey to the ultimate boon was exhausting, and we usually find our hero at this point depleted, on the one hand, but filled with passion on the other. The hero will now experience doubts about their desire to return to the ordinary world. The fear of returning to the ordinary and becoming an ordinary person once more is real. Combined with the exhaustion of the journey so far, the hero might have second thoughts about going back.
The magic flight
Many a time, once the hero reaches his final goal of capturing the ultimate boon, they must return this reward into the ordinary world. Often, this journey back is also an adventure of its own, especially if the quest object has been guarded heavily. Often, supernatural powers help the hero on their return to the ordinary world, especially if the story’s focus was getting the ultimate boon rather than returning it.
Rescue from without
In other instances, the return journey is the bigger part of the story. In this case, the hero must have powerful allies on his way back to the ordinary world. Magic or other types of powers will be at their aid, and those will be particularly important since the hero might be injured after the long journey.
The crossing of the return threshold
Once the hero has passed the point of no return to the ordinary world, he must retain all the knowledge and wisdom accumulated during the journey. Not only will he bring in the boon in whichever form it may take, but he himself is changed and will enter the world as a new person.
Master of two worlds
This step emphasizes that the hero was able to perform in both the outer and inner worlds. Although he can only occupy one world at a time, he has mastered both. Therefore, he is a superior person, very different from the one at the story’s beginning.
Freedom to live
Finally, once he has conquered both worlds and returned to the inner world enlightened, the hero has shed his fear of death and, therefore, earned the freedom to live in the present.
Other Representations of the Hero’s Journey
In 2007, Christopher Vogler proposed a condensed version of the hero’s journey, which sounds more modern and only involves 12 steps. Although very similar to the original structure, it might be more appealing to contemporary writers:
- A) Departure
- 1. Ordinary world
- 2. Call to adventure
- 3. Refusal of the call
- 4. Meeting with the mentor
- 5. Crossing the first threshold
- B) Initiation
- 6. Tests, allies, and enemies
- 7. Approach to the inmost cave
- 8. The ordeal
- 9. Reward
- C) Return
- 10. The road back
- 11. The resurrection
- 12. Return with the elixir
Below is how Vogler’s structure can be depicted on a circle that takes the hero from the ordinary world, through the special world, and back to the ordinary world but a changed individual.
Reading some of the most popular books or watching currently popular movies, you will soon see the hero’s journey patterns. Of course, as with everything in literature, the journey, as described by Campbell, can be followed verbatim or can be adapted to circumstances. The structure itself merely provides a framework that has been shown to apply to most narratives. Rather than taking a very literal approach, you should study each step in more depth and determine if they all apply to your story.
You might also realize that your story will be focused on some steps rather than equally across all of them. By putting emphasis on some steps and disregarding others, you give your story its own flavor. Although, as a whole, your hero will go through all the steps one way or another, your readers don’t need to know all of it. Your readers only need to know the part of the hero’s journey you want to tell, and they will infer the rest.
By playing with this emphasis, you create a unique hero’s journey for your unique hero.
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Have you used the hero’s journey structure purposely?
- What are your favorite story structures, and how do they work with the character arc?
- What favorite stories do you know that use the hero’s journey really well?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!